Tell Me This is Possible

“Can’t we just invite someone over? It’s been so long since anybody came for supper!” says Susanna as we walk beside each other, on the last stretch of her paper route. The night sky is overcast and dark. Lights and blow-up decorations twinkle and wave in the wind, even though it is already January 7. This isn’t the first time Susanna has asked about having company. She’s mentioned the same sentiment at least three times in the last month or so.

“Covid,” I say. “Remember that?”

The old jogging stroller that we use to haul bundles of newspaper is almost empty now. A loose piece of plastic strapping used for packaging, flies out of the stroller and onto the sidewalk. I bend down to pick it up. When I straighten, I tell Susanna about an idea that I’ve been mulling over.

“Once we don’t have to social distance anymore I think we should start Soup Nights. Like an open-house, every Friday. We’ll tell a whole bunch of people, or maybe just announce it, and see who shows up. I’ll make a huge pot of soup each week and it will be a standing invitation.”

Yes!” Susanna says immediately, before we split ways. She goes down one side of the street, I take the other. When we meet up near the laundromat I can see her eyes shining in the lamplight. “I’ve been thinking about what you said the whole time. Oh, I can’t wait to have people again. When can we start? Next week?”

I hesitate. Covid restrictions are harder for some than others. “It might not be this winter, Susanna,” I answer.

She moans and then musters enthusiasm. “Well, as long as we get this going before I leave for college.”

As soon as we arrive home from our route, Susanna announces our plans to her older sister.

“Open to all of Yorkton? In our home?” Belén echoes. She does not look impressed. “This is not a good idea. Have you told Dad?”

Her initial reaction doesn’t surprise or deter either of us. Susanna runs for a pad of paper and starts scribbling names of every friend and acquaintance she can recall. I continue explaining the idea to Belén. “It will be simple. I’ll write out the expectations for Soup Night and post them.” Belén winces when she hears the last phrase.

I go on about how people will be free to come and go (Stay for 2o minutes or 2 hours!), we’ll offer homemade soup and water (Bring bread or beverages to share, or bring nothing at all!), I won’t be serving people–just enjoying their company (Find the pot on the stove and serve yourself!), and how it will feel organic and informal (There will be space for you at the table, on our couches or on the floor!).

“Well, now this is sounding like a homeless shelter,” says Belén. “So, what, exactly, is the point? Why do you want to do it?”

I still haven’t taken off my ski pants, and chunks of snow and ice that gathered on my cuffs during the paper route are melting in a puddles around my feet. I wipe them with my socks and look at Belén. “To make connections and get others connected.”

“Don’t most people already know each other? Yorkton is a small city,” says Susanna.

“We can make it smaller,” I say. “I’m always meeting people I think we should have over but it feels daunting to invite them for dinner, especially if we don’t really know them. This way, whenever I come across someone interesting, I can tell them to come over the following Friday night.”

“Like the guy from Spain you met at the grocery store, and his very pregnant wife?”

“Yes. And maybe even the people on our street we never talk to.”

By this time Susanna is scrolling through my Facebook feed, looking for names of potential guests.

“Henrique?” she calls out.

“Nope, Brazil,” I say.

“Ka..jer..stin?” she continues, stumbling over the pronunciation.

“Alaska.”

“Puja…?”

“Yep,” I interrupt her. “Local”

Susanna adds the name to her list which is now more than 3 pages long. “These people can bring their friends, right?” she asks.

“Exactly, that’s the whole idea,” I say.

*

Have you heard about Vivek Murthy? Former surgeon General of the United States and passionate advocate for community and connection? I listened to him in an interview recently and immediately ordered his book from the library. In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World he tells stories and explains why loneliness interrupts our sleep, is riskier than smoking and shortens our life. And what we can do to intervene.

Murthy wasn’t always interested in the intersection of social and physical well-being. When he began his tenure he had had expected to deal with things like tobacco-related illnesses, diabetes and the opioid epidemic–serious issues well-documented in the medical field. As he travelled the country listening to nurses in San Franciso, teachers in Boston, parents in Birmingham and many doctors in between, he was surprised by another national crisis: loneliness. Not only was a palpable lack of connection felt by a huge segment of the population, it was producing measurable and devastating outcomes on their health.

*

Susanna turns around from the computer screen and shows me the contacts she’s compiled. “I added Marea even though she’s not from Yorkton. She might decide to come anyway.”

Perfect,” I say, then add, “You know, what if this becomes a thing? What if we’re not the only ones who do it, but other people in neighbourhoods all over Yorkton start opening their kitchens on Friday nights too. The city could post a map, lit up with addresses where people are meeting and gathering. In homes! With real people and real conversations!”

Now Susanna is starting to look dubious. “Maybe by the time you’re a grandma,” she says, raising her eyebrows.

Perhaps the whole idea is over-optimistic and foolish. Perhaps I shouldn’t write about something before I actually start doing it. Perhaps idealism will give way to disinterest or fatigue. Perhaps none of this will happen. But tonight, I want to believe it will. I can smell the basil and fennel in the air. I can see the steam rising from the pot and fogging my windows. I can hear laughter and spoons clinking against bowls. I can feel warmth. I can taste togetherness.

Please. Tell me this is possible. Tell me you think it could happen, too.

(Freba pottery made by the aforementioned, Marea. Katie Miller took this photo at Wonderscape. Pictures of soup are forthcoming…)

Pounded

There are many things to be sad and angry about. I wept while watching “Public Trust“, a documentary on the privatization of wilderness areas. My friend’s marriage, so brittle it may crumble any day now, moves me to tears. Watching politicians spew nonsense on the world stage disgusts me. Violence and heartache is happening on a global scale, and yet there are still small things, tiny things, that sadden me.

I’m sad that dancing is no longer socially appropriate and that Vivian is not allowed to sing in music class. “We can only watch videos of other people singing, but we can’t sing ourselves,” she tells me.

I’m sad that I didn’t get to scream and clap while runners tore past me, heading for the cross-country finish line, this fall. I’m sad that volleyball season is halfway done and Belén and Susanna haven’t been on the court even once. I’m sad that schools have become institutions of isolation, even though I know it’s necessary. I grieve the systemic separation and loneliness, the one-way hallways, the gathering spaces and rituals once used for community-building that are now roped-off or squelched. I’m sad that Susanna’s first year of high school is different than Belén promised her it would be. I’m sad that instead of working face-to-face with university students, we stare at each other through screens and apologize about garbled connections and fumble with our keys when the screen goes blank. I’m sad we had to cancel the reservation we made to spend a week with uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents in a cabin in Minnesota. And I’m sad that even though it’s been more than a year since we’ve seen each other we still cannot make plans to reunite.

And yet.

Belén picks some straggling blooms from our garden, pounds them into unbleached cotton and sews a mask that she “absolutely can’t wait to wear”. Vivian and I helped her gather violets and pansies and all of us fought for a chance to hit the rubber mallet against fabric and cement. It felt good to smash something, waiting for beauty to come of it.

*

Although Vivian is restricted to a featureless rectangle of grass during recess this week, I know there is joy and play at school. When I tuck her in at bedtime and ask where she saw God that day she looks at me for a moment then starts rearranging her stuffed animals. I don’t think my question registers so I add, “You know, sometimes you can see Jesus in other people.”

She rolls onto her tummy, then back and starts kicking the bunk overhead. I think she is ignoring me. Suddenly she stops. “I see Jesus in my teacher,” she says.

“Really?”

“Yeah,” she says, “When she walks towards me.”

Vivian is acutely attuned to fashion. I wonder if the teacher was wearing sequins or sparkles, or perhaps something pink or purple that day.

“I see Jesus when she comes beside me to listen to my words. She’s the best teacher in the world!” Then she starts bucking around again and I get out and shut off her light.

*

We order pizza with a “drizzle of local honey”, as recommended by the waitress, and ask about the artwork on the chalkboard. “The dishwasher does it,” the waitress replies. “Isn’t it beautiful? He came from Vietnam four years ago and is a graphic designer but hasn’t found a job in his field.”

After dinner we head next door to the Broadway Theatre. We saw an advertisement for an improv comedy show, and though both girls have doubts and we’ve never heard of the comedians, we decide to go. “It’s live, girls,” I had said to convince them. “If someone’s willing to go on stage and bare their heart, we’ll watch them.”

We open the theatre doors and are greeted by the smell of popcorn and a man that seems very happy to see us. We soon learn, as he hops on stage to introduce the show, that he is the theatre manager. Surveying the sparse and socially-distant crowd, he slowly raises his mic. “Thank you,” he says, then pauses. “It’s been eight months since we’ve hosted a show here…” His voice trails off. We can’t see his lips, but his mask doesn’t hide the emotion. Even though he is silent, something about the way his eyes crinkle and head turns ever so slightly, we know he is crying. The audience waits.

After a moment, he continues. “It is an honour and a privilege to be together with you tonight. We’re so thankful you’ve decided to wear your masks and support live entertainment. You are smart and you are beautiful!”

I squeeze my girls’ hands and a tear rolls into my mask. Then we clap as hard as we can. The show hasn’t even started and I’m already glad we came. I’ve been to a lot of performances in my life and I’ve never heard an introduction that was as grateful and heartfelt as this one.

The spotlight shifts and the actors walk on stage as the audience welcomes them warmly, with the words “smart” and “beautiful” still ringing in our ears. Story lines develop, characters react, pivot and keep us believing. I feel Belén’s shoulders shake beside me. Not everything is clever or hilarious, some lines fall flat and other responses miss the mark, but all of it is stunning; the courage, the creativity, the skill, and the quick-thinking of the actors. There is a thrilling elegance when real actors interact and feed off each other in real-time before our eyes.

When we leave our seats and walk back to our parking spot in the dark, we talk about how none of it was rehearsed or scripted. How did the actors push their limits so far, and the other actors’ limits–suggesting new information, accents or even requiring their colleagues to answer in haiku–without knowing how it would all work out? How could they see their way through the twisted plot line when any reasonable ending seemed out of reach?

*

Thanksgiving Day has passed. My Auntie Erika posted a picture of a pumpkin she decorated with words describing everything she is thankful for. I think it’s a wonderful idea and plan to do something similar, but we still haven’t gotten to it. I need a little more time. I need Thanksgiving to last longer than a day or a weekend. Perhaps I’ll institute my own entire season of Thanksgiving, at least while all my small “sadnesses” last. Because during this world-wide pandemic there are still smart and beautiful people in the audience. There are actors who say yes to every line they’re offered. There are dishwashers choosing to make art. There are teachers listening to six-year-olds trying their French. And there is at least one person wearing a mask pounded with flowers.

Sixteen Candles

Belén is snuggled under the duvet in her loft bed when I blast Johnny Maestro from the other end of the house. You’re only sixteen, but you’re my teenage queen, he croons while Belén wanders into the kitchen, still in pajamas. I insist she slow-dance with me before she eats her Honey Nut Cheerios. Because she is still sleepy enough, she humours me–but only for a few moments.

“These lyrics seem different than how I remember them,” I muse aloud when she pulls away. From the perspective of a mother with a just-turned-sixteen-year-old they’re more predatory than romantic. “Kinda creepy,” I say. Both Susanna and Belén agree.

Then I suggest a date idea to Belén. “Want to get a drink after school and head to the art gallery to see the new installation?” I’m asking her not only because it’s her birthday, but because I like being with her. She’s been one of my favourite companions for a while now.

Yesterday, we sat around a fire on our patio and ate a pumpkin cake that Belén had baked and decorated. Then we came up with sixteen special things about the birthday girl:

“Maybe she will be the best runner in all of Canada one day,” Free said. “Because she is fast like the girls in Ethiopia!”

“She helps me with my math homework.”

“She’s not easily swayed.”

I scribbled the comments down as fast as people gave them to me so I wouldn’t miss anything. Nodding my head as I wrote, I concurred with everything being said. But now that I’ve had a night to sleep on it, I want to add one more thing to the list. Belén is certainly smart, athletic, organized, disciplined and principled. She stands by her convictions, shows leadership and yes, she is tall, but there is one word that always comes to my mind when I think of my eldest daughter. Belén is an understander.

The moment I first realized this we were living in a tiny house with a purple sponge roof in the north end of Winnipeg. Belén was two years old and coming downstairs with me to switch a wet load of laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. We descended the narrow stairs one at a time, and at every step, she asked a question. I responded and she listened. Then she thought about it, stretched her foot out for the next stair and asked another question. When we reached the landing and I had to duck my head so I wouldn’t hit the ceiling, I told her, “You are such a great companion.” It was true then and it’s true now. Because good companions ask good questions. Good companions “get it”. Good companions are fun to be with. Good companions are empathetic; they have enough energy to funnel their thoughts away from themselves to focus on something, or someone, else. Good companions are understanders.

So my dear 16-year-old, may you continue to run, row, sail, study, play, create, grow, sing and draw, and through it all, be the understander God created you to be. And of course, this ancient blessing once more. I hope I have not dulled it by shouting it after you down the street, nearly every day, while you and your sisters run for the bus. I can’t seem to recite it the same, word-for-word, each time, but it’s a good one. And I know you understand.

May God bless you and keep you. May his face shine upon you and be gracious to you and give you peace…

Quetico

Belén, Vivi and I are in our dining room, digging through a Ziploc bag, looking for the last few pistachios mixed in with peanuts and cashews. We took the nuts on our canoe trip and they are one of the few food items left over. I hate to toss them into the compost, even though they aren’t as fresh as they once were, so we’re snacking on them now. It’s our first day back home and we’re too exhausted to come up with anything else to eat.

“I could go back tomorrow,” I say while cracking a shell.

“Really?” says Belén.

“I mean, I’m ready for another canoe trip. I’d go right now if I could,” I say. I’m surprised that she seems surprised. After all, Belén was the one who, after unloading our van and portaging to the put-in site, exclaimed how she’d been waiting for this moment since we’d finished our last canoe trip two years ago.

“Oh good,” she says with relief. “I’m so glad you still like it.”

“Yeah, of course! What did you think? We’re the ones who raised you like this. We’ve gone nearly every summer since you were two years old.”

“Well, it’s a lot of work and I just don’t want you to stop liking it and taking us on trips.”

“Oh no,” I say, “these are the gravy years. You and Susanna push water and haul gear like grown women, and I didn’t even have to carry Vivian once during all of the portages. We’re not stopping now.”

Then I laugh and imagine myself as an eighty-year-old woman, still paddling. “I’ll come with you and your children and be the crazy grandma who goes skinny dipping, my wrinkled skin flapping off my shrivelled biceps.” I’m not sure if this is a threat or a promise.

I reach for another pistachio. It’s stale from sitting in our canoe for a week and smells of smoke, but if I think hard enough I can taste the lake, the granite, the waterfalls, the howling wolves and the wind at my back. I peel back the shell, pop it in my mouth and pass the bag back to my daughters, knowing they can taste it too.

organizing and deciding what we need to leave behind before take-off
fishing and swimming before our first portage (out of seven)
pristine sand beaches on the first part of our trip
breakfast routine
camping on aptly named Eden Island
Vivi has been doing this since she was one… she’s got the sleeping-while-riding thing down
our flotilla
an interesting portage through a very shallow creek… we sank up to our knees in silky mud
the aluminum bear box Stan made worked well
IOTA card game on the rocks
all the cousins in one canoe for a little joy ride
Campsite relaxation and henna tattoos
on our way to find Sue Falls
a beautiful natural playground all to ourselves
dessert buffet on the rocks
me and my sister

Slivers

Vivi, Belén and I are trying to figure out a new card game (IOTA – it’s very tiny so we are bringing it along on our upcoming canoe trip but we’d like to know how to play it first) when Stan requests Susanna’s help.

“Can you take a look at my foot again,” he asks while he hands her the tweezers and a headlamp with a magnifying glass on it. He ordered the light/magnifying apparatus online to help him select eggs from queen bees but it’s also come in very handy for our domestic surgeries. Susanna jumps away from our game, glad to get away from the litany of instructions Belén is reading off her phone, and gears up on the couch while Stan pulls a chair towards her and puts his foot in her lap.

Susanna is our resident physician, (after her father, of course–who isn’t a physician at all but we think he might have been a good one). Susanna’s got the memory and brain capacity for it, but whether or not medicine is in her future, I’m glad she’s willing to deal with our slivers. I, on the other hand, hate digging around people’s heels and the undersides of their toes with needles.

About 15 minutes later, after scratching and needling, she uses tweezers to gently extract a long, thin, hair-like sliver from Stan’s foot. “What is this?” she asks, while Stan gets up and pulls our microscope off the piano.

“I think it is a hair,” he says, “maybe an ingrown one…”

“No way,” I say, looking up from our IOTA game, which is actually much more fun than I anticipated. “No one has hair on the soles of their feet.”

We debate the possibility of it being a hair over a number of different materials. This is not an uncommon conversation in our home as our family gets an inordinate amount of slivers. We’re constantly picking shards of glass, metal shavings and wood splinters out of our feet. I suppose it’s the price we pay for all the activity here; we break glasses nearly every day while bumping around our kitchen and the floor of Stan’s workshop often sparkles with potential splinters just waiting to get tracked into the house.

“You’ve been cutting lots of aluminum lately for the bear box. That’s got to be it,” I say.

“But it doesn’t crimp like aluminum would, or any other kind of metal,” answers Stan while he and Susanna take turns peering through the microscope and pulling out their own hair to compare it to the specimen Susanna just removed from his foot.

While this is happening, I notice Vivi playing with the IPAD. I usually take it away when I see her noodling around with it, but the day is almost over and I’m too tired to enforce any sort of limit. In a few minutes she slides off her dining room chair and walks over to her dad to show him the screen. This is what he sees: “kan a har groe in yor fot”

At age six, Vivian has executed her first Google search. I didn’t think she was listening to our conversation–our teenage/adult interests don’t always keep her attention–but it’s evident now that she was engaged.”It took me a long time to figure out how to spell all those words,” she says, while we jump up and down and gush about how proud we are of her. And then we click on the pertinent link, “When Patients Present With Hair Slivers in the Foot”, from Podiatry Today.

(A little while later she disappears into the kitchen to try her trick again. Buoyed by our enthusiastic reactions to her last inquiry she asks Google another burning question. This time, though, we have a hard time deciphering her intent as we stare at the phrase, “hay bib geesos gat mabe”. Google seems stumped too. “How did Jesus get made!” Vivian hoots as we all hunch around the IPAD. It occurs to me that we have a new game for the canoe trip. Vivi can write down all her burning questions and then we can try to figure them out and debate the answers. It may entertain us longer than any card game.)

When I try to think positively about our all our slivers I convince myself that they are merely the shrapnel of a creative life. Indeed, it feels like an explosion is going off here some days, with everyone’s ideas and agendas colliding in our home. There’s sailing and spas for the neighbourhood ladies and pottery (in pyjamas, past bedtime!) and construction (always construction!) and honey harvesting and saskatoon picking and beans and more berries and pinatas and sand castles and camping and canoeing and cupcakes and cousin sleepovers and macarons and ganache and, and, and… Everything about life at this stage is fast and furious. I remind myself that it mirrors summer at our latitude, which is to say, it is fleeting. I know, as surely as the days shorten in mid-August, that nothing lasts forever. And yet, it’s all still very messy. Because making and doing things is never neat and predictable. And with our family, like any collection of humans, there are surprises along the way, including slivers.

The huge community garden garden plot we rented this year has turned into a surprise that falls under the sliver category. The six long rows of corn are stunted, the potato bugs are relentless and the soil has been parched most of the summer. We’ve poured both water and money into it, not to mention hard labour, sheer hope and optimism. In early spring, we even took down the name of a passerby who asked if he might get produce from us at harvest time. “Definitely! We’ll have way more than we need,” I had said confidently while typing his number into my phone. Sadly, I don’t think it will be necessary to contact him; there won’t be any extra to go around.

Fortunately, there are happier surprises. My dear friend Bonnie has been calling this season the “summer of her amazing luck” (Hello, Miriam Toews!) because almost anything can happen when nothing is planned. I know what she’s talking about. Even though I thought our summer calendar was blank due to COVID restrictions, not a day passed in July when we didn’t have overnight company or were out camping ourselves.

Over the August long weekend we attended an intimate wedding where Susanna and Belén were asked to play cello and violin. During the dinner the MC instructed the guests to come to the mic at the front and sing a song with the word “love” in it to get the bridal couple to kiss. Stan immediately leaned over and whispered something about getting his guitar from the car, in case anyone would want to use it. I raised my eyebrows, doubting anyone would take up his offer, then shrugged my shoulders and nodded.

He returned with the guitar and propped it against the wall near the front. No one picked it up until, just before the dance was about to begin and we’d heard guests sing “You are My Sunshine” and speeches and forks tinkle against goblets, a man ambled towards the front of the room. I’d chatted with him earlier and found out that he and his wife had immigrated to Canada years ago and were Melissa’s (the bride) neighbours. They were in their thirties or forties and their child was a playmate of Melissa’s son.

When the man picked up the guitar and sat in a chair far from the reach of the mic, I nudged Stan, hoping he might take care of the situation. Stan stayed in his seat, it looked like the MC was trying her best anyways, so as not to distract from what the man was saying. He stammered a little and spoke apologetically in a thick Ukrainian accent. Every now and then he would pause, searching for the right words, and his wife would interrupt him from her seat at their table. Finally he stopped talking and let his thumb test the guitar. The next moment he erupted into song. It was loud and large and showy with lots of extended R rolls that seemed to go on forever. I’m not sure anyone but Melissa’s grandparents could understand the Ukrainian lyrics, but everyone was riveted by his finesse, the volume (he definitely did not need a mic) and talent. People looked around at each other with mouths wide open and faces of disbelief. Once I caught my breath I whipped out my cell phone, as did many others, to record the last bit of his unexpected performance. “He’s the Ukrainian Garth Brooks!” I overheard another man murmur. When the song was done, he placed his right hand over the strings to quiet them and added simply, “It was about love” before the audience broke into applause and whistles.

While I’m remembering this, rain begins to pelt my window panes. Soon it’s pooling in the gutters and the cars are making big splashing sounds as they drive by on the street. We’ve been waiting for moisture–it’s been so dry all summer–and even if it’s too late for our corn, it’s still wet, drenching the thirsty earth.

Ukrainian folk songs belted out with flair are definitely under the heavy-rain-during-a-dry-summer category of surprises and remind me that almost anything is possible. As we’ve been getting ready for our canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park I’ve been trying to keep this in mind. It’s a hard balance to strike though, while scrupulously combing through our menu plan and counting every last nut, piece of cheese and dehydrated crumble of chicken. (Last time we went canoeing with my sister’s family we brought far too much food and paid the price during the gruelling portages.) Belén has been watching Youtube videos on snaring rabbits and her dad helped her make a snare of her own to take along. I don’t want to depend on wildlife for calories, but we’ll see how far Bonnie’s luck stretches. I know, for sure, we can count on surprises along the route, including a splinter or two.


Some photos of our happier surprises in the last few months…

a clandestine birthday party for my mom at a hidden lake in June
Belén learns to sail on her own (Liam too!)
Vivi got out of her pj’s at ten o clock one night to do pottery with her sister… this might not have fit in the happy surprise category for her mother
We planned Vivian’s sixth bday party the day before we had it at the lake with family
Her big sisters made a 3-D gumball cake
tuning up before the bride walks down the aisle
a reasonable picture of the two of us… always a surprise
August 1
Stan experimented with welding aluminum for the first time to make a sturdy bear-box to keep our food safe in the wilderness
Susanna’s joy upon receiving a hand-written letter in response to the heart-felt epistle she sent to the Lucy Maud Montgomery society. They sent her a book and all kinds of goodies!
The tiny cabin/slum shack is finally finished! (Belén and Susanna started it in spring and I wondered if it was ever going to get done. Now to figure out what else we can stuff onto our property…)

Sunday Evening in My Kitchen Garden

Today I am a plant-grandma, who can’t resist showing you a wad of pictures of my beloved babies. Please indulge me.

strawberries under the trampoline

Zinea, cilantro, cucumber, and calendula all in a small bed. Which will win?
These snap peas are struggling, but I’m excited about them because they are supposedly self-supporting. And I always fail at trellising. Blazing star flower (butterflies like ’em), Early-girl tomatoes, day lilies and unknown fern further along bed.
Belén and Susanna’s garlic for Harriet (a sponsor child from Uganda who they support mainly through garlic sales).
Saron’s strawberry plant. She transplanted this one a couple years ago and everyday she counts the blossoms. This morning there were 34.
Vivian tends her strawberry from the trampoline. Basil pot behind it.
Green beans on the left side of bed, purple beans on the right. The colour of their leaves is really different. (I need to mulch the purple beans today). The bed behind contains tiger lilies, new apple tree, tomatillos and tomatoes.
Asparagus in the back, rhubarb and more strawberries. (Tumbler tomato in corner of box.)
Boxes are lovely but they dry out quickly… The spinach and lettuce I seeded last fall (which is usually exploding by now) didn’t make our dry spring.
…so I’ve had to replant two times! These are pepper transplants.
Severely pruned raspberries, a dying cherry tree and a hazelnut that has never produced anything.

Also True

It’s true that ten minutes ago I set down a bucket of mulch to admire a spider web stretched between two sturdy raspberry canes just beginning to leaf out. Now, the setting sun is making the grass beyond our fence glow neon green, the birds are singing and a train whistles. I have my laptop positioned perfectly so I can look at the zinnias and the bed of cucumbers I just planted while I write this. When Stan comes out of the shop he asks me what I’m doing. “Indulging myself,” I answer.

It’s also true that I wonder what my friends are up to. It’s Friday night. Are people getting together without us? Do we even have friends anymore? Will we remember how to find each other when Covid-19 is over?

It’s true that my compost pile is starting to heat. After a year of storing leaves and piling kitchen scraps on top of last year’s garden plants, I finally worked up the courage to face the mess yesterday. “What are you doing?” asked Saron when she came out of the house.

“Making soil,” I said. She perched on the fence beside me and I gave her the hose to water the pile while I stirred and jabbed and pushed and pulled and heaved the ingredients into place.

“Will you smell bad when you are finished?”

“Yes. Most definitely,” I said.

“Is this it? Did we make it already?” Saron asked when she saw me shovel some compost from the bottom of the other bin and work it into the new pile.

“Nope. It is magical but it doesn’t work quite that fast.”

It’s also true that gardening has distracted me from nagging, checking and guiding school work. Don’t want to do those novel study questions? Neither would I. Science looks boring? Come, help me plant these apple trees. Want to play in the basement all day? Great, just don’t bother me. Fiddling is more up your alley than math? Have at ‘er.

It’s true that we went to the beach this week, jumped off sand dunes and called it gym class. I took pictures and was overcome by smiling eyes, peach-coloured sweatshirts, blue sky and the taste of potato chips.

It’s also true that I’ve dropped into bed every night this week, nauseous with exhaustion, before 8:30 pm. Yesterday I had a headache and wondered if I was dehydrated. I got out of bed for a drink and had 3 scoops of peanut butter, just in case I needed more calories, while I was at it. Then I remembered why my head hurt. I had gotten mad earlier in the day, so mad that I had probably burned up some important neurological pathways.

Two children, who shall remain unnamed, had been going from room to room, intentionally farting behind closed doors to contaminate the space. When I found this out, I stormed into the bedroom (the one with white walls, white sheets, and a white loft that’s always pristine) where they were hard at work. Seeing the shysters’ sweaty little bodies and garden-dirty feet tangled in the duvet ignited me.

“How dare you fart in other people’s beds?” I yelled, trembling. While I heard myself railing against them I realized how ridiculous it all sounded, but I didn’t let myself give in to the comedy of the moment. I just wanted to be good and mad. Because really, there are so many things to be angry about on any given day, so many straws to break all of our backs.

It’s also true that I left shortly after to accompany Susanna on her paper route. When we returned an hour-and-a-half later, we were greeted with profuse apologies, multiple cards and a penitent light-up sign. I wondered, then, why I had been so fierce.

It’s true that I would like to be alone this evening, maybe in a little writing cabin at the edge of some woods, with a fern on the windowsill and a simple desk where I would think long, deep thoughts in silence.

It’s also true that I’m hungry, it’s 7:42 pm and I didn’t make supper but Susanna is pulling a saskatoon crisp out of the oven that will count for at least 2 servings of fruits and veggies for each of us. Vivian is plunking spoons into bowls she set around the table. And so I close my laptop with my mouth watering.

We had lots of help planting our plot at the community garden, though we all agree that straight rows aren’t nearly as fun as the curvy beds in our backyard garden

A DIY with pallets that has replaced some other academics
Water + dry leaves + lawn clippings + a year of kitchen waste + last year’s garden plants

Ready to cook for about 3 weeks. I’ll turn it into the empty bin and it will need another 3 weeks after that. Compost should be ready to top-dress my plants in July.
I let my asparagus creep into my rhubarb patch. They seem to get along well.
snap peas
Did you know it takes 3 years to row a large head of garlic from seed?
Tiny shoots from bulbils in the first year of garlic production from seed

This Week

On Monday I email my mentor with the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild to update him on my situation. Instead of having two days a week to myself for the apprenticeship, I now have four girls sharing 1140 square feet with me, indefinitely. Belén and Susanna are confident the school cancellations will not get in the way of my writing routine. “It’ll be no problem, Mom. You’ll probably get twice as much writing done as before because we’ll be here,” says Belén. I appreciate her optimism but I’m not sure she’s right.

Lists start blooming everywhere: taped to the wall in the dining room (What would you like to eat? Corona Virus Meal Schedule), in the hallway (Quarantine Home School Schedule), on the chalkboard (To learn and Do), and on scrap paper (To Clean and Organize). Remarkably, I haven’t written any of them. Although I love lists, it’s the older girls who have taken the initiative to organize and brainstorm. In fact, the night of the school cancellations there was only heady excitement around the kitchen table. What will we all accomplish? Learn? And make? “We’ll be geniuses by the time this is over!” one of them shouted.

On our way back from our last trip to the library

“We’re making history,” I tell them on Tuesday morning, borrowing a line my sister is using with her kids. I am still buoyed by the potential of our time together. When I hear Susanna blasting Csardas on Youtube, sitting in front of the speakers with her violin in one hand and turning up the volume with her other, trying to learn it measure by measure, I am thrilled. And when Belén takes a stack of books on wild edibles off the shelf and sketches plants it feels like we are living on the set of a modern-day Little Women movie.

But my expectations rise and fall quicker than a roller coaster. At first it’s the food. So much food. It feels like we are consuming about twice the amount we normally do. Our caloric needs haven’t changed so why am I chopping, stirring, slicing, boiling, eating and then washing every day away? Our diet is going to have to accommodate my schedule but I am not sure how that is possible.

At lunch time, on Wednesday, one of the girls sneezes and showers us all with her saliva. Chunks of ground beef and cheese fly across the table into someone else’s plate. People cringe, yell and stomp away. By mid-afternoon everyone is lethargic and there are horizontal bodies everywhere–on the couch, in beds and on the floors. This was all right for a while after lunch, but suddenly I can’t stand the the lethargy. “We’re not going to lay on the couch all day,” I announce. “So here’s a new rule: everyone gets out for at least an hour a day.” One of them snuggles deeper under a blanket, another pretends she doesn’t hear me. “Up, up, up!” I continue. “I don’t care what you do. Get exercise, get cold, get bored, just as long as you get out!”

On Thursday morning, Belén spends two hours teaching Saron and Vivi about animal tracking and hibernation habits. They read books, look for tracks while cross-country skiing, and dig under the snow to find the subnivean zone (the space between the snow pack and the ground). After they come in it is time to make the dioramas that Belén had prepared earlier by hot-gluing boxes together out of old CD cases.

When I come upstairs, from my makeshift office in the basement, I can see the situation is deteriorating rapidly. Dirt is all over the floor and their winter jackets. Vivian and Saron seemed more interested in defacing the models on the magazine pages, that Belén had put down to protect the table, than finishing their chipmunk tunnel models.

“Wow, tell me what you’re learning about,” I say, crouching at their level. The younger girls cackle and point to the pigtails, tears, beards and crowns they’ve added to the women in the photos. When I ask Vivian what animal they are studying she is unsure. “A groundhog?” she says, looking at Belén for confirmation.

“You mean chipmunk,” Belén says.

“And what are the chipmunks eating?” I ask.

“Stones,” says Saron.

“No, it’s seeds,” Belén corrects her, “sunflower seeds.”

Vivi and Saron pick up a magazine page, sending another pile of dirt to the floor, and start laughing again. Belén looks at her students then at me. “Frankly, I’m disgusted,” she mutters, referring to their behaviour.

They’re not the only ones who are having trouble focusing. My writing mentor responds to my email with some advice regarding my added responsibilities at home: “Tell your children that your bossy mentor wants you to get in four hours of writing each day and you are not to be interrupted during those hours unless someone is injured or in some kind of danger.” He is trying to be helpful and, at first, I am bolstered by his suggestions. Yes, I think, this will be no problem. We just need a routine and then I will continue with the apprenticeship like normal. But by the end of third day I look back on the last 72 hours and wonder where they all went. Divvied between porridge and reading and lasagne and groceries and bleach and five other bodies, I suppose.

This morning I wake up before my children, sit down at the kitchen table in my bathrobe and open my notebook. Last week I knew exactly where I was going with my mentorship. Now I re-read the outline of topics that I made so confidently, only days ago. The first on the list is spirituality and I wonder how, exactly, I was planning on tackling that one. I feel so discombobulated at the moment, I can’t remember having any shred of wisdom that would be worth sharing. I note 6:56 on my page and start writing anyway. Minutes go by without stopping. By the time I get to the bottom of my third page, my hand is moving so fast that my letters are big and sloppy. It doesn’t matter. It feels good to practice forming sentences this morning despite the fact it won’t “count” towards my project or constitute something I can work on with my mentor.

My friend, and writer, Kristen Krymusa, just told me she is giving herself a poetry challenge. She plans on writing one poem a day for the next week. The poems might turn out to be astonishing works of art, or they might be awful. She says she doesn’t care as long as she’s writing them. I think I want to emulate her. In these days of abrupt and unexpected transition I can’t tackle a masterpiece on God. I have to practice the small things first. Things like making my bed, braiding hair, chopping an onion, and picking up a pen. Even if it just turns into a blog post.

Rules

Dear readers,

I miss writing here. Perhaps you’ve noticed I haven’t been around much lately. Instead of writing on my blog I have been concentrating on a different project that I’m excited to share with you. But not quite yet…

In the meantime, here’s a draft that I wrote a long time ago and never published. I re-read it this morning and it made me smile, so I thought it might be worth posting. This piece was initially rejected by my senior editors (aka my children) but it’s been long enough since I wrote it that I think they’d be okay  with it now. In a effort to absolve myself further, I’ll also add that it’s a snapshot of one evening in our home and not necessarily indicative of where we are today. 🙂

If you want to read something more Christmas-y please check out the pieces I’ve written in the past for this season: Losing out: the Christmas narrative and The Jesus-thing

Your absentee blogger,

Tricia

***

Some people are rule followers, some are not. Although I might appear to be a rule follower I’ve always had a distaste for them. Now that I think about it, I may have inherited this from my parents who never instated any kind of formal house rules when we were growing up. There was a code of conduct, including things like never put a hairbrush on the table, but bigger issues like curfews and dating were dealt with by an over-arching expectation that we would make reasonable decisions. For example, I had no curfew but I knew if I wanted to stay out until 3 am I had better find a phone to let them know where was.

You can imagine, then, how I surprise myself when I announce a new rule for my own household.

“I don’t want you girls to drink alcohol unless we’re around,” I say, wringing out my dish cloth and flinging it into the sink. I turn around to repeat it to my daughters who have just come home from school.  We are in the middle of a conversation about the upcoming weekend and suddenly, without warning, without thinking about it for more than two minutes, I had made up a rule. I had grabbed impulsively for the nearest stick and drawn a line in the sand.

I say the rule a few more times, just to roll the words around in my mouth and test them out. No one drinks unless mom and dad are at the party.

When Stan comes home we sit around cabbage borscht and baguettes and I update him on my declaration. Then we remember the friend (male) who had been robbed after unknowingly consuming drugs with his drink, and another friend (female) who had been brutally violated at a house party for the same reason.

“Ugh, don’t tell me that story again,” Belén said wincing and covering up her eyes. “It was horrible enough the first time.”

I had wondered, when I first told them what had happened to the girl, if I had shared too much. I decide again, in this moment, that education is better than naiveté. Then I circle back to the rule itself. “You got it, right? No drinking unless mom and dad are around.” Who knows when it will change (consistency is not my strength; flexibility is) but for today, this is the rule.

I look around the table and finally register that Vivian is with us. Of course I knew she was here but had all but forgotten about her. I hadn’t noticed that she wasn’t eating her soup. That she was ripping her baguette into a thousand pieces, crumbs dropping all over the floor.

“You can’t eat any more bread unless you try your soup, Vivi,” I tell her.

She looks at me for a while and I assume she is going to complain that she doesn’t like the cabbage or potatoes or carrots or anything else in her bowl. Then she looks over at her dad. And her sisters who are finally paying her attention. “But I drink,” she confesses. “When I’m thirsty at Twila’s house she gives me water.”

We all stare back at her.

She continues, “I drink… without Mom and Dad,” looking at each of us for our reaction.

I’m tilting my bowl to get the last of the broth out, but I stop scraping at the sides with my spoon to process her confession.

Then we burst out laughing. Vivi repeats what she just said, that she drinks without her parents, pleased that she is the centre of attention and has lightened the mood, even though she doesn’t know what is so funny.

I make a mental note to tell my friends who look after Vivian to please encourage her to drink. Especially if she looks dehydrated when I’m not around.

The point of this piece isn’t to convince you of the validity of rules, or when your children should or shouldn’t drink alcohol. It is simply to record that we are all always grappling and learning how to live and be. May we all have enough wisdom, wit and love in our households to continue.

DSCN0437_

three daughters stomping Shelly’s cherries for homemade wine (2015)

Shots of Susanna

Susanna has wanted an Instax camera for a long time. We told her the reasons why we would absolutely not get her one: we already have enough cameras in the house, the film is expensive, the picture quality is poor and it’s another piece of plastic that will eventually end up in a garbage dump. Then, ten minutes before we sat down to eat her birthday lunch, I rushed to Walmart and bought her one. I couldn’t resist. Perhaps it was a terrible mistake or perhaps it was the right thing to do. In either case, she has one now. But the pictures don’t lend themselves to sharing online, so here’s my Polaroid version of of our thirteen-year-old Susie.

***

Susanna stands in front of the computer monitor. She wears her slouchy toque, plants her feet shoulder-width apart and holds her violin to her chin. She’s learning a new song and prefers listening, over reading the notes, to mimic the melody and phrasing.

I’m reading The Magic Fish to Vivian but I’ve read it so many times I barely need to look at the words. Instead, I watch Susanna. Even if I intended on concentrating on the book I’d be distracted. Susanna’s turned the volume up while Youtube-man plays Mazurka by E. Mlynarski as loudly as if he were playing right beside my head.

Susanna sets her jaw and purses her lips as she digs in with the bow. Her mouth twitches while she pulls hard across all four strings to emphasize each note of the chord, along with Youtube-man. In a few minutes she will switch to Madame Neruda, a fiddle tune that is fast, furious and showy. It is the kind of song that could drive a listener bonkers if they heard it repeatedly. It is also happens to be Susanna’s favourite.

***

(promoting our honey and garlic sale)

***

Older siblings shoot baskets while the thirteen-year-olds jump on the trampoline. Parents roast wieners and drink home-made cherry mead. When the sun sets, Belén and Tyler hide a trumpet in the park while the rest of the kids wait in our basement. Whoever finds the horn and blows on it first will win the game. Parents spread out across the park with strips of torn-up bed sheets, ready to tag and tie-up children to impede their progress.

After kids are hobbled, then set free; a cell phone is lost, then found; the trumpet is discovered, then blasted, we gather for birthday cake around the fire. There is a lull in conversation and I am tempted to introduce my trivia-game idea, but reconsider. Earlier in the day Susanna had instructed me—or rather, pleaded—not to bring up the game under any circumstances.

“It’ll just be some fun questions,” I countered, “to get people talking. A little competition to see how well parents know their teenagers.”

She resisted so I didn’t push it any further then. Now, with the embers glowing and people relaxing after running around in the dark, it seems like the perfect activity.

“So do you think this would be a good time for a little trivia?” I ask out loud.

Susanna buries her head in her gloves.

“There’s a big prize!” I add.

Susanna looks at the friends sitting beside her and groans. She’s monitoring their response to her mother who just won’t stop. Her face is flushed in the firelight. I am definitely one of the perils of her teenage life.

***

“I’ll go get the mail!” Susanna calls while stepping out the back door. When she returns she spreads the Canadian Tire flyer across the counter, eager to begin browsing.

“Look at this,” she says, pointing to a Roomba. “This week the price is way down!” She continues reading the details carefully and then looks up to check if anyone is listening. “Can you imagine? Clean floors without doing anything!”

No one responds. Belén is studying for her math test, I’m tearing up lettuce for a salad and Vivian is lolling around on the kitchen floor. Besides, it’s certainly not the first time we’ve heard this information.

When Susanna realizes she’s lost her audience she flips the page.

“Whoa! This is the deep-fryer we should get,” she continues. “Do you see that? It’s self-cleaning!”

Unlike her older sister, who has always dreamt of living in a sparsely decorated tiny-home, Susanna declared (at age 5) she was going to have a mansion in New York City. It appears she’ll need the space.

***

On our way home from Colorado this summer we stop at a gas station, buy a frying pan, find a stream near Mount Rushmore, and pan for gold. All because of Susanna. She’d been researching gold-panning techniques and paraphernalia for weeks before our vacation. The frying pan wasn’t exactly on her list of tools (and we didn’t get any gold) but we use it for cooking eggs sunny-side up and they turn out beautifully.

***

We’re waiting to board plane for the West Coast when I notice Susanna’s carry-on beside me on the bench. The backpack is partly open and I see packages of all shapes, colours and sizes jammed to the top.

“What on earth do you have in there?” I ask while I pull it towards me.

She grabs it quickly and pulls it back.

“For the plane!” she chirps, even though it’s 6:30 am and we’ve been up for 2 hours.

While we settle into our seats and stow baggage overhead, Susanna is busy. As usual, she’s sorting through the bags of chips, candy bars, suckers, gum and random treats she’s slowly acquired in the past year.

“Here, take this,” she says, handing me a piece of Juicy Fruit before the plane takes off. It will help your ears pop.” Then she turns to Vivi. “Do you want a red sucker or a purple one?” she asks her little sister.

“Red,” Vivian says, stretching out her hand. Meanwhile, Belén paws through the stash, finds some chocolate Susanna won at a birthday party and unwraps it.

It happens like this on every trip. Susanna cheerfully doles out tasty morsels that she’s been collecting for months, seemingly unfazed by sharing with family members who immediately consume everything they’re handed on the spot.

***

***

Susanna is sitting on a park bench at the lake’s shore, reading a Prince Edward Island tourism guide. She’s rooting for a maritime family vacation now that she’s working her way through the entire Anne of Green Gables series—for the third time.

While her dad coaches her older sister in the rowing shell, Susanna hunches over the glossy pages that she’d mail-ordered and studies each line. She will remember all the details, the layout of the biking trails, the museums and the geographical highlights, because even though we have no plans to visit the island now, we might just make it there one day. And because that’s the kind of remembering brain Susanna has.

***

Happy Birthday Girl!