Happy May

                                               

Today is May 1st, also known as May Day. In many places around the world, it’s also International Workers’ Day … a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions of the working class. In some places, in fact, today is a national public holiday.

The ancient Celts celebrated May Day too. They called it Beltane and considered it the most important day of the year. It was celebrated with bonfires, Maypole dancing and feasting, and culminated in the crowning of a May queen.  They also considered it the beginning of summer because in the Northern Hemisphere May 1st falls halfway between our Spring equinox and the June solstice.

It’s not quite summer yet, but the tulips are in bloom, the lilacs are about to open and the garden is waking up from its winter slumber. And that’s something to celebrate. Happy May!

Giving Thanks

                                                 

Thanksgiving, which we’ll be celebrating in just a few days, is one of my favorite holidays. I love the focus on food, friends and family, and the generosity of nature. There’s a joyful simplicity around Thanksgiving. And this year, as I gratefully pick the last of our tomatoes and dahlias, I’m giving thanks for everyone who has been a teacher in my life.

It is back-to-school time after all, and every morning now I hear the laughter of children heading down the trail to the nearby elementary school. Teachers are gearing up with lesson plans and activities; some are reaching out to authors to see if they’re available for talks and workshops (I am!).

I’m taking a few workshops myself this fall – some single ‘just-for-fun’ one-off classes and another in a more professional vein that will run once a week until December. My first session of the latter was yesterday. It was quite a change to sit back and let someone else lead. As I looked through the binder of information the instructor had assembled for each of the participants, I was struck all over again about how much goes into the process of teaching, whether that’s in a structured academic environment or in a more creative studio space. It takes time, energy, and effort to instruct others well.

Last spring, I took a one-day security course at VIU ElderCollege in Parksville. It was fantastic and incredibly worthwhile. Sadly, Vancouver Island University announced this week that it will end its affiliation with ElderCollege on December 31st after 30 years. The university cited financial difficulties as the reason. The decision is a real blow to the many islanders who have benefited from ElderCollege over the last three decades.  But the 3,000-member organization isn’t closing the doors just yet. Board members are determined to continue providing ElderCollege courses. They aren’t sure how, but they’re determined not to let the organization fade away.

Let’s hope they’re successful, because learning is something we can all be thankful for.  

Small Pleasures

Where I live, the Covid numbers are climbing again. It’s now a race to vaccinate people to offset the spread of more contagious and potentially more severe variants. Maybe that’s why morale seems to be dropping amongst friends and family. These aren’t easy times. It’s been a long, difficult haul, and the restrictions aren’t over yet. So, this week, a bit of cheer from Canadian Neil Pasricha, one of the most popular Ted Talk presenters. Admittedly, some of his recommendations for simple pleasures – going to a movie, for instance – are off the table right now, but they won’t be forever. And his short twenty-minute talk is guaranteed to make you smile.

The Gift of Sight

In my own worst seasons, I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

                                    High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver

I was reminded last week about the gift of sight, a gift we sometimes take for granted. Unless or until your sight is diminished, it’s relatively rare to be conscious of how much joy sight brings to our lives. I certainly don’t get up every morning and celebrate the sight I see in the bathroom mirror, though I always smile at my first glimpse of Team Sheltie.    

Last Saturday night, Mr. Petrol Head asked me to examine his left eye. “Does anything look different from the right?” he asked. Turns out, the left eye was so blurry he could hardly see out of it. It was, he said, like having “a thick film of Saran wrap covering his eyeball.” More than half his vision was gone, and it had happened just in the last hour or so. If that wasn’t alarming enough, he told me it wasn’t the first time he’d had the problem, though it had never been this bad. But the blurriness had been coming and going for three weeks at least.

After a weekend of fretting (and spending a little too much time in the company of Dr. Google), he saw the optometrist today. It turns out he has something called narrow angles which, if not treated, can lead to permanent vision loss. The cure (laser surgery to shoot holes in your eyes) doesn’t sound at all appealing but apparently, it’s effective and carries little risk. He’s scheduled to get it done later this month.

Growing up, I watched as my grandmother slowly went blind. She had diabetes, and while she went through multiple laser surgeries to prolong the inevitable vision loss, eventually she was left with very little sight. She took it in stride, and with amazing grace, though there were times it got her down.  

Memories of my grandmother, and especially what Mr. Petrol Head went through this past week, have made me look more clearly at my life the last few days. I don’t usually think of winter as being visually remarkable, but I am wrong. The holly bush is glossy and covered with brilliant red berries. The daffodils are poking through the soil in our front and back gardens, and the winter heather is in full bloom, covered with tiny purple-pink flowers. The blue jays flit from tree to tree, splashes of color against the cloud-filled sky, and on the trail as we walk Team Sheltie, there is a brilliant wink of yellow as a tiny pine siskin hops through the leaves searching for dinner.

There is beauty all around . . . and I am lucky enough to be able to see it.

I Have Never Been Great at Goodbyes

A long, long time ago, we bought a house . . . and we turned it into a home.

This old house has sheltered us through all the seasons, bearing witness to laughter and tears, to joys and sorrows, to deaths and births, to weddings and anniversaries. It is the only home our children knew growing up. It provided sanctuary for them and their many friends from pre-school through university . . . and sanctuary too to five dogs, one cat, a lizard, a turtle and too many fish to count.

I wrote twenty-five books here, hundreds and hundreds of articles, countless school notes and at least 1600 shopping lists. My babies came home to this house. They took their first steps and spoke the first of many, many words (much to the chagrin of many, many teachers). They had chicken pox and sleep overs, their first jobs, their first loves, their first cars (and with the latter came my first gray hairs).

This house birthed me too – as a mother, as a writer, and as a gardener. And today, though the garden is deep in winter slumber, I see roses blooming and kiwis hanging low. I smell sweet peas climbing up the side of the greenhouse, see the heron swooping in to steal fish in the pond, hear the laughter of the kids as they whisper secrets to their besties, and the laughter of my love as we sip our wine and watch the sun set on warm summer nights.

The sun is setting on our time here. In a few days we will turn out the lights and shut the door for the last time. We will put Team Sheltie in the car, climb behind the wheel and we will drive away. We’re moving to a smaller community several hours from here, a place we’ve visited often, a place we love. We haven’t found a home there yet, at least not a permanent one, but hopefully we will soon.

We aren’t being pushed to leave by anything other than an inner knowing that it’s the right thing to do. It took us a couple of years to come to this, after many discussions and a great deal of thought. Our neighborhood has changed, we have changed and, with the kids grown and gone, our family dynamic has changed. It’s simply time. That said, it is much, much harder than I ever thought it would be.

There’s a saying that pops up on social media occasionally: Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. It’s good advice, sound and solid. But the fact is I am absolute shit at goodbyes. Never have aced them. And, yes, I know we’ll take our memories with us – people offer that up as if it’s some sort of consolation – but it’s no consolation at all and it doesn’t touch even a corner of my sadness.

This isn’t just the closing of a chapter, it’s the closing of a book. The story of our time in this house is over. And the new book, the new story, that important first chapter, hasn’t yet been written.

Right now, my heart is full to nearly breaking. Smiles are out of the question. My fountain of tears, as Mr. Petrol Head calls it, is perpetually running. But as teary as I am, there is one thing that makes it this process a little easier.

New owners are poised – eager even – to move in.

We’re leaving them a welcome letter, telling them a little about the history of the house and garden, their new neighbors (they will have wonderful neighbors!) and a few of the quirks that old houses inevitably have. It will be fun for them to discover what life here has to offer. Knowing that lightens my sadness.

It reminds me a little of sharing a book. You can only read a book for the first time once. No matter how much you love it, you can’t go back and experience that freshness, that joy of discovery, again. But you can pay it forward and share the book with another reader, taking solace in the fact that they’ll love it too. That the story will live again through them.

I know we can’t go back. Time goes forward and so do we. How fitting that we’re leaving the past behind at the start of a new year.

A long, long time ago, we bought a house . . . and we turned it into a home.  And though we’re saying goodbye and leaving this old place behind, it will be filled with love and laughter and life long after we’re gone. It will stay a home. And for that I’m grateful.

And now . . .

. . .  please excuse me if I get a little emotional. In a couple of weeks, our daughter, our first born, will be marrying her beau, her beloved, her partner in bulldog parenthood. It is my fervent wish that she be as happy with him as I’ve been with her father. Of all the successes in the world, I believe a happy home (however you define it: marriage with or without kids (dogs, cats, guppies, lizards), or a happy home you make on your own) is the only measure of success that matters. Having grown up without that solid foundation, it was really important for me to be able to give that to my kids.

It occurs to me as I write this just how quickly the time has gone. I started my writing journey soon after my daughter’s birth. Her growing up has, in many ways, mimicked the changes in my writing career: from picture books when she was very young to middle grade readers as she got older and then young adult fiction as she moved into her teen years. Now she’s entering another phase of her life, and while I’m still writing I suspect there will be future changes coming for me too.

Right now, however, I’m not thinking about me or my writing career or anything remotely concerned with business. I’m thinking of her . . . of this important milestone in her life . . . of the new family she is on the brink of creating . . . and how our family will come together to celebrate and honor it.

So with that in mind, this blog will be on hiatus for the next two or three weeks as I focus on family . . . and on love. And really, is there any better way to spend the last few weeks of summer?

See you in September!

 

Overheard This Week

You’ve lost weight.

Thank you.

Word for word and overheard last weekend. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who was speaking and in what context. I was in a dressing room desperately shopping for The Dress That Will Live Forever when a couple of women crowded into the changing cubicle next to me. Within seconds they were discussing their respective appearances; in particular, their weight.

If you think about it, you’ve lost weight is a statement, not a compliment. Yet if you’re like many women living on this blue planet, you’d probably take it as a compliment. A compliment, however, is an act of praise or admiration. In that context, the unsaid part of that exchange is that the woman being spoken to, the one who has apparently lost some weight, is being complimented because she’s more attractive now that she’s thinner (there’s a wealth of politics in that assumption but that’s another blog so I won’t go there).

Given the volume at which the two women were speaking, I can guarantee I wasn’t the only one who heard their exchange. And I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one relieved to have her naked jiggling flesh firmly behind closed cubicle doors where no well-intentioned friend might feel the need to comment on it.

You can never be too rich or too thin. It was the Duchess of Windsor who coined that famous phrase, and it’s an attitude that’s been, for many of us, absorbed into our psyches. Certainly if I wrote a scene with two women in a dressing room and I used those same words, even without context, most readers would jump to the same conclusion and take them as a compliment. They wouldn’t think anything of it.

But if I used the words you’ve lost weight in a scene set in a doctor’s office, or during a visit from a hospice nurse, and if I made my characters come alive in a way that demonstrated they weren’t obsessing about their appearance, hopefully the reader would draw a far different conclusion. A twenty pound weight loss to someone with a heart condition or diabetes could mean health instead of illness. A ten pound weight loss to a pregnant woman could portend trouble ahead. A mere five or even a three pound weight loss to someone who is terminal could mean their life is winding down. The response in a scene like that would probably go from a shallow thank you to a deeper what does that mean? Or even what do we do now?

My mother-in-law died in late March. Having been there while she slowly faded over a period of months, steadily losing weight and unable to swallow at the very end, the words you’ve lost weight came to have a significance beyond appearance to me. Bones need flesh to cover them; without it, we suffer tremendously. Trust me on that. Of course I’m still happier keeping my naked jiggling flesh behind closed cubicle doors. Except now when I catch sight of those jiggling bits in the mirror I’m not so quick to judge. I look at all that padding . . . padding that protects my bones and makes my life comfortable . . . padding that’s a testament to the fact that I carried two brilliant children for nine months (and enjoyed a few too many pieces of carrot cake in the process) and I say a silent thank you. You’ve lost weight means something quite different to me now . . . and that’s not such a bad thing.

An Attitude of Gratitude to Kick Off 2018

Last January I started a gratitude jar. Whenever I thought of it – sometimes every day or maybe a few times a week – I’d jot down something I was grateful for and slip the colorful Post-It note into a jar. This practise has been around for a while; I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

I sat down and read through my 2017gratitudes last week. A clear pattern emerged. The largest number of gratitude notes focused on the support of friends: the walks and talks, watching movies together, sharing meals, laughing and commiserating. Gratitude for the books I read and the movies I watched came next, closely followed by gratitude for the beauty of nature; for the food I managed to grow in the garden; and for enjoying the best margarita of my life, thanks in part to the company (waving at you Keith and Carol-Anne).

There was gratitude for Mr. Petrol Head’s successful surgery; gratitude for letters and emails I received thanking me for my work; and no small amount of gratitude to my family, including Team Sheltie who share my days.

It occurred to me as I read through the notes that virtually every gratitude depended on the energy of someone or something to make it happen. The energy of a reader writing a thank you note . . . the energy of a friend making time to visit . . . the energy of nature providing such spectacular sunsets.

I’m doing the gratitude jar again this year. As I slip in the first few notes, I can’t help but see the same trend emerging. So this time, along with being thankful for the thing I write about, I’m also sending up a whisper of thanks for the energy behind the action. Happy 2018! 

 

Happy Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada (Columbus Day weekend for my friends south of the border). It’s that time of year when we gather with friends and family to celebrate the many blessings in our lives.

It’s not always easy to be grateful, particularly if we follow the news and witness horrors like we did last week in Las Vegas or when we see world leaders using Twitter to taunt, bully and inflame. It can also be difficult to feel appreciative when we face our own personal challenges, and we all have them. But that’s the time gratitude is particularly important.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I’m grateful for many things, but I’m especially grateful to live on the beautiful west coast in a city where nature is valued and in a country with strict gun laws. I’m lucky, and I need to remember that.

Early last week, in the middle of all the horror unfolding in Las Vegas, a Steller’s jay appeared in our back garden. We’ve lived here thirty years and this is the first time we’ve had one in our yard. They aren’t common on the south coast, at least not in our area. He came with a partner (jays pair for life) and the two of them spent most of the week swooping from tree to pond and back to the tree again. They’ve gone now; they’ve moved on to grace another garden with their presence but I’m grateful they visited us at all.

Happy Thanksgiving to  you and yours.

Summertime . . .

It’s the season for backyard BBQs and camping under the stars . . . for walking barefoot on the grass . . . for buying lemonade from the pop up stand down the street . . . and for friends who come to stay.

We’ve had several sets of out-of-town company this summer and I’m so grateful. Life’s busy. It’s easy to put things off. So when people I love come to visit I’m always thankful they took the time. One set of friends was in the middle of getting their house ready to sell but decided to come and spend a weekend with us (we did mention tequila in the invite). Another set of friends was flying from Ontario to BC and their primary destination was the Okanagan. They decided to detour to Victoria for an in-person catch up.

These are friendships that go back decades, to my teens and early twenties. We’ve kept in touch over the years, sometimes sporadically and sometimes more regularly, but whenever we reconnect in person, it’s like no time at all has passed. There’s an incredible gift in that, a joy in having a kind of shorthand with a person, a sense that you  know the core of each other and you like what’s there. And though we connected this time in summer, when the living and the laughter both come easy, both of these friendships have been through some figurative winter storms. However, like any true friendship manages to do, they not only weathered the storms but became stronger for them.

A few minutes after waving good-bye to Keith and Carol-Anne, I happened to wander onto Twitter where I saw an agent calling for submissions. One of her biggest wishes: to find stories where friendships are front and center.  Stories where friendships aren’t the afterthoughts of our lives but the cornerstones. Where differences are respected and even celebrated. Where pure loving kindness prevails . . . stories where friendships last and last and last.

From summer to winter and back to summer again.

Because while it is the season for backyard BBQs . . . for lemonade stands and for walking barefoot on the grass . . . friendship – honest, to-the-bone real friendship – knows no season at all.