Honesty and Accuracy and Connections

The new goal: to keep this recycling bin from filling up…

I mentioned in my last post that I recently went to a PTO meeting and spoke up, suggesting some changes to the annual March school dance. I also mentioned that I then went on to ask — entirely without forethought — whether or not anyone else had heard the news that China was going to be refusing to take Canada’s recycling.

So I don’t know if you also caught this bit of news (because it’s not just Canada’s recycling that China is refusing; it’s the world’s recycling), nor do I know what your reaction was upon hearing this news —

(yes, that’s an invitation: please, do tell. Perhaps it didn’t come as news to you at all; perhaps you already knew … ?)

— but my reaction entirely explains why that Have you heard?!?! question popped out, completely unbidden, revealing the fact that I was still reeling, days after hearing about it. My reaction, you see, had not been a calm and reasoned, Oh well! Canada will simply have to explore other markets for its recycling…

No, dear reader.

My reaction was, rather, an incredulous and curse-laden, WTAF?! Our recycling has been going to China?!?!?!?!

Which then progressed to anger: How can it possibly BE, that our recycling has been going to China?! Are they *actually* telling us that our recycling has been put on ships and, well, SHIPPED (?!?!?!) halfway around the world?!?!?!?

Which then led to the damning question: HOW is it possible that I DID NOT KNOW that this was happening?!?!?!?!

That’s one helluva lot of interrobangs, you might be saying to yourself.

That’s because this level of flabbergastation REQUIRES the use of that many interrobangs.

I feel, quite honestly, as if I’ve been lied to. Or if not lied to, precisely (because that presumes intent), then at the very least hoodwinked, misled, encouraged-to-look-away-and-not-question.

I’ve known for a long time that the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — are arranged in their particular order for a very good reason. The most important thing that one can do, after all, is to reduce their consumption. The next best thing one can do is to reuse, if at all possible. The last resort is to recycle, because while recycling does indeed divert stuff from landfills, it requires energy to recycle.

So yes, I have known all that for a very long time, and have been trying my damnedest to reduce (just ask my family, who, incidentally, have a very unflattering nickname for me, one that is entirely based off this hellbent mission I’m on to reduce reduce reduce), as well as to reuse (and here, the farmers I’ve pestered — insisting they stuff their carrots into my bread bags — will roll their eyes and sigh vouch for me and agree that I’ve been trying my best) …

But.

While I’ve been busy reducing and reusing wherever possible, I’ve continued to be a staunch believer in recycling. I’ve been recycling diligently since I was a child, even going so far as to bring our recycling to a depot (when we lived in an apartment and didn’t have pick-up), all the while thinking it was a Good Thing To Be Doing.

And now … now I see that the truth (The Whole Unvarnished Truth) has been quietly withheld, not just from me (or IS it just me who didn’t know this?), but from all of us.

Seeing this — and putting this together with some conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks — has caused me to reflect on what it means to be honest and what it means to be accurate, as well as to consider the deeper question of why it is that some of us are able and/or willing to make those honest and accurate connections, to possess the wherewithal to have that first inkling-of-a-thought that leads us to actively entertain the possibility that there might just be something more lurking underneath the slick surface, even when the underlying Whole Unvarnished Truth turns out to be inconvenient or flinchingly uncomfortable.

Because I’ve been feeling that most of my posts are far too wordy, I’m going to leave this one here, but with a promissory To Be Continued … I’ve started a running list of topics that not only fit in with the themes of honesty and accuracy and connection, but also seem to mesh with my wish to share more stories…

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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.

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.

A Post-Earth Day Post From The Future

A couple of months ago, my 12-year-old son and I had a Back to the Future movie marathon (if indeed three movies qualify as a marathon).

I’m known (amongst my immediate family) for a shocking illiteracy when it comes to media which dates from my own youth —

  • Did you see E.T. when it came out in theatres, Mum? No 😦
  • Did you see Star Wars, Mum? No 😦
  • Did you see Ghostbusters, Mum? No 😦
  • repeat, ad nauseam, with nearly every single notable movie of the 70s and 80s…

However — wonder of wonders — I actually had seen the first Back to the Future movie prior to our marathon. (But not in theatres, of course; years later, via VHS).

Not only was it fun to revisit the first movie, and to hear my son laugh at 80s style —

“YES,” I told him, “1985! That was the year I graduated high school, and YES, we actually dressed like that!”

— it was also kinda nice to *finally* (albeit two years late) understand the meaning behind the phrase: It’s 2015, where’s my hoverboard?!

I was born in 1967, and I confess there are times when I am completely gobsmacked by the fact that we’re now living in the year 2017: Wait. What? How the hell did that happen?

Growing up, I remember imagining that the 2000s would be an utterly amazing and entirely futuristic future. That two, and all those zeros … surely they were somehow symbolic. Not only would we have ALL the gadgets (and yes, we do have rather a lot), but more importantly, the coming century would herald the beginnings of a Star Trek-like utopia. The prospect of beaming from place to place was perhaps a bit much to hope for, but my goodness — at the very least, all the Big Problems would be solved. Poverty, hunger, war, and pollution? They’d all be gone! Greed and suffering and inequality? Ah, all that would be but a distant memory; we’d all be living in an egalitarian society, one in which we’d all have the freedom to strive for higher ideals…

(Sigh. Any other idealistic INFJs out there?)

Spoiler alert: all those Big Problems haven’t been solved. Which, of course, you already know, because you’re here with me, in the year 2017, the FUTURE … a mere three years away from 2020, the year in which we were all supposed to be united in working together to solve the Biggest Problem of all, the one that affects and colours all the rest: Climate Change.

This past Saturday was Earth Day, a day that was first set aside as a reminder for us to take care of our one-and-only planet home way back in the year 1970.

I like math, so I’ll do the arithmetic: that’s a whopping 47 years ago.

I confess my feelings about Earth Day have changed as the years have progressed. Idealistic optimism has slowly been eroded, leaving me with a jaded and impatient cynism that I struggle to hold at bay.

In my estimation, Earth Day is the day we (maybe) pick up some garbage. It’s the day we (maybe) plant a couple of trees. It’s a day on which baby steps are encouraged and good intentions are extracted, and that’s all great … except … the year is 2017 and this is the future, and I suspect that the Earth needs a bit more than just one day of caring.

A few years ago, I read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth.

I (unwisely) read it during a time of personal upheaval and it sent me spiralling down into a pit of complete and utter despair.

Although I managed, several weeks later, to climb out of that dark place and to grab hold once again — stubbornly, idealistically — to some semblance of optimism, there’s one phrase that McKibben wrote which continues to gnaw at me.

McKibben begins the book by talking about how a stable earth allowed the formation of human civilisation, and then goes on to propose that cheap fossil fuels were the key to creating modernity. He says:

One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually. And that’s just the oil…

He then expounds on the ways in which modernity has gone hand in hand with fossils fuels, describing both the products that we (probably) can no longer imagine living without as well as the economy that those fossil fuels have made possible. And then comes the kicker, the phrase that’s been etched indelibly onto my neurons:

That we’ve wasted it so mindlessly is depressing.

Oh yes, Mr. McKibben. It absolutely is.

Someone once commented, following one of my posts, that my writing carries a tone of disappointment. This didn’t come as a surprise to me: as an idealist, I have high expectations, for myself as well as for others. I have been trying to take care of the Earth ever since I was a small girl and I confess I don’t understand people who don’t care enough to pitch in and do their part.

In Real Life, I have largely kept my impatience and disappointment under socially-acceptable wraps. I have quietly gone about setting good examples: I have brought along grocery bags and refillable water bottles and to-go cups; I have refused and reduced and (sometimes) gently explained why. More often than not I have simply held my tongue. Indeed, while I have failed miserably at the “you get more flies with honey” imperative in writing this blog, I have somehow managed to do a stellar job with that in Real Life.

But I confess this is something that’s getting harder and harder to do the further into the future we sail. That damning McKibben phrase has been running through my OCD brain, turning every grocery store run, every school event, every walk down our manicured suburban street, into a depressing cataloguing of the myriad ways we are mindlessly wasting our precious resources and damaging our one planet.

This hyper-awareness is causing uncharitable things to be muttered under my breath and pointed stares to be levelled. I haven’t yet hurled invectives at banana-baggers at the grocery store, I haven’t yet raced across the street and torn that f*#%g gas-powered leaf blower from my neighbour’s hands, I haven’t yet marched into a Dollarama bearing a sign and chanting,“Hey hey, ho ho, made-in-China gift wrap has got to go!” … but my gosh, it’s probably only a matter of time; there’s only so much mindless wastefulness a person can watch, especially when said person owns 25-year-old cloth grocery bags.

Hopefully, when I finally do snap, the jury will go easy on me.

Weeks ago, I had imagined I would write one of those Earth Day lists. 50 Easy Ways to be Green, or some such title. Clearly, I haven’t done that, partly because I’m not a list person, and partly because all the information is already out there. I have little interest in repeating what others have already said, and besides, I suspect that all the people who want to live more lightly are already doing it.

But truthfully, the biggest reason I didn’t make a list is because they seem to cheerily reinforce the baby step mentality: “Here’s a LOOOOONNNGGG list of all the ways you can help the planet, but WAIT! don’t let that overwhelm you; just pick one thing and start there!”

And this is where I come to the sticking point; this is the reason this post is a POST-Earth Day post and not simply an Earth Day post ….

Because how?

How, how, how … how does one simultaneously say, YES, PLEASE! FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE, TAKE YOUR BABY STEPS!  … and then continue on with, HELLO?!?!?! WE’RE IN THE FUTURE AND WE NEED MORE THAN BABY STEPS! WE NEED A MARATHON!

???

I am truly sorry for yelling.

But I’m angry. And scared. And grieving.

We don’t need baby steps. We need just ONE step. We all just need to open our eyes. We need to actually see and acknowledge the ramifications of what our individual actions are collectively doing to our one and only planet, and then we need to decide that we actually care enough to do something about it.

And as depressing as all this is — as overwhelming as all this is — I, for one, will never give up.

No battle is more sorely lost than the one not fought.

— unknown

 

More Math, Less Hope

MORE MATH:

As an idealistic thinker, I spend a lot of time pondering how I, a simple mum, can effect meaningful change beyond the walls of my own small house.

Because my voice shakes when forced to speak in gatherings of greater than two, I’ve mostly shied away from attending PTO meetings at my youngest son’s K-8 school, choosing instead hands-on work in the school library. Sometimes, however, I’ve been so moved by what I perceive to be wasteful practices occurring elsewhere in the school that I force myself to speak up.

The annual spring dance is one such event, and last year I went out on a limb and suggested a couple of ways that it could be greened-up:

  1. The PTO could stop selling novelty items, such as finger lights and light-up wands. (You know the stuff: plastic crap shipped halfway around the world that provides fun for an hour and then never ever EVER goes away.)
  2. The PTO could encourage kids to make use of the water fountain, conveniently located just outside the gym doors, rather than providing bottled water for the kids to purchase, take one sip from, and then set down and forget.

My reasoning behind these suggestions was brought on by remembrances of how things were when I was a kid. You know: when I was a kid, dances were just dances; when I was a kid, we drank water from a fountain when we were thirsty.

Although my suggestions were received with the expected objections —

  • The water fountain?!?!?!?!
  • But the novelty items are fun!
  • It’s only a little bit of stuff!
  • Selling all that stuff makes money for the PTO!

— they did, to my surprise, end up scaling back on the novelty items. Although that was the only concession they made, that one gesture left me feeling like we had, at the very least, made a small bit of progress.

So what happened with this year’s dance, held a couple of weeks ago?

Sigh.

It seems we went back to square one: the full plethora of crap for sale and no attempt at all to curb bottled water use.

So I’ve spent a couple weeks feeling rather grumbly, with questions swirling round my brain:

  1. Do people — despite all the dire daily news, all the documentaries, all the TEDtalks — still not understand the issues we’re facing, not only with climate change, but also with the fact that plastics are taking over our oceans? Is that *actually* possible? (ANSWER: No. I cannot believe there’s a single person in North America or Europe who’s not heard of climate change or the fact that our oceans, seas, and lakes are teeming with plastic.)
  2. Do people understand the scope but believe their fun and convenience outweigh the concerns of climate change and plastic pollution? In short, do they not give a flying f#*&k about what they’re doing to the planet and future generations? (ANSWER: No. Yes. No. Gawd, maybe. The possibility that this is the case sends me burrowing down a misanthropic rabbit hole in which I (mentally) rail at selfish asshats and despair that I ever had children in the first place.)
  3. Do people kinda sorta see the problem but fail to understand the part they play? Are they stuck in their it’s-just-one thinking? (ANSWER: Maybe? So I know I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll posit it once again: is MORE MATH the way to expose the essential lie embedded in the it’s-just-one attitude? If I had, for example, mentioned the fact that the US uses 50 billion plastic water bottles annually which equals 17 million barrels of oil, would that have been enough to sway the PTO? If I had brought this number-laden infographic to the meeting would the PTO have understood that our throwaway lifestyle is well past the point of fun-and-games?)
  4. Do people fully see the scope; are they doing the math and watching events unfold whilst wringing their hands … but rather than acting are they choosing instead to perform some mental gymnastics in which hope plays a starring role? Are they hoping, for example, that recycling is the end-all and be-all? Are they hoping some new technology will be coming down the engineering pipeline just in the nick of time to save the planet, one which will pull us out of the fire and allow us to continue merrily along on our profligate ways? Are they hoping that children are somehow different beings from us, that they are inherently resilient and optimistic and innovative and that THEY will one day solve all the problems? (ANSWER: Yee-eee-sss? Gah! If people are using hope as an excuse, then here’s a radical idea: I think we all need less hope…)

LESS HOPE:

So … before you dismiss the idea of less hope, and imagine that I’m suggesting we all choose hopelessness and pessimism, please let me explain:

In an effort to quiet my stewing mind, I’ve been turning to podcasts. One of my favourites is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, an incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking podcast in which the hosts, Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile from Harvard Divinity School, explore various themes found in the Harry Potter books. Although they use both Christian and Jewish theological practices to inform their discussions, their approach is decidedly from a humanistic angle.

One of the episodes that resonated especially deeply with me was the one in which they discussed chapter 13 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone through the theme of hope.

In the discussion, Vanessa explains that she sees hope often being used in a manipulative manner — even as a tool of oppression — and then goes on to say:

The moment of hope that I completely validate and completely believe in is the moment when … you’ve done everything that you can and there’s nothing left to do. That’s when I’m like, YES! now we hope! But hope a second before that just drives me crazy.

Casper responds:

Because there’s practical things that you can do.

Vanessa agrees:

There’s still practical things you can do. It’s just inaction … I think that we use hope way too early as a society and I guess what I’m calling for is not for NO hope, but I’m calling for a critical use of hope.

And Casper sums up:

The way to think about hope critically means to look for when we’re using it as a way to excuse or to hide the work that needs to be done…

Oh.my.gosh.yes.

Yes, yes, and yes.

Even though Vanessa and Casper’s discussion didn’t touch on climate change or plastic pollution, the implications of inaction in those areas due to hope-without-work and hope-as-an-excuse are abundantly clear.

So, if you’re just as alarmed as me at the state of, well, everything … if you, too, are wondering how you’ll ever be able to look possible future grandchildren in the eyes … then I’d love to know what you think. Do we need more math and less hope? Could that light the way to meaningful change? In my next post I’ll share what I’m doing, but in the meantime here are a couple of eye-opening resources that might interest you:

My Plastic-free Life, a blog by Beth Terry, a woman who read an article about plastic ocean pollution in 2007 and decided she didn’t want to be a part of that sort of destruction anymore.

Karen Lynn Allen’s Musings … She has a four part series entitled “Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017”; the link is for Part I: Taking Stock. (Thank you to Deborah for pointing me to this blog.)