The Key to Being a Great House Guest

They say traveling fosters appreciation for your own home; I say having the right kind of guests can do the same thing. We just had family from Pennsylvania stay with us for a week and their visit was an eye-opener for us. A huge pour of vitality into our sense of place. Yes, this is what Canada is like! Yep, this is the prairies! Welcome to our piece of it! every conversation seemed to say, because they were gracious enough to appreciate the nuances we take for granted and show interest in our lives.

The day before our guests arrive my daughters and I are driving home from the lake, trying to mentally prepare for their visit. We are thinking of tips to send them as they embark on their Saskatchewan vacation. Susanna has a scrap of paper and is jotting down our ideas as we come up with them.

“There’s a subtle beauty here,” I say. “It’s not a fast-food, cheap kinda love.” Susanna scribbles it down. “You won’t be bowled over by mountains and oceans and forest.” The big sky, train whistles, and open space grow on you slowly until, one day, you find your attachment to this place goes as deep as the alfalfa roots that chisel through the soil.

We pass by a derelict farmyard. And then another. The canola is in full bloom now and green wheat carpets the fields. A clutch of old grain bins stand together, dying on the land. The wood is aged and rotting and there are gaping holes where the harvest was once kept safe. I think of the picturesque towns of Lancaster County–where our family is coming from–the antique brick buildings, tidy gardens and picket fences. “How do we describe the oldness around here?” I ask the girls. “It’s not a quaint kind of look, but more of a collapsing-in-a-swamp abandonment.”

We pencil in a few more notes and Belén suddenly comments, “You know what’s weird? All of these things sound horrible but when you put them together they describe a place I love.”

Dave, Katrina, and Eli arrive before we complete the list.  Dave helps Stan trench in electrical lines for our new workshop. Katrina makes herself at home in my garden and serves up kale and lemon balm smoothies on a daily basis. Eli slides into routine around here as if getting into an old pair of slippers: eat, play ball, read, repeat. We take them to “our” lake, go for early morning walks on the flats, and play guitar, banjo, fiddle, and the spoons. We build a stage, paint murals and host a house concert together. They have tea with our neighbour, play checkers in the park, and run errands with my girls. The whole time I am learning from them what it means to be a guest.

full patio listening to Kim de Laforest and Greg Simm

When we travel we often stay with friends or family along the way. It’s on these trips that I notice what makes a great host… fresh flowers, comfy pillows, relaxed, no-fuss attitudes. We all love how Uncle Herb and Aunt Vera offer an island full of cheeses, dips, crackers and fruit for grazing. (“Herb and Vera’s” has become common lingo in our house for putting out snacks.) Now, as we host, I am reminding myself how I want to be as a guest.

Dave, Katrina and Eli stay seven days. Seven days can be a long time. It’s 21 meals and shared bathrooms, couches and morning routines. Seven days can seem like an interminable visit or a short week, depending on the dynamics. In our case, it’s the latter and here’s why: they care about the life we are making. They show interest in our home, garden, friends, projects, weather, politics, economy, favourite books, food, and just about everything else.

I realize the most important thing you can do for your hosts is appreciate their home. This doesn’t mean pretending to like it more than your own, where corn on the cob is ready 2 months earlier and the lush countryside is as charming as a page from a storybook. It doesn’t require feigned compliments or making comparisons. It means trying to understand the culture and the community. It means asking questions. About the dragonflies, about the climate, about the plants. It means observing all you can. It means commenting on what is life-giving so that your hosts see their place with new eyes. All of this converts burden into blessing and makes your visit an honour.

Dave and Stan serenading someone to sleep?

Katrina harvesting spinach

Happy travels this summer. Now go notice and bless!

Tricia

PS. Here’s a link to Kim de Laforest and Greg Simm (the musicians we hosted) playing in a very COOL location!

PSS. And another to Katrina’s Soulful Community page 🙂

 

 

 

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Being Forty

I couldn’t wait to turn 40. This is what it is like so far…

* * *

Being 40 is running with my daughter and lagging behind. She lopes on easily and seems surprised when I can’t keep up. “What’s wrong? ” she asks. “You’re not really trying,” she suggests kindly. “You could run this fast if you wanted to.”

Being 40 is growing food, buying food, preparing food, serving food, packing food, storing food and thinking about food.

Being 40 is keeping the extra leaves in the dining room table and surplus chairs nearby for last-minute guests.

Being 40 is hanging on to your brother’s shoulder while watching the the birth of his new baby girl. It is weeping at the beauty of her glorious entrance, her head full of black hair, and the way she moves her lips as if she is trying out her mouth for the first time. Which she kinda is.

Being 40 is knowing more about–but never taming–mother nature. It is puzzling over dead watermelon transplants, shriveled beans, and spotty spinach; it is showing off my heavily-mulched garden paths, and glowing with pride over ruby-red strawberries and an early lettuce crop.

Being 40 is staunchly supporting my local library with over-due book fines. (Besides protesting provincial funding cuts by lobbying government offices.)

Being 40 is watching my husband lift a frame full of honeybees, gently scraping off the burr comb while talking to “his girls” (the bees), and wondering if there is anyone more creative, curious, and productive than the person I married.

Being 40 is craving solitude and silence and long walks alone when I can listen to the wind in the poplars.

Being 40 is dressing, feeding, serving, wiping, directing, disciplining, consoling, talking and listening to other people nearly all of my waking moments.

Being 40 is wondering what to say when my child dives into her bed, sobbing on her pillow while your heart breaks beside hers.

Being 40 is sitting on a beach with friends, who by now almost qualify for the homey title of “old friends”, talking about traditions we have started together with our families.

Being 40 is sliding into my chair at the restaurant, overhearing my mom point out to the waitress that I am the “birthday child”.

Being 40 is feeling grateful that someone still cares for and thinks of me as a child.

Being 40 is inhaling the morning-breath of my two-year old, thankful I still have a child with whom I share a mutual enthusiasm for physical affection.

Being 40 is buying a mini-van at long last and driving around the neighbourhood while my kids roll down the windows of their cavernous ride, shouting the good news of our purchase to all passersby.

Being 40 is remembering what it was like to turn 25 when I lived in Bolivia and ate a gluten-filled cake for the very last time.

Being 40 is taking ridiculously long, hot showers as a small act of rebellion in the face of the conservationist, socially-responsible life we try to lead.

Being 40 is choosing lemonade and water over any cocktail, wine or beer because I still hate the taste of alcohol.

Being 40 is wearing my experience on my skin. It is finding new saggy spots, like the eyelids that don’t stick to my eye-sockets as well as they used to.

Being 40 is strenuously weighing simple decisions while a parade of people marches through my mind. “How will she feel? Will he be happy?” I ask as I consider each person in the clamour and how they will be affected by my choices.

Being 40 is feeling like 17 one day and 57 the next.

Being 40 is waking up on an ordinary day flush with miracles. Breath. The colour green. And candles that mean I’m still alive on this spinning earth.

 

 

 

How to Build a Garage and Deceive Everyone Around You

I am continually amazed by other people’s perceptions of our life. For example, a nice lady who regularly disc-golfs in the park behind our house struck up a conversation with Stan last night. He was working on our new workshop, applying a final coat of sealant to the concrete. “You know,” she said, “I just love watching each stage of the build and how your whole family is working together on this project. You’re creating such special memories for your children!”

Later, Stan relays her comment to me I burst out laughing. Her words are hilarious because they take me by surprise and I know the reality behind the scenes she views from the park. I don’t blame her though; I might very well say the same about another family in another time or place. And when she walks by and sees a young girl up on the roof with her father, both of them laying down shingles in the late afternoon sun while their faces glow with dedication to a common goal (or is it impatience and frustration), it must be truly heartwarming. Why wouldn’t she be sentimental when she catches a glimpse of the husband-and-wife team handling sheets of OSB together, carefully securing them to the roof overhead. For all she knows they could be teasing each other lovingly as they dance around the saws and scaffolding, talking about their courting days or their dreams for the future.

What the nice disc-golfer doesn’t know is that this man’s alarm goes at 4:30 am so he can get to work at the mine and then return home to put in another few hours building before falling back into bed. Or that the wife feels pulled in a thousand directions and that she’s useless with the drill and does everything twice as slow as she should. Or that the children have been nagged, threatened and forced to work by ultimatums.

Which is why I find the casual conversation between my husband and the lady so fascinating. Honestly, wouldn’t it be great to be in the life that other people assume you are living? As far as the memory-making sentiment goes, I can only hope the patina of time photo-shops these moments into how the on-lookers perceive them. Then, one day, I will saunter down a back lane, perhaps wearing a sun-visor with my frisbee under my arm, and see a family hard at work together. And I will think, Ahh… those were the days. What precious memories they must be making.

Stan’s parents came from Indiana to help us! Here Stan and his dad are discussing the next steps…

digging a trench to insulate the concrete

I’m sorry there are no pictures of my beautiful children at work. I’m often too busy shouting at them to pick up my camera.

Chocolate feet and Vanilla Ears

It feels like I’ve had a long day already and I check the clock to confirm my suspicion. Unbelievably it reads 10:09, which means it’s still mid-morning, not even late morning! Saron and Vivi are at home with me and acting like two and five-year-olds. They want snacks, they want help with their shoes, they want me to go outside with them, they want me to come back inside with them, and the problem with this is not that they want so much, but that I do. Besides looking after them, I have my own agenda for the day. Unfortunately our agendas don’t complement each other very well. The grant application that needs to be finished, the phone call to Napa Auto for car parts, the basil that needs transplanting, or the pizza dough that needs mixing aren’t top priority for the vocal majority. When I feel myself becoming a little unhinged I know it’s time to sit and read a book with them.

“It’s Saron’s turn to pick,” I say.

Saron brings The Arrival, the book she always chooses, to the couch where she hops up beside me. When I see her choice I groan inwardly. It’s one of my favourites but it’s a graphic short story, the kind with beautiful drawings and NO WORDS, which means I have to make up the narration as we go along. Which means I don’t get to think about my to-do list as I drone on about Amelia Bedelia or Strawberry Shortcake. Which means I actually have to be engaged.

The story opens with a father leaving his home country for a new land. We talk about long journeys, learning a new language, eating strange foods, fleeing and finding a new home, migrants and refugees. When we get to the last page, the one with the migrant’s daughter helping someone else who has just arrived, we pause for a long time. Mostly because the story is so beautiful, but partly because it’s hard to know what to do with the next moment after finishing a good book.

My eyes drift to Saron’s and Vivi’s feet sticking straight off of the couch. Their toenails are long and dirty from all this barefoot weather.

“Ew! That’s disgusting. We need to cut your nails.” Nobody responds or moves as we all stare ahead, still subdued from the book.

After a bit Vivi says something and it’s far more diplomatic than my comment.

“I love your chocolate feet Saron.”

Saron looks at her feet thoughtfully. Then she looks across my lap at Vivi.

“I love your vanilla feet. And… and,” her eyes trail up and down Vivian’s body, “… your… vanilla EARS!”

Then they lean across my lap to to press their foreheads together and bathe in their mutual affection. Perhaps even they know the warm fuzzy feeling won’t last long. In the next 15 minutes they will be fighting over the trike or vying for the biggest cookie but this moment redeems my morning. It’s only 10:27 am and the day suddenly carries a little more potential.

Wishing you love for all flavours of ears and toes and moments that make your day move a little faster,

Tricia

Resurrection

All winter long we slide across our backyard ice-rink

then trek through the snow, past the naked raspberry canes,

to dispose of our garbage.

Orange peels,

mouldy spaghetti sauce,

used coffee grounds,

rotten potatoes,

and eggshells

create a frozen palette in our compost bin.

When the geese return

and the snow shrinks to reveal the muddy,

beaten grass,

it’s time.

 

*

Shalain calls to tell me her 44-year old friend is gone.

They carried her body,

piled with flowers her children laid on her,

out of her home where she died.

*

 

The pitch fork stabs through the kitchen slime and

and pulls out a tangle of last year’s tomatoe vines.

I dump in dry leaves, then stop to moisten each layer.

A season’s worth of waste begins to heat.

 

Five days after I mix the beastly pile

I check for signs of life,

plunging my hand into the rank darkness.

The deeper

I go

the warmer

it gets

until it is

not only warm

but hot

and I squeal at the same old miracle.

From the broken, discarded, trampled and rotten

springs potential.

Billions of microbes pulse with new life.

 

*

Sandy’s funeral was last week.

She was too young, too vibrant to go.

Death came anyway.

She smiles in her memorial photograph

with her arms raised triumphantly.

I wonder if any embalmer has arranged

a body in the casket like that.

*

 

Six weeks after tackling the pile

I wheelbarrow the fresh compost to its new home.

I would carry it teaspoon by teaspoon if I had to.

When I transfer it to the garden box

not a single crumble slips off my spade.

 

Everything discarded has become precious.

Bacteria sings the chorus of resurrection.

Easter hums through creation.

Death is not the end.

It never is.

Not even in a pile of garbage.

*Photo credit: http://www.readybagonline.com/blog/2014/7/8/give-composting-a-try

Happening Here

Susanna pounds out the Russian Sailor Dance on our upright piano. She plays it about five times faster, and eight times louder, than necessary. Our living area echoes with minor chords until no one hears what anyone else is saying even though we are all shouting. I marvel at the sheer quantity of sound produced by this piece of wood and metal, well over 100 years old. Once I sit down to play the teacher duet part with the bass notes, neither of us want to stop. We play it over and over, faster and faster, louder and louder, laughing and thrilled with ourselves. A half-hour later we will forget our excitement and camaraderie. A half-hour later the moment will have evaporated into anger. She will cry. I will lose my temper. She will refuse to change her attitude. I will yell. But for now we are dancing together with the ivory keys.

*

Stan is bee crazy right now. He’s ordering all the supplies and bees he needs to try bee-keeping again this spring. (The wild hive he captured a few years back didn’t make it through their first winter). He spends hours researching, contacting bee-keepers and chuckling about all the honey we’ll be harvesting. His buddy Kevin is in on it with him, and they scheme and text each other like two teenagers.

*

I wonder if the famous lines of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day are often taken out of context. The way I read it, she’s not asking people what their career plans are, what they want to stroke off their bucket list, or how they will use their influence, fame or money to leave their mark on this world. In fact, the poem is not really about doing anything but, rather, just being. It makes me happy to look at the words on our chalkboard even if nobody else who reads them has ever seen the rest of the poem.

*

Registration is now open for Wonderscape on the Prairie and I feel like I’ve just jumped off the high diving board. I’ve spent hours planning, researching venues, contacting artists and musicians, writing emails, putting details together on the website and now my role changes. As people sign up it becomes more of an experience created by the community of participants and less of the-project-that-lives-inside-my-head. Come to Last Mountain Lake, SK and be a part of it. I’d love to meet you!

*

Susanna carefully draws the mini-greenhouse and adds the label watermelon to 3 squares on our map. She and I have each made a few concessions; she gets to plant flowers and watermelon again (she insists the fruit were huge and sweet last year, I remember them as a puny waste of garden space), and I get to plant more than my share of basil and tomatoes. After all the seeds are covered and set in the sun we stare at the earthy possibility of tomatoe sauce, fresh bouquets, and dessert. A few days later I hear a shopper complaining about the price of cucumbers. “Why are they $2.50 here? They’re only a dollar at Walmart right now! ” he informs the Superstore employee. Has this man ever saved seed from a rotting cucumber? Has he ever covered this seed with a blanket of dirt and waited for it to burst forth with life? Or set his transplants out, an hour a day, to harden them to the reality of the outdoors? How many hours has he weeded and watered, then weeded some more? And what about the harvesting and cleaning? Has he stopped to think about all this while he holds a long, perfectly shaped cucumber, in the middle of March, that only costs two dollars and fifty cents?

A couple days after seeding, the first sprouts appear. We try to guess whose plants came up first; I’m rooting for the basil, Susanna hopes it’s one of hers. We consult the map and identify them as morning glories! Susanna is thrilled and so am I. They’re not edible, but they’re still a green miracle.

*

“Who wants to go for a walk?” Rebecca asks.

“I do!” Belén answers emphatically. She’s been busy lately with play practise, guitar lessons, piano lessons and youth group and is relieved to have an evening off with nothing to do but walk to nowhere. By the time they are ready to leave the house their group has swelled from two to eight walkers, ages 2 to 39. None of us want to stay inside when it is almost 7 o’clock and still light outside. Once we get out of town I shout, “Who wants to run?”

Free starts counting, “One, two, three…” and we are off. Clomping, skipping, and shuffling in snow boots, galoshes, heeled boots, and runners. We risk breaking through paper-thin ice and slide on frozen puddles, we cartwheel on a mat of dead grass, and we look at the clouds. We are like children waiting for their parents to wake up on Christmas morning. Wake up world! Wake up dead grass! The light is coming back! It’s time to wake up!

*

Susanna’s Ukrainian Easter eggs. More to come…

Becoming Family

My friend Free, her daughter Saron, Vivi, and I are wandering around Seedy Saturday together. I’ve been volunteering at the seed swap but now I want to take a look at all the other vendors before the event closes. We stop at a table selling popcorn and soon the lady behind the table is giving Saron a piece of gum. Saron pops it in her mouth, her eyes sparkling, and then asks the vendor a question. The lady doesn’t hear her at first so she asks louder, “Can I please have a another piece for my sister?”

I am holding Vivi on my hip when she makes the request and smile because I know what is coming next. Saron doesn’t have any biological siblings and her relatives live half-a-world away in Addis Ababa, but the lady doesn’t know that.

“Of course!” the lady replies and gently shakes her Dentyne container so that a shiny little square falls into Saron’s open hand. Saron quickly wraps her fingers around it, ducks behind her mom and appears before Vivian and me with an outstretched arm. “Here’s your gum Vivi! You have to chew, chew, chew!” Saron says, half-shouting like she always does when she’s excited, which is just about all the time.

“Oh,” the lady starts, looking confused and surprised, “I thought maybe you were going to take it home to your sister.”

Free and I both laugh. “We are family,” I say, but don’t explain anything more. Perhaps she thinks we are a couple; one black mom, one white mom and their blended children. Neither of us offer more information and we walk away from the table, both girls chawing vigorously.

When Free first came to Canada a year ago she wouldn’t stop cleaning my house. Whenever I begged her to put away the broom she would tell me firmly. “No Tree-sha. Like sistah.” At that point I appreciated the sentiment and was touched by her open heart, but didn’t really consider our relationship to be sister-like. Then as the months passed something changed. It happened slowly. While she and Saron slept over many nights, while her daughter fell asleep in my arms, while she taught Belén how to braid Saron’s hair, while she became Vivi’s safest place outside of our home, while we tried roasting coffee the Ethiopian way on our back step (and failed), while eating injera and kolo together, while going to doctor’s appointments, while talking on the phone with her relatives in Ethiopia, while crying together, praying together and trying to read each other’s Bibles together, while applying for jobs, while cheering on Belén’s basketball team, and of course, while cleaning together.

When the school bus is cancelled due to a blizzard, Free and Saron wade a block-and-a-half through the snow to spend the day with us. After playing a few games, watching the kids perform dance routines, and drinking tea with honey, Free tells me, “Now it’s time to go downstairs and work.” I don’t even protest because I know it’s futile; she’s already heard me talk about my to-do list for the day. “What I’m gonna do?” she says as we survey the laundry piles, boxes of material, cheese-making supplies, bags of recycling, fermenting wine, and everything else in between. I tell her I have the same question, but soon she starts organizing all my canning paraphernalia. Somehow, in the darkest corner of my basement, she manages to bring order, throwing out buckets of dried herbs and medicinal flowers, and arranging jars and lids according to size. While we work we listen to Ethiopian music, talking a little, but mostly just comfortable not saying anything at all.

When we do talk we learn a lot from each other. I tell her about our most recent trip to DC and visiting Mount Vernon, (George Washington’s estate). When I get to the part about our kids meeting a costumed interpreter dressed as a slave, I ask her if she’s familiar with American history. She is not. I wince when I talk about slave ships, cotton plantations, and then abolition. In a later conversation climate change comes up. I explain the concept of the greenhouse effect and why we choose to walk and re-use dishes whenever we can.

She isn’t the only one learning. I am fascinated by her experiences and harrowing adventures. She tells me what it was like to work for one of the wealthiest families in Yemen. How she learned Arabic, how her madam shared her husband with three other wives, and how she never told anyone about her secret church. She tells me about how she has seen the hand of God work miracles and heard his voice. She reminds me that our way of life is crazy when she makes observations about her new country. “Why don’t you talk with your neighbours more?” she asks. And, “There’s food everywhere here; at the bank, at church, in the middle of the day, at night, at meetings, anytime! Everywhere you go people are eating, and they’re not even thanking God for it.”

Free and Saron live just down the street with our dear friend Rebecca and sometimes we joke that we are one family who happen to live in 2 houses. Our little intentional community has been such an unexpected and heartwarming blessing for me, but it isn’t always easy. I make mistakes, feel bad for things I’ve said or done, and blunder through our cultural differences. When Saron yells at her mom from the back-seat of the van, I slam on the breaks and react as if it’s my own child. When the noise reaches a dangerous decibel level (Stan’s measured it), Free asks what the orange, spongy things are sticking out of Stan’s ears. “Oh, those are just ear plugs,” I explain, adding that he’s used them regularly since the children were born to help keep him calm. Which is true.

Becoming family hasn’t been quiet, quick, or easy. It certainly wasn’t expected or anticipated. But now, being family for each other is as natural as asking for another piece of gum.

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