Travels

My mom, sister, sister-in-law, and I follow each other into the crowded room to a small table near the stage.

I turn to look around at everyone squished in beside us. My mom leans over the tea-light in the middle of the table. “Do you recognize anyone?” she asks.

I crane my head to get a good look but see no familiar faces. I’m a bit surprised–even though we’re in the big city–since these seem like my kind of people and I frequented this place in years past. Then, after listening to the tattooed, dredlocked performer a while, it dawns on me. I don’t recognize anyone because I’m “old”. The first clue was the men around me; lithe, with stretched holes in their ears and funky hair, they don’t resemble the balding, beer-bellied males in my cohort. It’s hard to believe I don’t look like the 22-year old women around me either, but my sister confirms it. “Yep. Definitely younger than you,” she says.

The friends I used to know aren’t here because they’re probably doing homework with their 10-year-olds or adding toilet paper and lunchables to their grocery list. Something I’d be doing myself, if I weren’t on a girls’ weekend away.

“Do you miss this life?” Kristalyn asks me.

No. No I don’t. But I’m happy to be here now, out with my women, wondering what exactly makes me look older when I feel so young.

After my long-anticipated weekend away, Stan and I make a last-minute decision to visit his parents and brother’s family. Two flights and a seven hour drive later we’re rolling down our rental car windows, waving our pasty white arms in the warm breeze, giddy to have found spring on our way to Grandma and Grandpa’s. It seems nothing inspires patriotism more than a few budding trees; between shrieks of joy and pointing out daffodils in the ditches, Susanna asks her Dad if he remembers how to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Stan needs no other invitation and gives a heartfelt rendition, quickening all our Canadian winter-worn hearts.

DSCN7716_

DSCN7721_

Making a fort in G+G’s woods

DSCN7736_

DSCN7739_

DSCN7699_

Remember how awkward it was to play with the children of your parent’s old friends? I don’t know how these guys do it but they seem to skip through the awkwardness every year. The Haywoods’ personalities help.

DSCN7746_

helping grandpa split wood

DSCN7747_

One of the best parts, and our impetus for going, is seeing Lucy. Lucy smiling. Lucy leaning in for another kiss. Lucy bugging her brother. Lucy eating hummus. Lucy tolerating lavish attention and excessive cousin-handling…

DSCN7771_

DSCN7766_

Grandpa, Uncle Philip, Lucy and Simon

DSCN7759_

Grandma’s specialty: Easter egg treasure hunt

DSCN7794_

A day in Chicago (at the Shed aquarium) before flying home

The day after we get home Stan spots the first (local) robin of the season. He stops playing his guitar, mid-strum, and raises his hands jubilantly. “I see it!” He hoots. “I see the first robin!”

At this point chaos ensues. The first robin-sighting is a big deal around here; the observant family member gets to choose where we go out for ice cream. Susanna is crushed because it’s been years since she was the first one to see the spring robin. We try to tell her the honour is nominal–we all get to eat ice cream and we go to the same place every year, no matter who sees the bird, but she’s not convinced. Unfortunately for her the rest of us are unsympathetic because, well, the robins are back!

Happy spring (even though it snowed yesterday),

Tricia

PS. Besides robins, this book is getting me into the spring/gardening mood. If you don’t like vegetables, either growing or cooking them, you’ll find it excruciating. I can’t wait to pick it up every night–it’s almost as good as An Everlasting Meal.

A Patchwork Post: Scraps from an ordinary week

Nothing proves neighbourliness like a lion’s head rolling off. After the massacre, acquaintances and coworkers approached me with concern, wondering who was responsible for such a thing. When I told them our household was accountable they almost seemed relieved, as if we were having another unspoken conversation. Yes that’s right, we live in a place where people wouldn’t dare vandalize a snow sculpture…and isn’t it a fine little town?

The girls had been planning to destroy the sculpture for months. They finally waged war against winter, rallying forces with Jack, Ainsly, and their mom, Shelly. When Belén cried out, “I call the machete,” and Susanna yelled, “Dibs on the saw,” in front of our company I was glad for a friend like Shelly. She didn’t blink an eye.

DSCN7606_

Ready to fight with warrior paint

DSCN7608_

Unfortunately, the task was harder than they anticipated…

DSCN7612_

Stan had to make a notch in the neck so the girls could fell the massive head with their barbed-wire saw.

Shelly also didn’t blink an eye when I told her what we’d be having for dinner. I’d been experimenting with a gluten-free sourdough recipe I’d left on my counter for 4 days and was hopeful that this time would finally be the time–when the stars would align and I’d discover the traditional, wheaty-tasting sourdough I was after. (Gluten-free bakers have a lot in common with gamblers or gold diggers.) I should’ve known how it would all play out; I’ve been doing this for about 10 years–getting my hopes up and then seeing them crumble, quite literally, before my eyes.

When I piled the cracked, oblong rocks (aka my sourdough baguettes) on the table Shelly said, “Oh, I see you’ve made pocket buns.” Pocket buns, a term coined by her husband, are the kind of rolls you can put in your pocket, and after a full day of hunting in the woods, take out of your pocket and observe no change. The pocket buns will look just the same, and as hard, as they went in. Regrettably, I foresee the title, Pocket buns, getting a lot of use around here.

DSCN7603_

I was so optimistic I even took this picture before they went in the oven to document my impending success.

Susanna had a friend sleep over at our house for the very first time this weekend. She decorated the whole house in advance, taping ribbons to the walls and strewing other bric-a-brac around our living room. When her friend, Kirsi, arrived Susanna led her to a homemade pinata–constructed feverishly, only minutes before, with a cardboard box and masking tape. After the whole thing collapsed, Kirsi pawed through the shredded newspaper for treasures and found a lonely pack of gum.

“It’s half-eaten,” she observed while holding it up to Susanna.

Stan, having just retired the broomstick after the event, responded cheerfully for Susanna’s sake, “But it isn’t pre-chewed now, is it?”

I’ve read a few books lately I’d enthusiastically recommend to the right kind of reader. The first is The Hundred-Foot Journey and if you are interested in cooking, India, or France, this novel will be like a birthday present for you. And I am the child who hands over the present and wants to you to open it RIGHT NOW and tell me how much you love it. But don’t read it too fast… the author’s choice words and sensual descriptions are too rich to gobble down quickly. Another one is Pastrix, a spiritual memoir which will either offend or delight. Then, Stan suggested ordering this book for the girls, which entertains them in short bursts. Tonight, at the dinner table, after Susanna involuntarily growled at the back of her throat trying to eat my soup, I read this quote about a degustateur from the book:

Julia Rogers is a taste educator whose specialty is cheese. If you offered her a piece, she might say: “In this cheese, you can taste brown butter and nuts.” Or: “This cheese smells of ripe cream and melted butter, with just a hint of white mushrooms and earth.” … Julia believes kids are the perfect taste education students. “Kids are especially good at this because they don’t have any preconceptions about what food tastes like,” she says. “Kids don’t hesitate to say it smells like crushed rocks or it smells like poo!”

I continued reading how tasters describe sensations and smells using images unrelated to food and it somehow got us through the meal. Susanna closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on the qualities she was tasting. She borrowed “the wet spot in the basement” from the book, but then came up with “the broth tastes like wet construction paper and the scent of pine needles” all on her own. I was impressed with the pine needle comment because I did add rosemary salt for seasoning!

Lastly, we continue to pray for our niece, Lucy. I am amazed at the strength and faith of her parents, especially when I get cranky about it all. Just lately, after talking about the situation, I protested to no one in particular, “Why do we keep praying? What does God need from us? Hundreds and thousands of the same prayers? Can’t He just do something? Now?” I felt testy, ignorant, and impatient at the same time, as if I could thrash around with God like Jacob did–a story I love from Genesis 32 where Jacob is renamed “Israel” or “one who has struggled with God… and overcome.”

Belén and Susanna looked up at me and Stan took them both on his lap. After a moment Stan said, “God doesn’t want us to quit. He wants to change us. And Philip and Anne… and Lucy.”

And so we prayed again for change. For all of us.

Thanks for reading through the patches of our week,

Tricia

Cooking Class

I’m charging ahead with my shopping cart, hungry and hurried. The girls are hungry, too. They want candy, or the three raspberries priced at $7; I bag up mushrooms instead. Naturally, the store is packed at this time of day but Belén and Susanna cling to either side of the cart, making our aisle  impassable. They stop and stare at oncoming shoppers, winter parkas trailing off their shoulders, until I snap at them to move aside.  At one point I shove Belén out of the way and she stumbles into Susanna, her clumsy winter boots scuffing the floor. She looks at me accusingly and I can tell her feelings are hurt but I don’t have time to coddle anyone. Instead, I wheel past the cereal boxes and on to the milk and eggs, shouting at them to hurry up.

We make it to the checkout and schlep groceries between cart and counter. I’ve forgotten my re-usable bin so I make due with an inadequate number of bags and Susanna drops the grapes on the floor. While I’m still prickling with frustration, I feel a tap on my arm. It’s the lady who was behind us in line. She interrupts me, mid-sigh, and says, “I can tell you’re doing a good job with your children.”

I feel myself getting hot with embarrassment. Didn’t she see me shouting? Clearly her eyesight is failing her and she’s mistaken me for someone else. Regardless, I feel like I should respond somehow.

“Really?”

She continues, “You are such an affirming mother. I’ve seen you complimenting your daughters the whole way through the store.”

She’s probably senile, but on the drive home I think about what she said anyway, and repeat her observations to myself. I’m an affirming mother. I’m an affirming mother. I’m an affirming mother.

We open the back door and are greeted with disaster. I’d spent the morning writing, before going to work, instead of cleaning last night’s dishes. I thought we’d warm up a can of beans for supper and get the mess under control instead of fussing with food, but Susanna has different plans.

“Tonight is my cooking class and I’m making mini-quiches with fruit salad for dessert, remember?”

I had, in fact, promised them each cooking lessons–including the preparation of mini-quiches–but that was earlier in the week. Before I was tired, hungry and the kitchen was messy. Then I remember what the lady said, and soon we’re cracking eggs and getting fallen bits of grated cheese stuck to our socks.

When Stan comes home he checks my face immediately, like he always does. It’s a sensitive, sweet habit that drives me crazy. Most of the time, when he gauges the atmosphere by my countenance, he responds with worry and exhaustion. “That bad, huh?” is his usual line, but today I must not look as haggard as normal. (I’m an affirming mother after all!) Instead of shuddering, he bounds up the stairs and into a storm of shredded potatoes and melon rinds, with Susanna at its center.

We finally sit down to eat at 7:00, an hour and a half later than we might have eaten the beans. I’m hungry… but oh, so affirming. The quiches are burnt and I can barely get them out of the pan; Susanna serves them with aplomb anyway.

I’m a teacher, and I hear about the importance of motivation, thoughtful observation, and positivity all the time. What I don’t normally notice is how it affects my performance. And even though the stranger’s compliment hasn’t changed my life, or had lasting effects (I’m reliably irritable and still impatient after school), I know for certain I would’ve never considered the cooking class if her words hadn’t been rumbling around in my mind. Mini-quiches are insignificant; specific and thoughtful encouragement is not. Now, if I can just remember that when we make feijoada tonight…

DSCN7436_

Belén, rinsing beans she soaked the night before.

This cooking-lesson-thing has only just begun–we’re on our fourth meal (they get one meal, each, per week)–so it’s too early to tell how it’s going. Most initiatives, like chore charts, allowances, etc., are very short-lived around here; we tend to do things in fits and starts. I’d envisioned talking the girls through my own version of the Joy of Cooking, while  sharing secrets of olive oil and buttermilk, like the Mexican cook in Like Water for Chocolate (a love story with foody bits). In reality, I’m mostly wiping up spills and yelling things like, No, not yet! or Be careful when you stir! but by the time we get to the table there’s always one proud chef.

“What flavours do you like the best?” she’ll often ask, prompting us for compliments.

When no one answers right away it’s a good sign. Silence means mouths full of food, and that’s just about as affirming as my kind stranger in the grocery store.

Tricia

PS. This post didn’t start out to be about shopping and cooking, but something much closer to my heart. I soon deleted what I had because I didn’t know how, or what exactly, I wanted to say. The subject I’d begun with was Lucy, of course. When I published my last post, I hadn’t heard yet that her situation had changed. If you are interested you can go to We Love Lucy to read about specifics and pray with us. Here’s what Anne (Lucy’s mom; my sister-in-law) wrote on Facebook yesterday. I’m taking the liberty of copying it here because it’s more poignant than anything I could come up with, and it’s worth reading again.

I posted this two years ago, today:

“We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”
cs lewis

Where All the Children are Above Average

DSCN7404_

The final rehearsal at Shivering Strings–a music camp for fiddle, banjo, guitar, and keyboard players.

I lean across the table and ask the lady with the arched eyebrows my question for the third time. I want to know how she does it, or rather, how she makes her daughter do it.

“Tell me your schedule,” I press. “I want to know how you spend every hour of every day.”

If this mom is taken aback by my interrogation she doesn’t show it. I think she senses my fascination and that I’m truly curious how anyone manages to get a 10-year-old to practise violin for two hours a day–on top of competitive dance, voice lessons, and musical theatre.

DSCN7402_

Belén working up calluses with those pesky bar chords!

DSCN7392_

Susanna plays by ear so this camp was a stretch for her. (Other events we’ve attended like this have discouraged any note-reading.)

She explains how they practise an hour in the morning (she plays along with her daughter during every practise) and another hour in the evening. On weekends they play for three hours, or more, per day. When she sees my mouth hanging open she gives me more details.

“I’ve set up a schedule with my computer and we follow it strictly; there’s no other way to fit in the dance and singing classes if we’re not organized.”

I must be wide-eyed, still, because she tries again with a smile.

“… Have you ever read the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?”

I’ve not read the book–reading about the book was enough for me–but I appreciate her willingness to offer artifacts from her culture to help me understand where she’s coming from.

“When do you sleep?” I ask now, steering my attention to the girl. I might’ve asked about play (as in toys, trees and neighbourhood kids) but I’d heard enough to know it wasn’t in the week-day schedule.

“I go to bed around 9:30 or 10,” she answers, which leads to my next question about homeschooling. Perhaps I’ve found their secret; they must slave away every evening only to sleep in and watch cartoons before a late-morning practise!

I quickly learn they don’t watch TV and that she attends a French Immersion school (where all content area is taught in French–one more thing for her to learn.) As we continue visiting I’m beginning to realize there might not be any secret to discover. If she wants to be a serious violinist when she grows up, as she claims, she needs to spend her childhood practising. If this beautiful mother, who wants so much more for her child than she ever had, intends to push her daughter through the easy inlet of average and on to the spawning grounds of excellence, she needs to insist on structure and discipline. Just as salmon leap onward against the current, neither mother, nor daughter, can afford any backward glances at the lowlands.

I feel like an ethnographer interviewing someone from a foreign tribe and I’m trying to memorize everything she says so I can report it all to Stan. Later on, when I repeat the conversation I’ll hesitate for a moment, not sure I want to offer him free fuel for his argument against mediocrity. Because while I have my feet firmly planted on middle-ground, Stan is skeptical of my enthusiasm for being unexceptional. Of course, this also plays into our expectations for our own children and how we parent. While I wax poetic about being well-rounded, happy, healthy, and socially apt, Stan points out examples of people who capitalize on their capabilities through sweat and tears, to inspire us to reach higher.

DSCN7399_

Stan has never taken guitar lessons, so this was his first chance to learn along with his daughter in a slightly more formal setting than our living room.

DSCN7393_

Susanna and I were in the same class. Although she is much better at playing by ear, I can read music, so together we made a good team.

My favourite part of the American radio show, Prairie Home Companion, is the line Garrison Keillor uses to describe Lake Wobegone, “where all the woman are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Come on, admit it… didn’t we all want to be strong, good-looking, and above average–before we we realized we probably couldn’t pull it off? And then, wasn’t it easy to hope that perhaps those fleshy little lumps, carrying bits and pieces of ourselves and even our last names, could do better than we did?

After meeting beautiful-tiger-mamma, I’ve changed a bit this week. I’ve mandated longer practises (the actual play time is now equal to the portion of the practise spent going to the bathroom, tuning, rosining the bow, adjusting the music stand, etc). I’ve been pickier. I’ve yelled more. And honestly, it’s been a drag. Through it all, I’ve also thought about Lucy. (If you’re new here, she’s my one-year old niece who’s been battling cancer for 5 months). And after all those tears, prayers, fevers and waves of hopelessness, she’s still here! As she fought her way through her last round of chemo with smiles and new sets of eyelashes, I had this wild yell building up inside that I couldn’t wait to shout: “SHE’S GONNA LIVE! Thank you Jesus!” Do I care if she becomes an accomplished musician? Does it matter if she’ll ever shoot a three-pointer? (Well, maybe to her dad.:)) Does she have to “make something of herself” to make her recovery worthwhile? No. Her life is precious because she’s got it.

And the crazy thing is, our children have the same gift she’s been given. It’s hard to remember when I’m pushing, negotiating, demanding and cajoling, but it’s true. They’re here! They’re alive and well! Their lives are worthwhile whether they can play perfectly on tune, or not.

…But, I’m still going to wake them for an early-morning practise tomorrow. They can thank tiger-mamma for that one.

Near the median, and sincerely yours,

Tricia

PS. I  never got to explaining the pictures very well, did I? They were taken last weekend at a 2-day music camp in Saskatoon which included a dance, concert, and hours of old-time, Cajun, Quebecois and Metis music.

Lucy

There’s nothing quite like leaving your baby for the first time. The day after Susanna was born I went for a walk, by myself. As cars passed and pedestrians crossed my path, I wondered if everyone knew what had just happened. Did they know why I was shuffling along slower than usual? Could they sense I’d given birth, just hours ago, on my own bed only a block, or two, away? My tender abdomen and swollen breasts reminded me of my recent labour and on one hand, it seemed ridiculous my feat wasn’t obvious to passersby. On the other hand, it was my own precious secret.

As people went on with their ho-hum lives, answering phone calls and filling up their cars with gas, I had brought a new human being to this world. When Susanna gulped her first molecules of oxygen, and I lay shaking with exhaustion and wet with sweat, my neighbour was probably feeding her cats or sweeping the floor. While the rest of world went on as normal, Susanna had inched her way out of me and with every contraction I, too, felt myself inching towards a strange place. A borderland, where the newness of life seems awfully close to death, and where a bellow of pain, in one slippery second, can turn into a gasp of relief accompanied by a baby’s first cry.

In the same way that panting through childbirth made me feel privy to a different reality, so did living in Bolivia. Of course, during the years we lived there I wasn’t in a constant state of enlightenment, but after we returned to Canada, I’d get flashes of perspective when I remembered where we’d been. This was especially helpful as a substitute teacher facing high schoolers I didn’t know—half of whom were bigger than me, most were apathetic, and a few were angry and offensive. To keep from being intimidated by the latter, I’d think of Bolivia. Of clambering onto a truckload of corn and sliding around the muddy curves of the Inca Wasi, where graves dot the side of the road instead of guardrails. I’d think of my friend, Lucia, who told me she cried at night when she was worried about what she’d feed her family the next morning.

And so, when some fifteen-year-old would tell me to “F— off”, I’d reflect (in a 3-second-sweaty-armpit way) that if I could learn a tonal language, survive parasites and wash my clothes in a river, I didn’t have to be scared of an adolescent tantrum. Secondly, I reminded myself of the world outside the classroom; even though the kid in front of me was making a fuss, millions of other people were foraging for food and fighting for their survival at the very same moment.

Thinking about where I’d been at times like these, was like tapping into a confidential file. Not that my personal experiences made me better than everyone else, but they reminded me more is happening on our planet than the daily circumstances in front of me. The secret feeling I had after having a baby, or returning from an indigenous community in South America, came from getting a peek at the edge of life and my own mortality. These experiences illuminate the tight-rope we’re all walking on, when most of the time we barrel forward distractedly, not even aware we’re dancing on a 2-inch thick cable.

It happened again when Stan called me, while I was on the road, to tell me about Lucy. Before he even started, I knew something was wrong by his voice. It was soft, sad and sorry at the same time.

“They think she’s got cancer,” he told me, and then said it again when I responded in disbelief.

How could I believe my eighth-month-old niece has cancer, when a few weeks before she was standing in my lap, pumping her legs and grinning with one slobbery fist in her mouth? (The details of this position may not be completely accurate since my sweet, baby-snatching daughter, Susanna, whisked her away every time I’d get her.) How could I imagine what Philip and Anne, Stan’s brother and his wife, were going through when we’d just spent days lazing around a pool together, playing tennis, and challenging each other to foot races? (Philip is the fastest sprinter of the four of us, by the way.)

Over the next several hours, on my drive home, I had that same secret feeling. Only this time it was awful, and instead of making me braver or wiser, it left a taste in my mouth of something gone desperately wrong. When I stopped for food, I numbly paid for my meal while customers around me laughed at dumb jokes and poured cream into their coffees, not knowing how the world had changed. Not knowing that nothing will ever be the same—no matter what happens–for Lucy, Philip, Anne, and the rest of us who care, again.

As Lucy undergoes chemotherapy and her little, but fierce, body fights to survive, I am praying every day. In fact, I know people that don’t even pray, who are praying. We are praying she won’t suffer the side effects of the treatment, that she can still breastfeed, that she sleeps peacefully, that she doesn’t remember any of this when it’s over, that Philip and Anne don’t lose their minds–or their patience and love for each other, that Lucy’s big brother is protected from the pain around him, and that Lucy lives.

But I’m also praying for something else. I’m praying that if there are others like me who are pushed just a little closer to the edge, out of the blinding normalcy of work and every-day routines, because of Lucy they find something else besides a dark chasm. And that when they cry for Help, whether cynical, apathetic, or angry, swinging their arms wildly to maintain balance on the wire, Jesus meets them right where they are.

If you are able, please pray for Lucy. If you aren’t up for prayer, start a conversation with someone about the moments you’ve experienced “the edge” in your life and how it affected you. Either way, I wish you peace, wisdom and strength for the length of tight-rope you’re walking today,

Tricia

Aunty Anne finally gets a chance to hold her own baby!

Lucy and her beautiful mama, Anne (photo taken in April)