Coffee Houses and Introverts, #WittingNotKnitting and #GleaningMeaningNotCleaning

Who’s worried? Do we look worried?

Last weekend at hockey, as our 12-year-old son’s team hit the ice, my husband leaned into me and said (hyperbolically, jokingly, obscurely), “Let slip the dogs of war.”

Julius Caesar? I thought.

“Where’s that from?” I asked, unwilling to commit myself to the guess.

“I think it’s Shakespeare … probably Julius Caesar,” he said.

Although he’s (reasonably) well-read, he’s an engineer, and is hardly a bastion of knowledge when it comes to English literature. So he did what we all now do when faced with a burning question: he pulled out his phone and googled it.

It *was* Julius Caesar.

As neither of us has *actually* read Julius Caesar, I’m not exactly sure how we managed this tidbit of conversation in the opening moments of our son’s house league hockey game. Clearly — or, well, I hope it’s clear — we’re not a couple of elitist and erudite academics —

Here, let me lead you to my shelf-of-shame to prove that point:

No Shakespeare For Dummies for us … but we WILL confess to being rather fearful of it…

— nor are we vociferous and vicious hockey parents who equate the game with war.

(We’re well-behaved whisperers, I swear it, although I have no way of proving that point.)

So where am I going with this story?

A segue, dear reader, a path to something confessional: there is something in me that loves conversations such as these.

There is something in me that craves knowledge — trivial, important, obscure, earth-shattering, useless, practical — I want to know it all.

When I graduated high school in 1985 I was excited to head off to university.

I had this notion in my head, you see, a very distinct picture of what it would be like there: groups of students and professors gathering to share Big Ideas, each person’s remarks and ruminations providing a springboard for another’s, a tangential spider-webbing-out of knowledge and analysis, complete with witty repartee.

In short, I was expecting an Enlightenment-era European coffee house.

This was not what I found.

The Faculty of Science, as it turned out, didn’t present — on a metaphorical silver-platter — a plethora of philosophizing pupils with whom I could sit and talk.

And even if it HAD — even if a group of such people had miraculously appeared in front of me and invited me to join them — I’m not sure why I imagined I could ever take part in such discussions.

I was (am) a capital I Introvert.

I have a brain that curls up, armadillo-like, at the slightest whiff of danger.

Ask me a question, in Real Life, and what will happen?

Well, that depends, really.

If you’re a university English professor you will get a deer-in-the-headlights look of panic. And dumbfounded silence. Please-dear-God-let-him-move-along….

If it’s just the two of us, if I feel comfortable, I will probably be able to answer.

But if I feel even slightly stressed or anxious, my brain will shut down. I will stumble, waffle, stutter. I may be able to salvage the situation — somewhat — because I may still be capable of asking you questions. But I will then likely go overboard; I will pepper you with questions. Because, not only am I genuinely interested (in your answers; not, as you might begin to suspect, in making you squirm under cross-examination), but that is also, you see, an introvert’s best defence: keep them talking so you don’t have to.

I have always been fascinated by people who could easily talk, by people who were witty, by people who waxed philosophical, by those who *knew* about things, who could speak with authority about politics, history, literature.

I’ve always wondered how they became that way. How did they know all this stuff? And how did they manage to coherently convey all they knew?

Were they simply extroverts, the people who could do this?

Or did they have a training ground?

I had seen it in movies: huge families gathered around a dinner table, discussion dancing while potatoes were passed and forks and knives clacked against plates.

And I had occasionally seen it in Real Life. Although my family (growing up) was small and (mostly) alone in Canada, thousands of kilometres removed from everyone else, although it was nearly always just the four of us around the table — my mother, my father, my brother, and me — I did, on rare occasions, get to join in on these bigger kinds of gatherings.

And by joining in, I mean, of course, observing.

Sitting silent, listening, answering if the need arose.

Hoping, fearfully, that the need would not arise.

I knew nothing, after all. It wasn’t as though I was a well-read child. And the things I somehow *did* know? Well, they were trapped inside.

I remember one time being in The Netherlands, visiting my favourite aunt. (The Knitter). Her (much older) children were at home, visiting from university, or from their jobs. We were gathered in the living room, my aunt and her two grown daughters knitting, needles softly clacking, the discussion going from one thing to the next as I sat silently beside the spinning wheel, the talk taking place in English (for the benefit of me and my brother, the only two present who could not speak Dutch). I can still hear the charmingly-accented English of my more-than-a-decade-older cousin, can still see his wavy dark hair falling over his forehead, as he told us the tale of a friend who went to North America. She hated it. Because, you see, she had to plug something into a socket one day, and it felt to her as though she was inserting an electrical plug into a face.

And just as that perception was sinking in, just as I thought Oh. My. Gosh.YES! North American electrical plug-ins DO look like faces and of course! one *could* get that feeling

My mother let out a loud tch!

The noise that expressed a mixture of disdain and dismissal and utter impatience.

“A plug-in is a plug-in!” she said, scornfully denying all imagination that claimed otherwise.

A beat. A taste of the atmosphere I breathed at home. Silence, weighted, the only possible follow-up to the not-silence, which was nearly always worse.

And then the talk shifted, moved to things I cannot now recall.

I remember — much, much, much later — long after having left that (mostly) silent or not-silent home, long after meeting and marrying the man who grew up reading encyclopedias, the man who researched facts on ice prior to our second date so we would have something to talk about as we laced-up skates, the man who belonged to a noisy family, his own plus extended, where I (mostly) sat silent, observing, slightly shell-shocked at the civility of their not-silence — long after all that happened, I remember sitting, crowded, around my in-laws’ dining room table, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephew, and our (then) two children squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, discussion dancing as potatoes were passed. I remember, clear as a bell, my daughter, seven, joining the conversation.

Talking. Offering. Laughing, cheeks flushed. Responding. Enjoying. Relaxed.

And I remember thinking: how?

How is she doing that?

Is that simply her?

Confusion. I had thought she was like me when outside her natural habitat: an observer.

I, the watcher, had pegged her early on, watched her watching.

A program at the library, a gathering of toddlers, all of them marching in a circle to music.

All but her.

An expression on her face.

WTAF.

So then how? How was she doing this talking now, seated at this crowded table?

Where did this ability, this confidence, this fearless fluidity despite being in foreign-parts, come from?

I remember — shamefully — feeling envious of her.

And then suddenly it hit me: did she have a training ground?

And if so, who had provided that?

Had we had a hand in that? My husband and I?

My husband and I, who sat at our kitchen table, our small family of (then) four, hundreds of kilometres removed from everyone else, somehow, someway — imperfectly — dispelling silence, talking about …


You’re probably still wondering where I’m going with this.

And the only answer I can come up with is, nowhere. It was swirling, the words wrapping themselves around my fingers — letters like yarn, keyboard like needles; I wrote it and I wanted to share it. #WittingNotKnitting

Here’s the thing: I want to share more stories.

Because here’s yet another thing: as much as I wanted to — as much as I still feel the need to, as much as I once believed I could (if I can *just* phrase my arguments in the right way…) — as much as this was the utterly naïve and idealistic reason I began this blog … I cannot save the world.

And if this blog cannot save the world (duh), if I am sinking under the weight of responsibility that refuses to give up that delusion, then I am only left with two options: I can stop writing here altogether, or I can use this space to find solace in something else.

I’ve confessed to what I love.

Now here’s what I want (besides world peace and a solution to climate change and the end to hunger and inequality and plastic pollution): I want words to counter-balance weight. I want a way to cope with loneliness. I want less silence in my days. I want to compare notes. I want conversation. I want to laugh about metaphors. But aloud, here; not just in my head. I want my life to stop shrinking, to conquer the fears that crowd out possibilities, the fears that I’ve allowed to reduce me to a list of merelys (merely a cookie-baker, merely a scrubber-of-toilets, merely a volunteer). I want #GleaningMeaningNotCleaning. I want to learn things. I want to know things. Important things — like literary references and the details of carbon sequestration, and what it means to be real and brave and entirely human on this spinning planet — but also unimportant and purely pedantic things, like, could Harry REALLY see Uncle Vernon’s feet as—

(Whoops. That’s a post for another day.)

And although all that seems, on the surface, to be a list of useless things-to-want in the face of everything that’s happening out there, there’s something inside me that says otherwise. Something that tells me the solace of story-telling is somehow fundamental, even when everything is going south.

So I can’t promise this place will turn into a pseudo-Enlightenment-era coffee house, nor can I promise that I will be capable of entirely letting go of the (cranky) persuasive essay, but I do hope you’ll continue to meet with me here, to pull up a virtual chair and sit and talk with me, a person who still has a lot to learn, and not just about hashtags —

(I have no clue if those are real hashtags. I don’t even understand how hashtags work. Or what they’re for. I only know that making them up (is that allowed?) gave me a small hit of joy.)

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Reflections From Post-Toy Parenthood

I never used to be a dog-earer of books.

Books, it seemed to me, were *this close* to being sacrosanct, and as such, were things that one shouldn’t mark up, mar, or mutilate in any way, shape or form.

But lately, I find myself so moved by what I’m reading that — not content to merely pass by truisms that speak to me — I’m needing to mark them.

Here’s one such truth I recently came across, from Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive:

If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength.

The only thing I would add to his words would be the qualifier, And during the holiday season, when seemingly *everyone* (except you) is hohoho-ing, this loneliness will be magnified ten-fold.

So … where the heck have I been since mid-November?

Stuck in my cranky head, I’m afraid.

I knew, when I happened across this scene in my local big box home improvement store on October 5th (OCTOBER 5th!) —

— that it was going to be a grumbly kind of a fall.

The words “going to be” are inaccurate, of course; my grumbly-ness is a humming continuum that began who-knows-when, but was last mentioned in this post, in which I reported that I had spent the last part of August in high dudgeon, flinging open cupboards, hunting and purging as though my life depended on it.

Well, what I didn’t mention in that post was the fact that my 12-year-old son was going through a similar phase:  “I feel like my room is too full of stuff,” he told me one scorching August day.

So, with my help, we embarked on a major clean-out of his room. We went through his closet, his desk, and his bedside table, and we got rid of a heckuva lot of crap.

(I feel it’s important to note that what I consider to be a heckuva lot of crap is probably minuscule by other people’s standards.)

Because I am a see-er of all the stuff, a noticer of everything, it was interesting to observe him as he went through the process of deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. He is the least sentimental of my three children, and as such, he had a fairly easy time making his decisions. The thing that pulled him up short, though, and caused him a bit of angst, was the actual fact of disposal. After making sure to recycle anything that could be recycled, and after setting aside those items we deemed were ok to donate to Goodwill, he was still left with a pile of items. And as he looked at those non-recyclable, non-donate-able items, as he picked up each one individually and turned it over in his hands, several observations came flowing from my deep-thinking boy:

  • Why do I have this?
  • This can never be unmade, can it?
  • We came in LAST…why would they think it’s necessary to give us trophies?
  • I guess I can get rid of all these medals because they’re meaningless, but they all came from China, didn’t they?

My son’s exercise in purging reminded me of a show I watched just after we moved back to Canada seven years ago.

Now, I should explain that our family has had three major moves over the past twenty-one years, and although they’ve all come with their unique challenges, this last move was the one that nearly did me in.

With little to choose from, we naively bought a fixer-upper, a house brimming with “potential”. My husband moved here six weeks ahead of the kids and me and began his new job, spending his lonely evenings stripping wallpaper, and hiring a contractor who began gutting the laundry room. When we joined my husband the house was in a state of upheaval.

And when our moving van arrived and deposited all our stuff into the midst of that?

Total overwhelm.

In an effort to make myself feel better, I did two things:

First, I set gratitude mantras on replay in my head:

  • we have a roof over our heads
  • it’s winter and we have heat
  • all the faucets deliver clean, safe drinking water
  • we have sufficient food
  • we’re not living in a war zone
  • the kids are safe and healthy and beginning to adjust to their new schools

And secondly, I also began (in my evening downtime, when I wasn’t scrubbing wallpaper paste or mudding-and-sanding damaged drywall or cursing the original owners to hell-and-back for (evidently) allowing wallpaper to be applied to unprimed walls) to watch Hoarders and what was probably a little-known show on HGTV-Canada called Consumed.

If you’ve ever watched Hoarders you’ll know it’s an utterly painful and pitiful watch. But Consumed (which could be termed Hoarders-lite), was somehow less disturbing. The show featured “normal” families whose homes were (somehow, someway) overrun with stuff.

This was the way the show worked: after allowing the families to select a set number of items to keep, the remaining contents of the house were boxed and carted off to a warehouse. The family then spent a month living in their bare-minimum house, and after enjoying the freedom of living in an uncluttered environment (because yes, they all *did* seem to enjoy the experience), they trooped to the warehouse where they were forced — under the pressure of time — to sort through the entirety of their possessions in order to determine what to keep and what to toss.

Moral objections aside —

(it’s doubtful that this sort of ripping-off-the-bandage approach to hoarding is therapeutic or helpful in the long run)

— this show added one more item to my gratitude list: however overwhelming our living situation was at that moment, however resentful I felt at becoming Chief Shuffler Of Stuff, however angry I was that I had somehow allowed my life to be taken over by a house … things were at least NOT AS BAD as they could be; obsessive squirreling of sentimental items aside, I was at least not (quite that much of) a hoarder.

Now, although it’s been at least five years since I’ve watched this program there’s one clip from one particular episode that still runs through my brain, as it did that day in August as I was helping my son to clean out his room, and as it did this December, when I went to the mall, feeling the weight of holiday expectations and the pressure to provide *something* in the way of Christmas presents:

There’s a girl, blonde, about 14 years old. She’s standing in a warehouse, and she’s surrounded on all sides by boxes upon boxes upon boxes — some closed, some opened, some unpacked, the detritus on display for all to see.

This is ALL her family’s stuff, and she and her family are working against a ticking clock, a TV camera documenting the painful indecision that marks each and every decision. And suddenly, after working for hours, this girl has had it, and she upends a huge box of plastic toys directly into a large garbage bin.

Over-thinker that I am, that scene never fails to elicit the following grumbly questions:

What was it all for anyway? Why were those crap toys made in the first place? For five minutes of fun? And then, once the *actual* fun was over, what were they good for then? To sit on a shelf, on display? To gather dust? To be crammed into a drawer? To clutter up this girl’s life, to make her room — and her house — so fucking full she and her family required an intervention?

I realized something this December, when I looked at my 12-year-old son’s Christmas wish list and saw that he hadn’t even asked for a LEGO Architecture set:  I am now on the POST-TOY side of parenthood.

The hard truth that I’ve come to over the years is that so much of what gets brought into our children’s lives constitutes junk, and while there may be small hits of pleasure at the moments of receiving and the moments of giving, the net cumulative effect isn’t a positive one; I think it’s actually damaging — to them, to us, to our relationships, to the environment.

  • We stuff our kids’ rooms and then get angry at them when they can’t keep their spaces clean.
  • We fill their Easter baskets and their Christmas stockings with cheap trinkets and then wonder why they’re ungrateful.
  • We buy them toys with little-to-no play value and then complain that they can’t settle to one thing.
  • We give them prizes for *everything* — for doing the very things they’re supposed to do, for merely showing up, for coming in last — and then call them entitled.

It’s worth noting that even when we ourselves actively try to set limits, even when we completely buy into the truisms of less is more, quality over quantity, expectations are best kept low and reasonable, even when we ourselves are refraining from stuffing and filling and buying and giving —

(even when that refraining is still — after years of practice — accompanied by a panicked notion of not-enough that sneaks insidiously in and threatens to derail it all on the 23rd)

— the stuff STILL seeps in.

It comes from well-meaning grandparents, from teachers rewarding good behaviour, from school fundraisers, from fast food restaurants, from informational giveaways, from sports organizations, from birthday parties … it enters our children’s lives and sits there, until — at the age of 12 (or 14, or 18, or whenever they’ve said why the heck do I even have this) — it gets swept ignominiously into garbage bags and set out on curbs and trucked out of our sight.

At which point, the over-thinking grumblers among us may reflect, What was it all for anyway? Why do we do* this?

I think we do it because it’s fun, because it’s expected, because everyone else is doing it, because it was simply there — on sale! and so irresistible! — in Wal-Mart.

I think we do it because we worry about our children’s self-esteem, because we don’t want to disappoint them, because we ourselves felt deprived as children.

I think we do it because although we recognize monetary costs we still don’t understand (or we refuse to see) the connections between the things we consume and the raw materials and energy it takes to create them.

I think we do it because enough is a concept we continually struggle with.

I think we do it because saying yes is easier than the thought that we will be perceived as a crank.

Of course, this fear of being perceived a crank is really what this post — and my silence since November — is all about.

But I suppose, if I want others to speak their truths, then I have to be brave enough to speak mine, even if I come off as a crank.

/hits publish after three months of revisions/


*”We” refers to both me and the royal we-as-a-society; the active verb “do” is equally interchangeable with a passive how the heck did we allow this to happen?

Lessons From My Dutch Mother

Stoic stitchery. This is a paraphrase from The Secret Garden.

This weekend, my 12-year-old son installed the Duolingo app on my phone and I began 5-minute-a-day language lessons in Dutch.

Beyond feeling like learning Dutch is “something I’ve always wanted to do”, and therefore — at 50 — I’d really better get on with it, I’m not exactly sure why I’m bothering. (I’m also not certain Duolingo is the best tool for this task; but that’s another issue and beyond the scope of this post.) The cold hard truth of the matter is that the only Dutch speaker in my life is my mother, who has just turned 86. And although there are apparently incidences of stroke taking away second languages and leaving first ones intact, she does not seem to be faltering at all when it comes to her mental capacities. In other words, I’m perfectly aware that the *need* for me to one day know how to speak Dutch is quite remote.

As many of you probably know, I have a Dutch and German background. My mother emigrated from The Netherlands in the 60s, and then met and married my German father, who had immigrated to Canada when he was 17.

According to my mother, my parents initially had plans to teach my brother and me to speak both their native tongues. Unfortunately for my brother and me, my parents’ resolve on the matter faltered and died very early on, with the result that, except for a smattering of exposure when visiting with relatives (and a quick jaunt through in-one-ear-and-out-the-other high school German), my brother and I did not ever *really* learn to speak either language.

What follows is but one example to illustrate how incredibly unfortunate this state-of-affairs was for me:

My last memory of my maternal grandmother is of her standing on her stoop in Pernis, a small town just outside Rotterdam, waving to me as I — 19-years-young — walked down the street to catch the bus on what was the first leg of my journey back home to Canada. She had, just a couple of hours earlier, led me out of the house, walked with me arm in arm amongst the trees in their backyard orchard, all the while speaking, pointing, gesticulating, looking at my face to see if I understood anything she had said. I caught a few words, here and there, but the underlying here-is-the-important-thing-I’m-trying-to-impress-upon-my-Canadian-granddaughter was entirely lost. Finally, the frustration in her voice a palpable thing, she shook her head in regret and with a rueful half-smile, gave up.

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t confess that I find it diffiicult, at times, to recall this last day with my oma and to not feel anger at all that was lost.

But of course, dear reader, as you and I both know, it’s useless to cry over spilled milk. So I (metaphorically) pull myself up by my bootstraps (thank you, German father?) and give myself a stern talking-to and proceed to list off all the life lessons my Dutch mother taught me, for which I am utterly grateful:

One thread a night. Dutch girls are (were?) an industrious lot, and I grew up under the notion that if you were sitting, your hands had to be busy. Now, my mother wasn’t an absolute tyrant about it: she herself was an avid reader, and yes, I was permitted to sit and read, but only once I had made some form of daily progress on whatever project I was working on. One thread a night, my mother would continually say, and eventually you will have (for example) a finished cross-stitch piece. Although I sometimes resented the fact that I, THE GIRL, had to sit and embroider every evening — while my brother, THE BOY, did NOT — this has proven to be an invaluable lesson to me. It taught me fortitude and perseverance, it taught me that large and complex projects — crafty or otherwise — are entirely doable when using the one thread a night, each journey begins with a single stepif-you-never-get-started-you’ll-never-get-finished approach.

Is it necessary? The contemplative Is it necessary? is a question I heard often growing up. I remember sliding pocket-sized Peanuts comic books into paper bags — thank-you-for-coming-to-my-birthday-party — while my mother muttered mutinously about how SHE wasn’t going to be the parent who buys UNNECESSARY plastic junk to hand out to our guests. (Ground zero, apparently: this must be where my loathing of plastic crap originated.)

Although I occasionally railed at this frugal and oftentimes utilitarian approach to life — I KNOW a crib skirt is unnecessary, Mum, but I think it will look nice, and YES, I AM going to continue sewing it! — it’s come in remarkably handy while raising children. It wasn’t until I read this post on Finding Dutchland about the pressure an American ex-pat felt when considering whether or not to purchase a Hatchimal, that I fully appreciated that it was precisely this early training with this question that allowed me to coast nonchalantly through the Tickle Me Elmo madness when my daughter was a baby. It was the question that allowed me to easily say No to my children when they asked for all-the-crap littering check-out lanes. It was the question that resulted in Easter baskets and Christmas stockings filled with nothing but socks and books and single bars of chocolate, not a single blade of plastic “grass” in sight, no Dollarama trinkets deemed necessary.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simplistic beauty of this question. After all, if you only surround yourself with necessary things, if you only perform necessary tasks — if you free yourself from the superfluous — then that allows you to truly see and appreciate and take care of those things that are important.

And, as an added bonus, focussing on what’s necessary is also a more environmentally-friendly way to live. I could do an entire post on all the unnecessary stuff marketers tell us we need, but which in fact is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful…

Sometimes unnecessary things are nice. And, well, kind of necessary. Tulips, potted plants, table runners covering bare wood, suikerbroodspeculaas, coffee and cake and a visit with a friend. There’s *got* to be some lovely unnecessariness to life; it can’t all be about sweeping the stoop and ironing the tea towels and building the dikes.

When you have a book, you have a friend. As I’ve discussed before, I came quite late to this knowledge. But now … I’m not sure where I would be without books; I suspect I’d be very lonely indeed.

Think happy thoughts. Don’t dwell. Remember that there is always someone out there who has it worse than you do.  AKA: DIY Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The Dutch are known for their level-headed practicality and stoicism. And while I do firmly believe there is truth to the premise that stoicism is sometimes the only way one gets-oneself-through-life, it needs to be said that Dutch sink-or-swim stoicism, while producing a heckuva lot of strong swimmers, can also result in drownings. It can, and often does, come off as unfeeling. And, quite honestly, as dismissive. I don’t know where the Dutch are at with regards to mental illness nowadays, but my childhood experiences have shown me that there is a vital distinction between preaching stoicism to others, and preaching it to oneself. In other words, I can dismiss and diminish my feelings; I can encourage myself to stay strong, to pull myself together, to cultivate happy thoughts — if that’s what I think will help me get through something (and it usually does) — but I don’t appreciate it when others dismiss or diminish my feelings, or imply that I’m weak or self-indulgent for even daring to feel those feelings in the first place. Just sayin’.

So … I need to find a positive way to end this post (because I am trying so damn hard these days to keep positive) and the only way I can think to do that is to share a bit of knitting. Gezellig — THE quintessential Dutch word — is usually used to refer to the cosy feeling one gets when in a warm atmosphere and in the company of convivial friends or family. This introverted homebody finds knitting — while drinking koffie, while in the company of 12-year-old zoon who is quietly reading a boek — to be the very definition of gezellig.

Stockholm scarf. Two strands of MADELINETOSH Merino Light held together: denim and Dr. Zhivago’s sky.

Keep On Keeping On

Keep trying. So, I went to the PTO meeting. And spoke, very briefly, about greening up the activities they run. And yes, my voice shook.

Prior to going, I had asked for some help in honing what to say. Less is more, was the advice. Don’t lecture. Change takes time.  Although I railed (internally) at the latter rejoinder, I think the advice was probably spot on: I didn’t alienate anyone that evening. (Because (apparently; who knew?), alienation is unhelpful and makes people dig in their heels.) I’m now planning on attending all the upcoming meetings, and speaking up at each one, addressing each issue as it arises. What’s more, I’m starting to see that seeds I’ve sown over the years are finally starting to sprout: people I’ve talked to are now starting to talk to others. It’s just as Deborah told me in a comment following my last post: Don’t assume that if you don’t win them over, you’ve lost. Never underestimate the possibility that someone (or several people) there will go away and think about something differently as a result of your intervention.

Keep reducing.  Determined to do even more to shop local, I spent this summer’s Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market. I brought my own cloth grocery bags, but also made sure to bring my ugly lace produce bags as well as plenty of clean plastic bread bags. All the sellers were more than happy to dispense their fruits and veggies into my bags, rather than providing me with one of theirs, and I managed to not take ANY new plastic bags home from the market this summer. This counter-of-all-things is very happy about this small victory.

I’ve also been doing more shopping at my local bulk store. This past February, Bulk Barn began allowing customers to bring in their own reusable containers. This has proven to be dead easy: I make my list, pack the required number of containers in a bag, stop at the cashier for pre-weighing, and then simply fill the containers.

The end of the summer also saw me on what could easily be described as a TEAR through the house. I was literally flinging cupboard doors open, looking for things to purge. This week, I heard about the latest decluttering craze: Swedish death cleaning. Funnily enough, this meshes EXACTLY with what I was feeling at the time: the instinctual and deep-seated desire to take care of things now, rather than to keep putting off the inevitable, not to mention the uncomfortable realization that if I don’t step up to the task of taking care of things then that burden will one day fall on my children. (To be honest, I was also feeling rather desperate about finally, finally getting to the promised point where I will have cleared enough (literal) detritus to see a (metaphorical) clear path forward.)

Keep the existentialistic nattering at bay. I’m trying to drown out my existentialistic thoughts. Which are pretty damn loud. They seep through and attempt to drain the colour from everything.

Pre-parenthood I listened to music all the time. U2, REM, Barenaked Ladies, The Pretenders, The Tragically Hip, Tom Petty. And when I wasn’t listening to music I had the radio tuned to CBC.

Enter parenthood: bawling babies, talkative toddlers, prattling preschoolers — and suddenly it was all too much. Sensory overload. And worse: the Wait, what? missing of things. The only way to cope was to turn everything else off.

Now that my house is emptying of children, now that the silence sits on my shoulders, a weight compounded by worry as my thoughts wander too much into jungles best left unexplored, I need noise. Radio programs. Podcasts. Music, music, music. This is such a night-and-day shift that I believe I surprised my 19-year-old son. He came into the kitchen one day this summer to find me chopping veggies to Coldplay. Who are you and what have you done with my mother?, his expression seemed to suggest.

(This past week has been The Tragically Hip, on repeat. My fellow Canadians will understand; for others, there’s this song, my favourite.)

Keep reading. I abandoned Beatrix Potter – A Life in Nature. I’m sorry, Linda Lear; it was just so.long. On a whim, I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Because, what a name for a heroine! And such promise, that title: maybe if Eleanor is completely fine, I’ll be completely fine too. (Because that’s how fiction works, right?) It was part laugh-out-loud quirkiness, part cringeworthy Oh-don’t-be-doing-THAT-Eleanor!, part heartwarming love story, and part heart-wrenching life-can-be-cruel, dontcha know …

After that, I went on to Station Eleven. Perhaps a post-pandemic-civilization-has-collapsed-now-what? kind of novel was not the best choice for the summer I was having. But although the story was often grim it was also, ultimately, one of hope. Its back-and-forth movement between past and present as it told the tale of a travelling Shakespearean symphony roaming amongst new settlements (“because survival is insufficient”) — spoke directly to my story-loving heart. Apart from that, I loved its utility as a thought-exercise (what happens when there are no longer any doctors, nurses, hospitals, medicines? What happens when there is no one left to transport fuel to a gas station? What happens when stores are emptied of goods but the supply chain is irrevocably broken? What happens when law-and-order goes missing, never to return?).

Then came Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time. This was a lovely read: an interesting concept (the protagonist’s life stretches on and on and on); spare writing; a light-handed sprinkling of humanistic pearls of wisdom. My copy has been dog-eared, and I’m well into another of his novels: The Humans, which I am completely loving. Next up will be Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive. And then, what the heck, ALL of his other works. (Thank you, Lynda; I love your reviews and recommendations.)

Keep learning. Keep my eyes open. As much as I’d like to look away, to start humming Mmm-I-can’t-hear-you, to bury my head in the sand, I simply can’t. If this means tears are streaming as I watch A Plastic Ocean or Chasing Coral, so be it.

Keep knitting. Socks, socks, socks. Hockey season has started, which means I’m once again that mum who knits in the stands during practice. I’m also determined to knit while watching TV, because although multi-tasking usually makes me feel I’m doing two things poorly, productivity is key to dispelling the icky feeling I get when sitting in front of the TV. We’re making our way through Star Trek Voyager, determinedly turning our 12-year-old son into a Trekkie. We must have missed quite a lot back when it originally aired in the 90s and we had to be home on Mumblemumble night in order to catch it, because until last weekend I was quite in the dark about how Seven-Of-Nine came to be freed from The Borg. (And inquiring minds do love to know…)

Keep exercising. I’m leaning on a phrase former friends used when describing their über-strict parenting style: Once is a habit. This is the phrase that broke my inertia and keeps me going. I have walked on the basement treadmill every.single.day since mid-June. (I refuse to stop, even for one day, because I know that (with me) Once is a habit is a concept that works both ways.) I get up early enough that I can do sixty minutes … seventy, seventy-five, even eighty on occasion. Once I pass forty-five, I feel like Forrest Gump: I could happily run walk *forever*. My 19-year-old son tells me that’s the runner’s high. (Related: I’ve told my husband when marijuana is legalized next year, I’m going to buy some. I think he thinks I’m joking.)

Keep reaching out. It was just Canadian Thanksgiving, and I’d like to say thank you; I’m so grateful to those of you who not only bear with me as I go on my philosophical — and, ahem, oftentimes depressing, lecturing, alienating — meanderings, but who also take the time to reach back to me. You make this earnest-and-anxious fish-out-of-water feel less alone.

Stories

My daughter sent me a very depressing link this summer: When Will Climate Change Make the Earth Too Hot For Humans?

This sent me spinning down once again. I didn’t fall quite as low or as utterly unreachable as I had when I read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, but still…

And then, while pondering the bleakness of the end of the world as we know it, I remembered a Star Trek Next Generation episode I had watched many years ago, when my husband and I were young marrieds and date night was a single episode on TV. I don’t think I ever knew the name of the episode, but because the plot was one that was seared into my memory, I knew Google would come to the rescue.

“Star Trek Next Generation episode where Captain Picard lives entire life on alien planet”, I typed into my phone.

And there it was, the answer:  Season 5, episode 25, The Inner Light.

(Can I just stop and say something? This 50-year-old woman, who grew up with all her questions and wonderings left unsatisfyingly hanging, unanswered and unresolved, freaking loves Google.)

So, of course, I had to watch it again, and this time our 12-year-old son joined my husband and me.

This particular episode, in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s mind is inoculated with four decades-worth of memories of a life lived on a dying planet — in which he virtually becomes another man, painfully aware that his children’s and grandchildren’s existence is doomed —  brings all sorts of existentialistic and unanswerable questions to my mind.

What was the purpose of this mind inoculation?

We know that the people living on this dying planet — a planet that had already been dead for a considerable time when the Enterprise happened upon their probe — wanted to ensure their history lived on, wanted to make their once-existence known to others.

But why? Why does the story of their once-existence matter?

And once I voice that question, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to the question, why does our existence matter?

(Hoo boy … This, I suppose, is sufficient to explain my silence since mid-June?)

Pondering this has led me to some deep thinking about stories.

I’ve been thinking about how utterly and completely human it is to share stories: to want to escape into entirely made-up stories, to use stories to instruct and inform; to want others to understand our stories — our personal histories — and to be curious about their stories — their personal histories.

And that, in turn, has gotten me thinking about the way our personal stories have evolved over the course of humankind’s existence on this planet.

Once-upon-a-time, our stories were short tales filled with hardship, disease, injury, and early death, where the mere fact that you had subsisted and survived long enough to reproduce constituted a happy ending.

And now … now our stories — at least those told in vast swaths of the western world — have become complex and lengthy novels. Mere subsistence has been supplanted by personal growth and freedom, with entire chapters devoted to materialistic style, frivolity and convenience, all of us peering through the lens of collective amnesia that shrouds the brutality of our common past and allows us to write deeply personal and oftentimes egocentric themes centred on the words I am, I want, I deserve. 

As I’ve been pondering this evolution, I’ve been considering the very sobering thought that even as short as one generation ago, we could chalk all of this up to progress. We could imagine that there were no bounds to human potential, that the planet was here for us to pillage and that there would be no consequences. Or, if there were consequences, we could imagine that humans would be able to manage them. We could be forgiven for imagining that the Earth was a big enough library to shelve all our unedited and increasingly verbose novels.

But we’re now at 7.5 billion humans on this one planet Earth.

The uncomfortable and inconvenient fact is that there isn’t the room or the resources on this one planet for all of us to live 1000-page western-style tomes. And the corollary is, if we are well and truly fucked, then the stories that my own children will be able to write will be markedly different than the one I am halfway through writing.

This is proving to be a tremendous source of anger, grief and guilt: anger towards those who continue to take and take and fail to understand the meaning of enough; grief for those who are coming along in our wake, the ones who will be tasked with cleaning up an insurmountable mess; guilt for the role I have played in all this.

So I’ve been thinking quite deeply about my own story. About wanting to edit, to keep it concise and to the point. About wanting it to be a small and responsible tale. About wanting to do my best to take only enough, to focus on needs, not wants. About recognizing my 1-in-7.5 billion-who-the-hell-do-I-think-I-am utter insignificance.

Thinking about insignificance pulled this bit of Macbethian Shakespeare from my (very limited) stores:

… all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Which brings me back full circle: if it all signifies nothing, if this once-existence doesn’t matter, then surely that means our 21st-century tales of sound and fury should be responsible ones; surely that means that our collective robbing of future others of their sound and fury will someday be viewed through a very brittle lens indeed.

And surely that means that those of us who care about such things should not stop trying?

All of which is a really, really, really long-winded way of saying I’m going to next week’s PTO meeting. And I will try, once again, to see if I can convince them to please please please think of the environment. I’m so nervous I’m actually nauseous.

(On a more positive note, we’ve just wrapped up yet another crap-free book fair. I’m happy to report not a single child or parent asked if we had any erasers or light-up pens for sale.)

Making, Meditation, Meaning

I met my friend K just over 20 years ago. We were both still relatively new mums, our now 20-year-old daughters a mere six months into their lives.

I was early (of course) for the meetup at the YMCA.

I had bundled my daughter up against the prairie cold of February, driven down unfamiliar roads and made my way to a downtown I didn’t yet know. I had located the correct building and parked, carried my daughter inside, and searched for the room which a Somewhat Concerned public health nurse had recommended I find.

At six months, my daughter was smiling, sitting, crawling, exploring, babbling, sleeping through the night.

She was thriving.

I, on the other hand, was not.

I was teetering on the edge of something I don’t like to remember.

We had had *quite* the six months, my husband and I and our baby. There was the jolt of new parenthood: colic and nursing and diapers and sleepless nights. But there was also the move to a new province a mere eight days after she was born. There was the leaving behind of friends, family, career. There was two months of bout after bout after bout of shivering and painful mastitis. There was a house in disarray with boxes to unpack. There was my husband’s new job and his travelling schedule. There was crushing loneliness and a creeping and pervasive certainty that parenting wasn’t actually something I was built for, that I was incapable, that I would ruin this beautiful child.

When I found the room, there were a few mums already there, chatting and laughing and sitting in pairs or threes, in what was beginning to look suspiciously like a circle.

Heart pounding, I took a place by myself on the floor, setting my daughter in front of my crossed legs where she faced the centre of the circle. I kissed her on her temple as I did so often when I read to her at home; she had a smile on her face and I tried to breathe in her untarnished confidence, willing my skittering nerves to calm as I waited for the room to fill.

K, if I’m remembering correctly, raced in right-on-time, and took the only empty spot remaining, the one to the right of me, the new girl.

When I realised what the group did, I nearly panicked. What may sound simple to some — introduce yourself and tell the group how your week is going — strikes terror in those of us with anxiety. And when my short speech had to follow on the heels of a mum whose infant son had just lost an eye to cancer —

Can you imagine? In hindsight, that mum’s pain should have magicked away my loneliness and my overwhelm; why ANY of us had anything to say after that bleak report I now simply can’t fathom.

And yet, I tried—

Hello, my name is Marian, and we moved here six months ago, and I’m…just…so— 

And then, with a silent score of strangers to witness, I slid ashamedly into tears.

I can still hear K’s Oh dear!

And after a moment, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to go on, while I fumbled through pockets in search of kleenex, she repeated her Oh dear, and said, Should I just take my turn?

I’ve often reflected that K saved my life that day.

Which is (of course) hyperbole for what she *actually* did: she extended a hand, she pulled me out, she propped me up, she stopped the sinking.

(Never underestimate the power of friendship.)

I like to imagine I’ve returned the favour. I do know I’ve received it right back again with interest, on more occasions than I can count, despite the fact that we moved away from that prairie city seventeen years ago, and that K and I haven’t met face to face since the September day we left.

This is the sweater I’m knitting for her first granddaughter:

Pattern: Granny’s Favourite on Ravelry.  Yarn: Bamboo Pop (colour Silken).

This is what I know:  when a dear friend is expecting a baby (or a grandchild), one simply must knit a sweater … or crochet a blanket … or stitch a name onto a Christmas ornament … or sew a romper … or cook a lasagna.

For me, this welcoming simply must be handmade. And that’s because, for me, making is not merely about raw materials and a product: it’s not just yarn drawn around needles, loops engaged, fabric created; it’s the route by which hope and love and fervent good wishes are somehow made solid.

Although it’s my hope that the recipient will be able to discern this — that there will be a shot of something hormonal in this realisation, something that more-than-compensates for the lack of a Gap label — it’s perfectly okay if they merely see a sweater.

And that’s because the act of making has already served half its purpose.

It’s been meditation. It’s been coping. It’s been necessary action.

This — the knowledge that making things is both a comfort and a necessity — might just be the sum total of what I know about life.

It might even be the only thing I have ever known:

When scared witless, cross-stitch. When in love, crochet an afghan. When grieving, brew tea, sew clothing, keep stitching. When pregnant after a miscarriage, sew a quilt. When overwhelmed, crochet snowflakes. When patience is stretched, knit mittens. When the fact that you exist infuriates the very people for whom you would throw yourself in front of a bus, bake cinnamon buns. When worry threatens to swamp you, make a garden, make soup. When daughter grows up and goes off to university, knit socks. When you are helpless to help her, knit more socks. When 17-year-old son is too young two days away from leaving for university, sew him a housecoat, offer to sew a pencil case, hide inordinate pleasure when he accepts. When said son is having a worrying amount of fun at university, knit him a hat. When words are insufficient, knit socks for husband of 26 years. When grown children come home to visit, cook curries and bake bagels, mend clothes and sew buttons and darn socks, reinforce their belongings with thread and imagine it’s not a metaphor — imagine it’s literal, that it’s strength you’re weaving into the very fibre of their beings — and then send them off again with containers of love cookies and muffins.

This making has been my solace, my crutch, my raison d’être — I make, therefore I am — my entire life.

And now — especially now — when the world is too much and too wrong and too ugly — when my chest has tightened and I can barely breathe for considering a new life entering upon it — this is the only way I know to stave it all off, and to keep going:

Make something beautiful, do something useful, solidify hope, turn love into a tangible thing.

Naturing

Forsythia: planted last fall; blooming this spring

 

Looking up through a sun-kissed maple

 

Could these be poppies?

 

Rhubarb

 

Soapwort

 

Deutzia

 

Cranesbill

 

Lacinato kale seedlings

 

Potted herbs

 

Fern fronds unfurling

 

African violet blooming on the coffee table

Ever since I wrote my Nature as Therapy post, I’ve been trying my best to pay close attention to nature, both outdoors and in.

I drank in the show my forsythia put on this spring.

My 12-year-old son and I marvelled at the quality of light that was filtering through the sweet green of newborn leaves as we walked home from school.

I reached back to memories of my mother-in-law’s garden and hoped my analysis (hmm…I’m thinking those are poppies) would prove correct.

I’ve harvested (at her request) stalks of rhubarb so my daughter can bake fruit crisps and cobblers.

I’m breathing in the unfolding beauty currently taking place in my front garden: my favourite soapwort a mass of tiny pink flowers, a delicate Deutzia shrub, several plantings of blood-red cranesbill.

I made newspaper pots and started lacinato kale seeds, nurtured them into being and have (somehow) kept them alive long enough to plant in my veggie garden.

I bought several pots of fresh herbs, snipped the required amounts to make another batch of this vegetable broth concentrate, and am now DETERMINED to keep these plants going (despite having failed miserably each and every other time I’ve attempted to keep herbs alive-and-well).

I tossed the you’re-too-difficult-and-you’re-just-bringing-me-down houseplants and am working diligently at caring for the ones that remain. I’m watching with delight as the re-potted ferns make themselves at home and send new fronds up through the soil and into the light.

All of this naturing — all of this deliberate noticing and nurturing and caring — has caused me to reflect on something my dear friend Rita said last fall:

I really miss caring about such things as growing vegetables and sewing grocery bags and planning meals and restoring banged up furniture that no one else loves any more. I keep trying to “act as if,” thinking that maybe I can make the equation work the other way:  Maybe if I just start doing the stuff, the caring will return and the life will follow suit.

I don’t know if it’s the nature or the noticing or the nurturing or the caring … but whatever it is, I think it’s working, dear reader. All the worries, all the questions, all the fears … they’ve not been erased — they’re all still there — but somehow, in some barely perceptible way, they’re quieter … and I’m feeling just a little bit lighter.