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.
Advertisements

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.

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.)

—ing

Wondering … how to get back to clicking publish.

Writing … umpteen drafts; words that question everything; words I’m not brave enough to speak aloud.

Suspecting … my words don’t matter anyway.

Needing … escape.

Reading … The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Loving it. Loving knowing my daughter will want to read it too.

Planning … to read more. To fill the year — and quiet the internal chatter — with more and more reading. On the list: Mrs Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury; Diary of a Provincial LadyThe Tenant of Wildfell HallThe Return of the NativeIce Diaries: An Antarctic MemoirNorth and South.

Noticing … a pattern in that reading list: classics, classism, feminism, environmentalism; not a single contemporary work.

Continuing … to read aloud to my 11-year-old son. This fall we read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). I had read it before, but absolutely loved re-reading it; my son was — gratifyingly — enthralled with the depth and complexity of the story. We’re currently reading The Alchemyst series, and are on book #3.

Feeling … grateful that my son is the kind of kid who, at age eleven, will still lean shoulder to shoulder against me as I read, and who, when I ask, Now, where were we?, is able to tell me exactly what happened at the end of the previous day’s reading.

Realizing … 40-some years on, I can still “hear” my Dutch grandfather’s voice, and can picture him across the table, as he prayed and then read aloud from the Bible after lunch. Onze Vader in de hemel…

Knitting … constantly. A hat, a smitten, a pair of mittens, and three miniature Weasley sweater ornaments in the weeks before Christmas. Another hat and a half in January, some progress on yet more socks, and another pair of mittens requested and planned.

Listening … to CBC Radio and podcasts. As It HappensIdeasTapestry. Listening to Tapestry led me to the really lovely podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.

Cooking … everything Oh She Glows. 2016 was the International Year of Pulses (legumes, for those unfamiliar with the term pulse); I meant to do a post about it, but didn’t…

Drinking … black coffee and green tea.

Enjoying … darning socks. Really.

Waiting … for snow. We did have a white Christmas, but then came rain and warm temperatures and now the snow is gone.

Liking … my 2016 wall calendar so much (it was a year of Amanda White’s Writers’ Houses) that I wish I could just keep using it in perpetuity.

Deciding … to put away the sewing machine.

Looking … for reasons to be optimistic.

Watching … hockey practices while knitting.

Ignoring … cold hands while knitting while watching hockey practices.

Questioning … if the word work is losing its meaning as a verb.

Considering … the various scenarios that could arise with Trump as US president. Aren’t we all …

Marvelling … at the ability of a fair few to be willfully blind to facts and to not see that which is right under their noses.

Admiring … a certain young woman who is brave enough to go on exchange.

Embracing … my looming 50th and my greying hair.

Wishing … I knew if some things were worth my while.

Making … inroads in purging sentimental clutter. I’ve bagged some baby clothes that have been sitting on a chair in our bedroom for the past six months.

Cringing … at the fact that some of those baby clothes are 20 years old. And that I allowed 20-year-old baby clothes to sit on a chair in our bedroom for six months.

Buying … new glasses. After three years with a frame I loathed I now have a pair which (I think) says classic with just a hint of edginess, exactly the look I was going for.

Hoping … the people I am worrying about will be okay.

Wanting … that certain young woman on exchange to pick up some locally-made sock yarn. I know I told her not to worry about it, but I really do want some.

Pretending … not to be worried. About everything. All the time.

Trying … to believe that small things matter.