Tuesday, 29 December 2020

View from the Crow's Nest: Looking at Normal

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Monday, 5 October 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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


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

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

Friday, 18 September 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this is the little coat mom made for me.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

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

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

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

We want to go back to simpler times.

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

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

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


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

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


or our parents were still alive


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 August 2020

View from the Crow's Nest: I learn a lesson in living

It was a somber start to the day: rain pouring down from low grey clouds. Somber, too, because we were heading to Vancouver to attend an “inurnment” – placing the ashes of a dear friend Eileen beside the ashes of her husband John, who had died several years earlier. Now they were gone, both of them, our friends for more than 40 years. Eileen had died in April, and because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to go and say good-bye beforehand. Because of the pandemic, as well, this ceremony couldn’t be held until now, 4 months later. The weather matched the sad feelings we had as we made the journey on slick roads to board the ferry. 

Living on the island is wonderful, but ferries make things more difficult, especially in these days of pandemic, when numbers allowed on board are limited. We were fortunate to be able to board within an hour of arriving at the terminal. But passengers were advised to remain in their cars for the duration of the 90 minute trip, and to wear masks if they needed to visit the restrooms. Usually, the atmosphere on a ferry, especially in the summer, is festive – people are often on holidays and love watching the scenery glide by. But not now. The sense of adventure didn’t reach us, either, parked down in the hold.  We doom-scrolled through our cell phones, assaulted by bad news stories. We ate our packed  sandwiches in silence. 

It was still raining when we reached Vancouver and made our way to the hotel in a high-rise area but close to the seawall. A peek out the window grimly revealed the sights and sounds of construction all around us. A Covid-aware poster told us what we couldn’t have here: no coffee maker, no pool, no hot tub, no restaurant, no bar. We unpacked. The ceremony would take place the following morning, so we had 20 hours to fill in a small room in a rain-soaked city. Books, Sudoku, Cribbage, TV... they would have to keep us amused. We lay down for a rest.

And then: the sun came out.

Vancouver in the rain: somber and dreary. But Vancouver in the sunshine invites you out to play. We pulled on our jackets and walking shoes and set out to see what we could see, and to find an interesting outdoor place for dinner. We got rained on periodically, but we persevered. We watched people – parents pushing strollers, cyclists, joggers, a nurse supporting an older gentleman on his daily walk, kids chatting on benches; we watched little water taxis zipping around on the bay, we explored our way around the neighbourhood.



We settled on a Persian restaurant with an outdoor patio and had an excellent meal. 

The ceremony itself, the next day, was also wonderful. All of it was held outdoors, including a high tea around a courtyard fountain. We donned our masks and said good-bye, yes, but we also celebrated, told stories, shared our emotions. 

And then I remembered back to a day when I was staying with Eileen, who was dying. I was her companion/meal-maker and friend for 10 days when she needed a little extra support. She said to me one morning, “Enough about dying. Today I want to live. Let’s go to Granville Island.” And we did, she on her scooter, and I on foot, taking the Sky Train and water taxis, zooming around that funky neighbourhood of shops and restaurants, enjoying ourselves thoroughly.


Perhaps Eileen’s words have a message for us in these days of pandemic, racism, climate change, and political divisiveness. These are indeed somber times, and we do need to take that seriously. But we also have the precious gifts of life, love, friendship, community and more. To honour her grit, her determination, and her courage, I need to remember that today, every day, is for living. Even rainy days.

Each cloudy moment had a touch of silver, reminding us of the adventure that life is.

PS: The return journey on the ferry was one of those silvery moments that will remain etched in my memory. We were the second last car that got on the ferry, and were parked outside at the back of the ship. The sun was shining, the breeze was warm, and the scenery gliding by spectacular. We took the folding lawn chairs out of our trunk and set them up to fully take advantage of the opportunity we’d been given to have a 2 hour “mini-cruise” experience. In the absence of wine, we snacked on potato chips. Now that’s living! 

Sunday, 2 August 2020

View from the Crow's Nest: I watch the second chicken

The other day, I read an interesting story on FB. The story comes from the book The Opposite of Worry by L.J. Cohen.

The gist of the story is this: a scientist is investigating the cycle of fear and recovery and does an experiment involving chicks. He takes the chick out its box and gives it a “hawk-eye”, imitating a hungry predator. When he places the chick back in its box, the chick huddles motionless for about a minute, then cautiously pops up and begins moving about because she believes the danger is over.

Then he repeats the experiment, but this time he gives two chicks the hawk eye at the same time.  Then he placed them together in a box. This time both chicks remained immobilized for about five minutes. Presumably the chicks are taking their cues for impending danger from each other, and it takes much longer for them to feel safe. You might say they were “egging each other on” in the cycle of fear.

In the last round, the experimenter lets one chick wander around the box while immobilizing the other with a hawk-eye. This time when the first chick is returned to the box, the fear-recovery cycle was short - the chick popped back up after mere seconds.  The frightened chicken looked to the second chicken to see that all was safe.  Since the second chicken was walking around happily, the first chicken felt that all was well.

So. It’s time for some truth telling. This month I have been the first chick, the Chicken Little who cries that the sky is falling. I’ve been given the hawk-eye by society, and I am almost paralyzed.

The pandemic, the horrible political situation in the US, and a growing realization that I cannot stay in my safe little bubble in the studio forever, has finally caught up with me. I’m guessing that many of you, too, have hit this wall at some time in the last months. Maybe you are there now.

As I’ve recorded in this blog, I walked tall through March, April, May and June. But July has been an epic fail. No unfinished projects got finished. I haven’t been walking or writing hardly at all. And it feels as though there are few daily delights to make my heart sing. What has happened to my resolve to dwell peacefully in these troubled times? Why do I feel so flat? I woke up this morning telling myself, “Enough of this! I need to recalibrate.”

The story about the chickens pointed out what I might do: instead of huddling helplessly waiting for the sky to fall, I needed to look around for a Second Chicken, the one that is sending out a message of hopefulness. Maybe I can take my cue from her, rather than from the noise and tumult that is swirling around me.

Are there such voices? Oh, yes there are! Thank God for that. Just scrolling through my FB today I came across several wonderful and inspiring posts that I want to share with you.

First, I read the Op-ed written only a few days before he died by civil rights marcher and US Representative John Lewis. I can only imagine how easy it would have been for Lewis to throw up his hands in despair: he’d been beaten, jailed, and persecuted back in the 50s and 60s for his civil activism, but has yet to see the dream of equality become a reality. And yet, he begins his essay with these words: “I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope ... when you used your power to make a difference in our society... Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring...So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.” There are more inspiring words here, and if you haven’t already, I urge you to read it. John Lewis was my first Second Chicken, speaking encouragement, challenge, and hope into my turmoil. 

And then I saw a video entitled Ibi’s Fireflies. It is a beautiful combination of art, music, dance, storytelling, and even science.

Watching it lifted my heart. Ibiyinka Alao, the Nigerian artist who put it together, says, “The heart is like a jar containing fireflies, and one’s capacity to love makes these fireflies into stars...In the middle of disasters, we look to beauty for hope.” Ibi is another Second Chicken, reminding us that there is so much beauty and love in the world, so much to be grateful for. Here’s a link to the video. It’s 17 minutes long, so settle in and enjoy.

And then, I took a walk in the woods. As usual, I emerged half an hour later with a different perspective. If I keep looking up to see if the sky is falling, I will never see the beauty, grace, love, all the good things happening around me, even lying at my feet.

It’s okay to cower for a while in my box, acknowledging that there is danger, but then, it is time to join all the Second Chickens of this world in spreading a message that encourages and inspires. This is how we abide in these trying times.

I first read the story of the chickens on this web page:
The author, Mike Hoogeterp, urges the church to be the Second Chicken, and gives ideas about how it can do this.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

View from the Crow’s Nest: The garden teaches me

A few weeks ago, we camped on the mainland, close to our children (in their driveway for three days! and along the Fraser River for four days.) It was a lovely break, but then we came home again to the garden.

Lesson Number One: Nature does what it is created to do whether you are around or not. That’s the good news.

A lot of plants thrived without our tending. First, the berries: oh my! We have more than 20 pounds of blueberries and 5 pounds of raspberries in our freezer so far, with more to come.

We dug up a volunteer potato plant, one that had popped up in the middle of the onions from a potato we left behind last fall. It didn’t need our help at all to produce almost 3 pounds of new potatoes.

The perennials looked great. Ditto for the fig, peach and apple trees and the grape vine.

They do what they need to do without our help. I like that! It’s like bonus days at the local shops where they do periodic giveaways to loyal customers. We get freebies just for maintaining a space where things can grow.

Lesson Number Two: Nature does what it is created to do whether you are around or not. That’s the not-so-good news.

Gardens and children have something in common: they need regular tending to control the weeds that could choke out the life of your plants, or the bad habits that could take over the lives of your children. If you let down your guard and take a break from vigilant parenting or gardening, you will have twice as much work to do when you pick up the slack again.

And so it is with the garden. Where there was only nice dark soil when we left, now weeds and grasses were sprouting and even running rampant. Vines that should have been climbing, weren’t. Flowers that had finished blooming drooped.  So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. It wasn’t hard work, but it’s work that needs doing. And it sure is nice to have a grandson in town to help with it (for a price, of course!)

Lesson Number Three: Nature does what it is created to do. Sometimes in doing battle with nature, you lose. Get used to it.

Many of our plants did well. But some did not. We planted beans three times. The first time we had bad seeds. None of them sprouted. The second time they sprouted, began growing, and then slowly disappeared. I’m thinking slugs are the culprit, but it could also be earwigs, bunnies, or some other wild critters.

 Still, as the saying goes, “hope springs eternal” so before we left for holidays, we planted one more package of bean seeds, some in a nice row, and some here, there, and everywhere, just to see if we could fool the critters. Nice try, but no cigar. If we are lucky, we will have about three bean plants that are going to give us a meal. Sad.

Lesson Number 4: Nature does what it is created to do. Prepared to be surprised.

For 12 years, we have had a pond in the back yard, stocked with a dozen goldfish. Sometimes a few fish don’t survive the winter, so we add a few more, but these fish have lived a charmed life. The herons and raccoons who live in the area have not discovered them.

But we didn’t reckon with the mink. Yes, you read that right: a mink living in a suburban neighbourhood. One afternoon, after the garden work was done, we were sitting on the patio enjoying the results when we noticed unusual  turbulence in the pond. Within seconds, a little brown head popped up, then down again, and then, to our shocked amazement, a mink climbed out of the pond and scooted up the waterfall with our biggest fish in its mouth. After stashing it under a bush, it was brazen enough to slither back down the falls and into the water, looking for more. This was enough to bring out the “Farmer MacGregor” instinct in the resident sweetie; armed with a rake he began stirring the water.

Suddenly the water was quiet. No mink ... until I spotted it running alongside the fence into the neighbour’s yard. It had used some overhanging plants as a hidden escape route. A few minutes later, the neighbour on our other side let out a screech – the mink had circled behind our fence, entered her yard, and popped under the fence back into our yard. Long story short: the mink outfoxed us. It retrieved the fish and was gone. It came back one more time, and this time, Al managed to poke it so it knew it was not welcome. We have three fish left.

We returned to the patio licking our wounds, when, to add insult to injury, the neighbourhood feral rabbit hopped leisurely through our yard, reminding us that no matter what we do, Nature will do what it was created to do.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

View from the Crow's Nest: I walk in the woods

Committing to take a walk every day in June was a good way of marking off the days. 30 days in June = 30 walks completed, a lot more than I probably would have taken without that commitment.

In July, I decided that I would mark off the days by working on at least one UFO (unfinished objects) every day, either art or writing, or cleaning out clutter. But since we’ve just had a week of camping, there will be interruptions. Here’s a UFO I’m working on –

I started this 12 block crazy quilt in May 2011. I was documenting every month, and also adding significant dates like birthdays, plus birth stone and flower of the month. I have 7 blocks done. This is November. It's good for working on when watching TV.
Today I found another UFO, a blog about June's walking, so that’s what I am working on today:

About all that walking:  I didn’t lose weight. I didn’t get much stronger or develop a lot of stamina. I didn’t add up how many steps I took, so I didn’t set any personal records. If you are an exercise junkie, that’s disappointing news. If you are a run-of-the-mill ordinary person on the lumpy, rather than svelte, side of the scale (like I am), this is reassuring because I won’t lay a guilt trip on you with gushing superlatives.

Instead, I entered the woods, and found a measure of peace in the middle of this pandemic. The first post I wrote about walking, on June 2, was pretty deep. I was depressed about the state of the world, and also depressed about my own anger and even hatred that was burbling up inside. The walk I took that morning, however, helped me see things from a different perspective. The following day, I found a painted stone on the same trail, with a message that affirmed my insights:

 I wrote that I thought maybe walking would be good for the soul. And it has been. Several times, I have entered the woods brooding on one tangled situation, and exited with some new insights that helped me see things from the other side. I’m not sure how that happens, but it does. Perhaps “left foot, right foot, breathe, repeat!” sets other gears in motion, as well.

Then again, perhaps it’s something in the air. “Forest bathing—basically just being in the presence of trees—became part of a national public health program in Japan in 1982 when the forestry ministry coined the phrase shinrin-yoku,” says an article on the website Quartz. Scientific studies on the health of people who practice forest-bathing regularly showed amazing results: lower heart rate and blood pressure, less stress- hormone production, a boosted immune system, and overall feelings of well-being, The magic of this simple practice was found to be the presence of various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Breathing in these phytoncides seems to actually improve immune system function.

It sounds too good and too easy to be true. This is a routine that has no expectations of physical exertion.Your only imperative is to immerse yourself in the environment with an open heart, open eyes, and open ears. “Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world,” says Qing Li, a scientist who has studied this practice. You might also say that it's only a short step from there to bridging the gap between us and the Creator of it all. When you emerge from the forest, you have shed a lot of your anxieties. You feel better, stronger, more peaceful. You can read more about this at these sites:

I wasn’t totally aware of all of these benefits until the month was over and I looked back and found it to be true. Now, in July, without the daily commitment, I still walk, but not as often. And I miss it.

There were other benefits to walking, as well. More than half of my walks took place in the woods across the street, walking the same paths over and over. I became aware of the subtle changes that happen there over time. I watched as plants budded, then flowered; as mushrooms sprung up and disappeared; as the river’s voice was sometimes loud, sometimes soft. I watched as the light changed in the dappled shade: sharp and bright earlier in the month, when leaves were smaller and brilliantly green, gradually changing when the light is more diffused because the leaves are bigger and darker.

 I saw an owl, not once, but three times, and learned that if robins see an owl close to their nest, they get frantic.

And then, there are the people you meet – the moms and kids getting exercise, the dog-walkers, the joggers who breathlessly wave, the snorkellers in wet-suits entering the river to check out what’s visible underwater (salmon, crayfish, – and lots of beer cans.) One day, a man caught up with me as I was leaving the woods and started chatting as we walked up the street together. After we’d agreed that this was a beautiful place to live, he started telling me about some of his favourite spots to hike. Then suddenly, he changed gears and said, “My brother committed suicide last night.” I didn’t have to say much for the rest of our walk, just let him talk, trying to figure things out, trying to answer some unanswerable questions. As we parted ways, he said, “I’ve been talking people’s ears off all day. They must be sick of this story, but thanks for listening anyway.”

A walk in the woods: I recommend it. It’s good for the soul, yours, mine and the people you meet.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

View from the Crow's Nest: I wait in line.

The line-ups! Covid-19 has opened our eyes to the reality of queues, as the British would call them. The word comes from the Latin, “cauda” meaning tail. And when you see a long line-up outside at opening time, you can appreciate the etymology of the word: it does look like a giant tail stretching around the building. We avoid those kinds of waits, and drive away if there’s a long queue. It’s not good for the soul to put yourself in situations that you know will wind you up and leave you impatient and short-tempered.

But suppose the line is short, and you get in. The other day, I was in Costco for a quick “gather the necessities” trip. Yes, I was wearing my mask. I did my best to keep my 6 foot distance. But once I was finished my shopping, the check-out line-up was massive – from the front to the back of the store, and then half-way down a side aisle, all the carts spaced at 6 foot distance. I could have walked away, but the line moved quickly, and my soul wasn’t in danger of overheating. I was about two-thirds through, and I was still breathing normally.

Until...out of a side-aisle came an older couple, their buggy laden with those “conspicuous consumption” items that entice impulse shoppers to spend a wad.

The man’s head swivelled as he surveyed the situation, and then he did it: he nodded to the little woman, and then he pushed his cart and his wife into the line right in front of me. No mask, no 6 foot distancing, just someone with an attitude: “I’m a loyal shopper here, I’m entitled to a quick get-away, and the rest of you can just go fly a kite.” At least, that’s how I interpreted it – a jaded view, I admit. And that is not good for the observer’s soul.

I wonder what you would have done.

Perhaps you’re one of these “live and let-live” people who give folks the benefit of the doubt. Oh, I envy you! You’re thinking, “Well, maybe they have to be somewhere in 15 minutes, and so I’ll let them cut in.” Or, you say, “Oh, it’s only one person, not worth getting hot and bothered.” Or, “Karma will catch up with them in the end. I’ll let the universe take care of retribution.” or even, “What Would Jesus Do?” Jesus would be plenty busy at Costco. (If you want a chuckle, check out the link here...

I’d like to be like that, but I haven’t evolved spiritually to that level yet.

Maybe  you are the silent sufferer, the person who doesn’t like confrontations. Your appearance doesn’t change, but your insides do. You are muttering to yourself, “Okay,*@&#, be that way. I hope you get to the checkout and find out that you forgot your wallet. I hope every item in that cart needs to be returned because it is dysfunctional. I hope the shoes you’re buying give you a blister. And may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits.” I’ve been known to do this. Basically you are not wishing your neighbour well. This is not good for the soul.

Or, perhaps you are a little braver, and you let your displeasure show. You begin talking to the guy in line behind you, loud enough so Mr. And Mrs. Entitled can hear you: “Did you see that guy? He butted in line right in front of me. I guess he thinks he’s better than everyone else.” This is called passive-aggressive behaviour and I have been known to engage in it. Not good for the soul, either. Mr. And Mrs. Entitled will pretend they didn’t hear you, but at least you can tell yourself that you got it off your chest. Except you didn’t. You are still burning hours later when you recount the experience to a friend. Also not good for the soul.

So here’s what I did: “Excuse me, sir, the end of the line is back there,” I said, loud enough so he couldn’t help but hear me. If I’d stopped at that, my soul would have been safe. The ball is in his court. Now it’s up to him to do the right thing, and if he doesn’t, well, that’s his problem.

But this man moved into another mode, from Mr. Entitled to Mr. Schmoozer. “Oh, really?” he said innocently.  And the ball is in my court again. “Yes,” I said. If I’d stopped there, again I would have been safe. But, no, I had to be Ms. School Marm, telling off the naughty child: “...and I think you knew that too.” Busted, buddy. Ha. My soul’s warning lights were flashing, but did I pay attention? NO.

He smiles sheepishly. He doesn’t deny it. “Well,” he says, “will you let us in, anyway?” Nice play on my kindness and sympathy...which is not, unfortunately for him, in large supply now.

“Oh, I think not,” I say. “It’s not just me, it wouldn’t be fair to all the people who have been waiting behind me. Anyway, the line moves quickly.” I smiled encouragingly. In one fell swoop, I have taken away his escape net, showed my true colours, and sent him off with his tail between his legs. He has been suitably punished. I felt pretty proud of myself ... until I began thinking about it later. Waiting in line may not be good for the soul, but self-examination definitely is.

So I ask myself now, not, WWJD? But WWJSay? Jesus might have asked his audience, “Who sinned the greater here, the line jumper or the lady with the mouth on her?”

I had three chances to do the right thing, and I blew them all. And did I mention, my soul has a bit of growing to do? Sigh. Why does it take so long to learn?

I gotta say, shopping at Costco is not good for the soul. At least not mine. Next time, I’ll send the resident sweetie.