Why I Care About a Mouse Tail

The moon is a small sliver and the sky is overcast tonight. Stan is trying to back our small Saturn, and trailer, down a narrow alley that borders a park at the edge of the city. The trailer hitch is short so it’s incredibly hard to back up at the best of times, never-mind doing it in pitch darkness with soft snow ready to swallow the tires. He gets stuck so I get in the driver seat while he pushes. Then we try again; I call out directions while he maneuvers the trailer back towards the fresh snow. (This is the second night of shoveling so we’ve already cleaned off the stuff that is easy to access.) Finally we make it to our destination and I start pushing up piles with the snow scoop while Stan hefts it into the trailer.

I notice a home owner peek his head out of his garage to find out what the commotion is about. He stares for awhile and then retreats and I wonder if he will tell his wife about the crazy people shoveling snow off public land. I also wonder if we actually are a tiny bit crazy.

Sweat starts to trickle down my back–under my tank-top, tee-shirt, sweatshirt and winter parka. I can hear Stan grunting while he heaves snow at his usual frenzied pace. “I wonder,” I call through my scarf that is frozen stiff, “if we’ll be nostalgic about this when we are in the old folks home. Can you imagine sitting around and talking about the days when we used to steal snow for sculpting?”

When the trailer is piled high we lumber down the block-and-a-half to our front yard and half-empty wooden box. About 3 loads later, it’s finally full to the top and ready to sit for a few days while we wait for the snow particles to bond.

About a week later, after Stan has taken the wood form apart and finished 95% of the carving, we spend a couple evenings taking care of the last details. He’s working on the mouse’s nose and teeth and I’m on a step ladder, shaping the feet.  It’s dark and quiet enough to hear the scraping sounds our tools make against the snow. “Just so you know,” I tell my husband, “I would never be doing this if I hadn’t married you.” I’m not unhappy, or even complaining about the -30 temps, I’m just stating the obvious. How marriage affects us in ways we never would have known when standing at the altar. The next night this truth becomes even more apparent.

We’re laying in bed, and just before falling asleep Stan comments, “I think the tail is too wide for the body. It would look less reptilian if we narrowed it.” I agree and roll over. Hours later, in the middle of the night, I awake for no reason. I toss and turn and think about all kinds of stuff, including the mouse’s tail. Suddenly it’s all I can think about: how I’ll need to get the saw out in the morning and shave off the sides, how the mouse’s hind legs are curved, and how the buttocks should partly cover the tail. And then I think, why on earth do I care about a mouse’s butt at stinkin’ four o’clock in the morning?

But I do care. I care because we’ve invested so much time in it already. Because snow is a beautiful thing to work with. Because people like to drive by slow and crane their necks and take pictures. Because my girls look forward to the sculpture on their yard every year. Because creating something–anything at all, even a mouse’s tail–is the opposite of apathy; it affirms that there is meaning and that we have a reason to care. And I care because I married Stan, of course. Which is the main reason why I’m worried about how a mouse’s tail comes out of its butt.

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Stan cuts off a lot of snow blocks when he starts carving–they girls love to use these in their snow forts

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Saron and Free help us pack the snow

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Unwrapping

You’d think by now I would know my own family. Some of us have been together for 14 years (our wedding anniversary is today) and we’ve spent countless hours talking, working, laughing, fighting, observing, and sharing the same space. But despite the time we’ve logged together, I’m still surprised by them. Still discovering who each one is. Still trying to figure them out. Every day, if I’m paying attention, I find more clues as to who these people are, their gifts, what makes them tick, and who I’ll want to live with when I’m an old woman.

Belén and Susanna were designing their dream homes the other day when each tried to convince me to live with them. Belén showed me her piece of paper and told Susanna confidently, “Mom will like my place. She’s more like me. See? All I want is a tiny cabin with no electricity and a garden.”

“But Mom,” Susanna interrupted her. “I don’t want that much either. Just a five-story house–you’ll live on the top floor!–with servants, a pond, and a Ferris wheel. In New York City.”

Sometimes it reminds me of the shower game where you pass around a present, unwrapping it until the music stops. Living with other people is like peeling off layers of paper; each interaction a chance to get closer to what’s inside. Raising children is one of the quickest ways to strip your spouse and exposes things we might never see otherwise. With our third child, I’m seeing a different side of Stan. It was there all along, but it took Vivian to help me see it.

Not long ago we were at church and I decided to leave Vivi in the nursery so I could go back to the service. While I slipped into the seat beside Stan he mouthed, ” Where’s Vivi?” I whispered back, feeling proud of myself. Training our older daughters to stay somewhere without us had been such a trial, an epic journey wrought with comparisons (how do other parents do it?) and worry that we pushed through. Now, I thought, he would be pleased I was launching her towards independence, but his look was more questioning than congratulatory.

About ten minutes later I was called back to the nursery. Vivian was a mess. Her face was wet and swollen and she looked like they’d left her out in a violent rain storm. Her body shuddered with each ragged breath while the young volunteer explained how they couldn’t do anything to calm her. On the way home, I told this to the rest of the family and Stan surprised me with his response. “She shouldn’t have to stay with anyone else if she doesn’t want to. Why would we take her to the nursery if we can hold her? There’s no need for it.” After pulling our car into the driveway he got out quickly, making sure he was the one who got to unbuckle Vivi and take her out of her car seat. Making sure she knew he was her rescuer. Then he nuzzled her neck all the way to the backdoor. Another layer pulled back.

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And then there are some things that never change. We took Susanna to an orthodontist recently and afterward, while thinking about all the work that needs to be done and the resulting bills, I tried to look on the bright side.

“Imagine if we were living in a garbage dump with no opportunities?” I said. “No doctors? Or dentists? You’d be stuck with your teeth problems for the rest of your life.”

To which Stan replied immediately, “Well, now. That’s not necessarily true.” Then he said without a shred of doubt, “I would do it. I would fix her teeth.” And of course I know he’s right. I can picture him now, scavenging recycled metal and rubber to wire up our daughter’s mouth.

But he’s more than just our back-up dental plan; our family would be less, and certainly do less, without him. My daughters wouldn’t be running drills or jig saws, wouldn’t be veteran back-country campers, wouldn’t be talking about Gregor Mendel’s plant experiments, simple machines, how glass fares better under compression then tension, or, should they ever be in a pinch, how they might repair their boat with spruce pitch and bear fat. This isn’t to say they’re his little protégés, that they’re always enthused, or even listening to him, but that he makes them–and us–who we are. And I’m so glad I get to keep on finding out what that means.

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Looking for newborn calves at Michelle and Kevin’s

Happy Father’s Day everyone. Keep on unwrapping while the music is still going!

Tricia

Seven Good Things

It’s Sunday afternoon and I decide to go for a walk. All by myself. While the rest of my family plays a board game. I know, crazy isn’t it–going off on my own instead of spending quality time with my husband and children? But it gets worse (or better, depending on your point of view). I head to 7-11 and attempt to purchase a few chocolate bars before realizing I’d scooped up Mexican pesos from our change box. Because I don’t have enough Canadian currency for all the bars, I buy only one. The one I like best. On my way home I nibble slowly, face towards the sun, crunching on peanuts and sucking on caramel. I walk back and forth on my own block just so I can finish it before reaching home to dispose of the evidence. While the wrapper floats to the bottom of our garbage bin I slip in the back door and try to keep from smiling suspiciously.

***

The woman ahead of me in line watches while I nose my full cart into the cashier’s lane. It doesn’t take long before she meets my eye and launches into conversation.

“Did you hear about the baby that almost drowned? It was a car crash and the mother died but they found the baby, still strapped into its seat.”

I told her I hadn’t heard the story until now. Then she added, “It was alive,” as an afterthought. “How old is your baby?”

“Seven months.”

“Mmm… babies. So many things to worry about. Terrible things. The accidents that could happen… And then, when they get bigger–”

I’m not sure I want to hear more but I say, “It must get even harder as they get older.” I sense she’s just trying to make conversation, even though she sounds like a church bell ringing the death toll, because people do that. We say weird things, even offensive things, just because we’re clumsy at connecting.

Then the man in front of her jumps in and the next moment we’re not talking about tragedy anymore, but curling. The cashier gives her opinion on the Brier and the conversation veers again while the gentleman tells us exactly what he thinks about “those Albertans.” By the time I have my bags packed I feel like I’ve been at a local coffee shop. In the parking lot I see the man who was ahead of me in line and he waves and nods. Friendly places are like this, I think, where goodbyes are needed after standing in line with strangers at the grocery store.

***

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***

The meeting is getting long and there are no windows in the room. I’m wondering if the sun will still be shining by the time we leave when a man gets up to speak. At first I lean forward to pay attention and then I realize he’s not like “us”. Not normal. I try to appear engaged but inwardly I lose interest. His gestures are getting bigger now and he’s repeating his spiel for the fourth time. I look around the room and see some smiling patronizingly; others are starting to fidget. How long will they let this guy keep going? Who has the nerve to interrupt him? His words tumble out fast, like a train building momentum–unable to stop itself even if it wanted to. Then someone else clears his throat and without pausing starts speaking over the first guy. Immediately I feel uncomfortable, dreading the public awkwardness sure to follow. But it doesn’t. The new speaker directs his words to the one he just interrupted and they come like a long, cold drink of water. What you are saying is important. I understand you. We appreciate hearing this. Thank you for sharing. Everyone relaxes. Then we are clapping. A bit of grace.

***

These books:

  1. The Story-If you think the Bible is just for little girls in pretty dresses to carry under their arm on their way to Sunday School, read this. It’s all about bloodbaths, cowardly men and woman, feuding tribes, supernatural powers, and the ancient culture that still informs the lives of millions of us today. As I’ve read I’ve laughed aloud, cringed, and most of all, wanted to know more. Was Ruth’s heart pounding when she sneaked in to wake Boaz on the threshing floor? What exactly was Saul thinking while he cowered in the supplies closet to hide from those who wanted to crown him as king?
  2. Animal Dialogues-Beautiful essays that will make you want to trek in the wilderness for days on end.
  3. Bread of Angels-More Christian stuff that’s well-written enough you might enjoy it even if you’re not Christian. I’m reading it slowly, hoping I don’t reach the end of the book.

***

Before the girls leave for school they get the birthday chair ready for their dad. Presents are wrapped, balloons inflated, and seats are lined up so the audience can watch Stan’s expression as he opens each gift. He does not disappoint. The mushroom farm elicits smiles and curiosity; the pair of chopsticks, a bear hug; the four Coffee Crisps, many lavish thank-yous. It was just what they hoped for.

***

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A pleasant moment during a photo session in which I managed to bring at least two of my children to tears.

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Be well,

Tricia

 

Wild Roses and Holland

While I write this we’re actually inside, escaping the heat. Crazy, I know. It feels down right ridiculous to run for cover from the sun–the very thing we’ve been lifting our snow white faces toward, closing our eyes and craving, for the last nine months. The girls are reading their books, but I’ve given them a time limit. It’s either that or banning the printed word and it’s pull all together. If it were up to them they’d melt into their books for days at a time, which sounds okay in theory, I mean, they’re quiet and certainly less needy in the clutches of The Babysitter’s Club, but it doesn’t feel right. Especially when I have to cajole them to come outside and play or pick wildflowers.

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cake covered in edible flowers (rose, mint leaves, and chamomile)

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We dug out the middle of the cake (to save a piece without out lactose/icing for Uncle Derek) and filled it with petals.

It’s wild rose season here. The fragrant blooms of the Rosa acicularis can be used to make tea, creams, or floral oils, but this year we just ate them. Belén also confirmed they work as “bush bandages” and help soothe mosquito bites (Beverly Grey’s advice). The petals are perfectly shaped to cover irritating welts and reduce itchiness; simply moisten the petal and stick to affected area.

Some not-so-wild flowers are the blooms on my snow pea plants. I sowed the heirloom seeds in May and the vines are are already up to my neck. (They grow 6 feet tall.) They’re a robust plant, matching the vigor of the Russian Mennonites who brought them over to Saskatchewan. I bought my first packet a few years ago from Prairie Garden Seeds and even if I didn’t like them I might feel obligated to save seeds from year to year, if only because they reflect my own heritage.

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Russian snow pea

***

Lately I’ve been thinking about expectations, and what happens when life doesn’t go as planned. I was visiting with a woman I’d just met when I asked her the kid question.

“No, I don’t have any, ” she replied. “But I wanted four.” She went on to explain more; about cancer, the unsuccessful adoption application, and their cross-country move.

I wanted to tell her I understood, that I’d tasted the bitter drink of wanting something and not getting it, but I stopped myself before I went too far. I knew I couldn’t continue, not with my belly busting out of my pants. But it was difficult because I feel for her, and all of us, who think we have control over what our families will look like, who our children turn out to be, and the direction of our lives, when there are so many surprises along the way. Hard surprises.

My friend, Shalain, forwarded this poem to me a few years ago. (I wish I could copy and paste it here but I didn’t get the author’s permission.) Emily Perl Kingsley wrote Welcome to Holland as an explanation of what it’s like to raise a child with a disability. I’ve thought of it often since my first reading, and not just in the context of kids with special needs. I cried when I read it after my miscarriage. I thought of it when I saw Shalain’s brave and beautiful daughter learning to walk, again, after one of many major surgeries. And I looked it up after my conversation with the woman who wanted four children, but has none.

We can pack for a trip to Italy, spend months or even years poring over guidebooks and looking at other people’s photos of their own Mediterranean vacations, but what happens if we never land up in Italy? What happens when our husband dies the year he retires, our kid’s spouse has an affair, or we don’t get the family/job/friends/life we imagined? What happens if we land up in Holland instead of Italy?

The poem ends positively, encouraging us to see the beauty in unexpected circumstances, but I think I like the darkest part the best. It’s the second last line that acknowledges how hard reversals can be.  Resilience, marbled with courage and bravery, is often the result of intense pressure and circumstances we rarely choose for ourselves.

***

On a more practical note, here’s a Daddy/daughter team making a trailer to haul canoes and cargo. As Susanna walked around with her finger on the drill trigger I heard Stan comment on how important it is to to handle tools to understand how they work and to “get a feel for them”. I’m not sure how much progress they made on the trailer but I’m certain she cultivated some of that tool intuition her dad was talking about…

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Thankful for wild roses, Russian seed savers, poems, and girls with tools,

Tricia

 

 

 

 

Your Marriage is Like a Fingerprint

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Year 3 of marriage–taken in Santa Cruz, Bolivia

I’m watching my girls at the pool when I start eavesdropping on the couple sitting next to me.They’re laughing and talking about their day, people they know, what they did last weekend… and it all seems terribly interesting. To them. Both are engaged in the conversation and instead of long silences or nagging questions, their conversation is injected with with laughter, eye contact and affirmation.

I’m so impressed with this husband and wife team and their animated communication, I decide to compliment them–it’s not often I see middle-aged partners exerting so much effort to connect–but before I voice my appreciation, they leave. The next week I find out I was wrong: the bubbly woman is divorced and the man whom I’d assumed to be her husband, the one who was so eager to hear what she had to say, was a new romantic interest. Of course they’re not married, I told myself, surprised I’d been duped, that’s not the way spouses act… as if they’re actually interested in each other.

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the thick of anniversary season right now. A couple weeks ago Stan and I completed thirteen committed, sacrificial blissful years years together. Tolstoy wrote that “happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but he was wrong. Happy or unhappy, every relationship is unique. The problems Stan and I have might be easily recognized by millions of other couples, but the details, the slivers that get under our skin, are wholly ours. Fortunately, it’s the same at the other end of the spectrum. What makes our marriage work might be summarized in a few lines, but the joy in our marriage also comes from the subtleties in our relationship that are as individual as our fingerprints. Sometimes these particulars make me shake my head, or grit my teeth in frustration, but they often produce a sense of gratitude and awe that make me say, “I can’t believe I found you.”

Although Stan and I don’t usually exhibit the keen interest the couple at the pool had in each other, I’m perpetually amazed by my husband because he is so, well, interesting. Who else makes their own home brew, prays passionately for their children, designs jewellery, pretends to be a luthier–and pulls it off, never leaves home without tools, likes hunting and musicals, has a heart for social justice, can sew, sing and scale mountains?

Just last week, Stan rushed to Canadian Tire at 9 pm to buy a security camera. He’d spotted a robin’s nest in one of our trees and wanted to stream a live video of the mama bird tending her eggs so our girls could keep tabs on her. While he shimmied up the tree in the dark, securing wires, I knew it was just as much for him as it was for our daughters. And it made me feel lucky. When I watch him strumming his guitar alongside Belén, coaching her on rhythm while belting out Let it Go or Katy Perry’s Roar (these two titles pretty much exhaust our pop-culture knowledge of the new millennium) and then, in the next moment, try to explain the concept of thermodynamics to Susanna, it makes me smile. I’m reminded, too, that because I married Stan, because I got him–with all his quirks, talents, and passions, my life will never be boring.

Maybe interesting isn’t how you would describe your spouse. Maybe he’s as dull as a doorknob, but gentle and patient when it comes to your screaming children. Or maybe she’s charming, charismatic and knows how to work a crowd when you’d rather shrink into the wallpaper. Likely, what makes you weak in the knees isn’t the same as what works in your best friend’s marriage. And, like the rest of life, any energy you spend comparing your relationship is probably a waste of time.

This is easier said than done. While I listened to the couple beside me at the pool I wished Stan and I were like them, with endless enthusiasm for daily conversation, broaching each new topic with  more excitement than the last. But we’re not. Admitting this doesn’t mean I don’t feel lucky. In fact, sometimes I feel sorry for other woman, knowing there’s only one Stan, and he’s already taken. He’s no chatter bug, but after thirteen years I’m still fascinated by the man I married, and this amazement makes for a deep contour in the fingerprint of our marriage.

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October, 2013

What is your marriage-print like?

Wishing you eyes to see the details that belong to the two of you,

Tricia

Be Careful

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rehearsing Minuet in G

If you’ve ever played at a music festival (the classical kind) you know how it is; the hushed whispers, the lady putting up program numbers for the next musician, the expectant waiting for the adjudicator to address the still-jittery participants, the polite applause. It’s all nerve-racking. Of course, I didn’t tell that to Belén and Susanna last week when they were getting ready to perform in the festival for the first time.

“We’re going to listen to stories and advice from another music teacher,” I said, not wanting to make them anxious. “It’ll be fun.” Important lesson: never trust another person’s definition of fun.

I fed them several other lines like these and maybe it was more for myself than for them. I wasn’t playing, not even accompanying them, but I was still nervous. And when Mamas get nervous it’s never good for anyone. Add to the nerves a little hustle and you’ve got the perfect atmosphere for saying and doing things you wish you hadn’t. Getting the rosin, guitar picks, instruments, music, and extra dress shoes into the car before 8:30 am was proceeded by a lot of barking. And we don’t have any pets.

I think The Rush is what does it most often. The other day we were hurrying to a hockey game–we thought we’d walk instead of drive–but it wasn’t the lovely stroll I’d had in mind. The side walk was an icy canyon, with mountains of crusty snow on either side, making it impossible to share the goat path with anyone else; especially my own daughters who kept jostling in front of me and then halting 2 feet afterwards. But that didn’t stop me. No way. We had somewhere to be, someplace to get to. I barreled forward, tired of accommodating, and kindness in general. Another important lesson: when being kind seems too demanding it’s best to pause, pull back and let your child walk at least 10 feet ahead, or as far away as safely possible. I pushed and elbowed my children out of the way so I could keep up my momentum undisturbed. Fed up with lurching forward on tiptoes whenever they decided to stop in front of me, I let them know it while shoving them aside, ranting about how they needed to get out of my way. Yes, that’s right, I shove small children into snow banks.

Their tears were dried by the time we made it to the game.

It’s hard to be congenial with family; the ones who are supposed to love you through thick and thin. How unfortunate the ones closest to us take the brunt of our anxiety, stress, disappointments and pressures. And how pitiful that little things, like getting to a music festival or hockey game, become ways to terrorize our children… and that it’s only normal. Unfortunately it’s not just our children who view candid clips of our worst selves, but our spouses have front row seats, too.

“Be careful,” my mom said once, after she heard a comment I made to Stan.

Be careful.

It’s not a natural impulse to be careful at home. After all, it’s supposed to be a place of refuge. A place to let your hair down. A place to be yourself and loved for who you are. And yet, the words “be careful” keep ringing in my mind. (Thanks, in part, to this Patty Griffin song)

Be careful.

When marriages are over a decade, or many decades, long it seems excessive to talk about being careful with someone who knows you so well. When children are old enough to let their mother walk in peace, being careful might seem synonymous with coddling. But being kind to those who are most vulnerable with us probably isn’t a bad idea. Yes, the human spirit is resilient but it’s also precious, and it’s best to be careful with our most precious things. I wish I could remember that all the time, not just when sitting quietly at my keyboard.

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Be careful how you bend me
Be careful where you send me
Careful how you end me
Be careful with me

…And the fun part of the festival? Well, if you ask them I think they’d say it was fun. But then, maybe they’re just remembering the ice cream treat afterwards.

-T

Do You Wanna Build a Snow Lion?

A couple months ago Stan took the girls to the movie theatre see Frozen; their very first full-feature on the big screen. (We’d been to IMAX several times but they’d never seen a regular ol’ movie at the theatre before.) Despite the fact Susanna spent a large portion of the show in the lobby, too overwhelmed by the pictures but still straining to hear the soundtrack, and that neither girl decided to wear the 3-D glasses provided–the fuzzy picture offered a sense of detachment from the action–the money was well spent. They’ve passed hours re-hashing the story line and singing the theme songs. Do You Wanna Build a Snow Man… or Let it Go, Let it Go! are some of lyrics I still hear constantly–and I mean constantly in the way that someone blinks or breathes. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I’ve banned all melodic noise from our home. When we started on our snow sculpture this weekend, Belén naturally substituted lion for man in their mantra (don’t worry–the ban is lifted periodically). Here are some pictures of the process:

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Belén had the idea… Stan started on it by making a small clay model first

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The hardest part of the whole thing is getting enough clean snow into the mold. Stan shoveled the snow off our roof into a trailer and then shoveled it, again, into the box.

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Once the snow sits in the mold for a week or two it is packed enough to carve. How Stan has the vision to see anything out of a block of snow is beyond me.

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Once Stan gets the shape roughed in the rest of us start helping…

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My favourite time to jump in is when it’s about 93% finished. I’m good at offering valuable criticism at this point.

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One of the perks of having a snow lion in our front yard is meeting our community. Stan says he’s never talked to as many locals as he did the two days he was out carving. (We’ve also noticed that ethnic minorities, like First Nation, Filipino, and Indian passersby, appear the most interested.) People often stop, take pictures, or ask a few questions. Others roll down their windows and shout responses as they drive by. It’s reminded us that human beings connect through art–even amateur attempts–and feel compelled to express appreciation, and that’s hopeful. It means there’s something in the ratty lot of us that has an appetite for beauty, or a rough semblance of it, like a snow lion. And I suppose that explains my daughters compulsion to sing three songs over and over and over again…

Appreciative, but still in favour of the ban,

Tricia