Notes on Generosity, Writing and Change

I’m wearing gloves and wielding a knife. Jalapeños litter my cutting board and papery garlic skins float along the counter. My mom is dumping a bowl of green peppers into the food processor when the phone company technician opens our back door and sniffs.

“Mmm, smells good,” he says with an accent. Indian, maybe? He nods appreciatively and  heads down the basement stairs, pulling wires behind him.

“It’s a lot of garlic and onions,” I say. “We’re making salsa.”

Each trip he makes to his truck in the alley he inspects my yard with interest. When he comes back in he asks me about the raspberries, plums, grapes and other plants. Then, just before he leaves I hand him a plastic grocery bag, throwing it into the air to puff it out. “Here. Do you eat tomatoes? Hot peppers? Take all you want!”

I turn around and get back to work. For the next 15 minutes I’m in a dark corner of my basement, sorting through canning jars and looking for lids. At the same time he is stuffing the bag I gave him, harvesting every ripe and juicy tomato on the property. His shopping bag bulges to overflowing with produce. When I come upstairs with my load of jars he is gone.

“Well he certainly took your word for it. He grabbed as much as he wanted,” my mom comments while looking out the kitchen window at the garden.

The heirloom Brandywine tomatoes I was waiting for, heavy on the vine but not quite ready, are gone. As are the romas–the ones destined for another batch of sauce and the beefsteaks. “Mmm,” I respond at first, not too bothered. But then I start thinking of all the hours of labour, of starting seeds from scratch in my window, gingerly handling the transplants, mulching with last season’s leaves, of watering and tending. That’s when I get a little ornery. I had, after all, expected him to say “Oh thank you so much” and take a dozen or so back to his wife in Saskatoon. I had not expected him to ravage every last plant.

I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass  by Robin Wall Kimmerer and loved her essay on generosity and gift economy. It gave me such warm fuzzy feelings in my armchair. I had murmured in agreement and savoured every word. Obviously, the philosophy of lavish generosity is easier for me to swallow than the practise.

The earth on the other hand, especially at this time of year, seems to stick to the “no holds barred” motto. We spin out honey, stuff moose sausage, make wine, dry garlic, catch fish and yet we still can’t keep up to her. Gifts spill over and around us.

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plums, melons and grapes are now in season on our lot

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PREFACE- Six days. Three boats. Four adults. Six kids. Five portages. Three bears. Zero attacks.

On the way to meet my sister and her family for our adventure I say to the kids, “So there will be more portaging on this trip than we’ve ever done before but we’ll just enjoy the hiking. Maybe stop for snacks, you know, or sketch wildflowers…”

Stan shifts in his seat and reaches his hand to adjust the rear-view mirror. “Well, we don’t want it to be too easy do we? We still want it to be character-building.”

EPILOGUE – I lay in bed for 2 days after the trip. I thought I had maybe caught a bug–my whole body ached and my fingers felt arthritic. Turns out I was just recuperating from all the character-building portages.

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before the launch

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Tara and I paddled with 4 kids. Our canoe was dubbed the “voyageur school bus” or the “party canoe”.  The men and two other kids traveled with the gear.

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totally posed at the beginning of an arduous portage

In a few years those delicate bodies pictured above will be strapping young men and women able to shoulder most of our weight. What a day that will be! They owe us a canoe trip or two.

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Day 6

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*

Back to school. Back to routine. Back to sticking around our home. Summer is fast, furious and fleeting like the heat. “You can sleep in winter; we don’t have time for that in summer,” I tell the kids when they tire of our pack-go-unpack-repack routine. With all of this going it has been hard to squeeze in writing. I still want to find words for speaking at camp, kitchen parties and growing food but am not sure when it will happen. I have started an essay about canoe tripping and listening. I will submit it somewhere eventually, because that’s writers do.

That’s when a writer is successful–when she is submitting, not when her article is accepted, not when she’s long-listed for the CBC non-fiction prize (which I wasn’t, Kirsten) and not when an agent hunts her down. She is successful when she cracks open her laptop. When she punches out a jumbled paragraph, when she lands on a metaphor in the shower. A writer is successful when she’s writing.

Can you tell I’m getting ready for Wonderscape? And can you guess what the theme of the retreat is?

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Coming up in 10 days…

Success, Failure and YourCreative Journey(1)

Can’t wait to gather with strangers and friends from around the country. Every year it’s been magical. Hopeful this year will be the same. (There’s been a cancellation; check out this page for your last minute chance!)

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Change is a constant around here. Changing shoe sizes. Changing instruments (cello and trombone have been added to the mix). Changing heights. Changing accents. (Vivian has been experimenting with articulation, specifically her hard Rs. I try to remain non-chalant every time I hear it, but it’s about as sharp and conspicious as a machete.)

One thing that never seems to change is the big girls’ devotion to the little girl. I smile when I remember the well-meaning visitor who came to visit two days after Vivi was born. She watched Susanna and Belén flutter around the baby, sighed and commented knowingly, “This won’t last long. Give them two weeks and the novelty will wear off.”

Well, it’s been four years and here they are, fighting at the table, each older sister desperate to show Vivi how to draw an uppercase E at the same time. This is a kind of bickering for which I am entirely grateful.

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I’ve written so much. Thanks for reading.

T

 

 

Eating My Words

When my oldest daughter was a toddler she was always impeccably dressed. Her wardrobe, full of cute shoes, colourful tights, adorable tunics and matching vests, was the result of our family and friends’ generosity. When Stan and I returned from years of volunteer service in Bolivia, expecting a child, we were showered with more clothes than we knew what to do with. And Belén wore them all.

As I paraded Belén around I felt sorry for other mothers who didn’t have the wherewithal or resources to properly clothe their children. One friend, in particular, puzzled me in this regard. Although they had enough money, her youngest daughter always looked disheveled. Unkempt, even. I wondered why she wouldn’t take a little more care with her child. Did she know how sloppy she looked? How haphazard her daughter’s outfits were; sweatpants stuffed into scuffed cowboy boots, scrappy t-shirts layered with gauze blouses, and most of it faded, stained or ripped? Was there no one in charge of dressing her?

I remember getting Belén ready, before an outing with this family, thinking the parents might take note of my daughter’s coordinated outfits and be inspired to try a little harder…

Wince.

That was over a decade ago.

Things have changed.

I now eat my (unsaid) words daily, one crazy ensemble at a time.

Yesterday my three-year-old wore a pair of pants, sized at 6 months, with holes all over them. “I’m just like Belén,” she said, comparing herself to her 13-year-old sister whose brand new jeans are perfectly ripped and torn. To a birthday party last weekend she wore a summer dress (this, in December) with mud stains and a pair of dirty tights. And I let her.

When Vivian wears her pink-stripped sundress with the too-big sparkly skirt and ripped tights with mismatching socks I look at her and wonder how it happened. Did my older daughters put up such a fight when it came to getting dressed? Did they have the same sensitivities and opinions on fabric and design? And if so, did I simply plow ahead to get them into appropriate clothing? All I know is that whatever energy and resolve it took to get the job done then is gone now.

One morning before we head out–after Vivian is finally dressed, after our daily fight and her daily victory–she looks at me and smiles.

“Mommy, am I perfect?” she asks, showing her little teeth and gums, while she twirls around.

I eye her warily. I’m annoyed and still sweaty from trying to get the brand new jeans on her that she hasn’t ever worn. Is this a test? How do I answer and still hold on to any shred of power?

“Yes,” I sigh. “Yes, you are perfect.” Then I think of the other mom, the one I didn’t understand years ago, the one I pitied and hoped to enlighten with my own fashion sense. I send my silent apology for all my ignorance out to the universe and tremble. What ridiculous ideas do I have now that will be laughable in 10 years?

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Waiting and Watching; Advent 2017

It feels like we’ve been celebrating advent for awhile around here. The waiting part, that is. Susanna has been battling a lung infection for the last two weeks and we’ve all spent many hours rubbing her back, wiping her brow, giving her medicine, serving her orange juice, and waiting, waiting, waiting for her to get better.

A friend stopped by yesterday and when she saw Susie laying on the couch she exclaimed, “I knew something was wrong! I barely recognized her voice on the phone because it sounded so normal!” Instead of the usual fake accent and you’ve-reached-the-pizza-parlour, or some other crazy response, it was only a weak “Hello” that threw our friend off.

Waiting for Susanna to return to her exuberant self is a little like the waiting we do before Christmas. During advent we are waiting for Jesus, waiting for the Light to pierce the darkness, waiting for brokenness to be made whole, waiting for the restoration promised us by a baby born centuries ago. But advent (meaning a coming or approach)  is also about celebrating the arrival; that Divinity, indeed, has already come and is here with us.

I draw up a new chalkboard sign to remind me of all this, but I’m not sure it helps. I’m still trying to figure out presents and am worried I don’t have enough. I stress about coordinating holiday plans and dates and traveling. But I see a glimmer of hope. I don’t worry about the baking (we all know I’ve given up on that one) and I notice things. Like this…

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I’m washing dishes when I overhear Vivian playing “refugees” for a second time this week. I dry my hands on a towel and walk over to watch her where she can’t see me.

“We have to go. Pack up every-fing” she says herding plastic figurines into a toy van. Ernie, Bert, Polly-Pocket and a pony, or two, are fleeing together. “It’s a new country,” she murmurs to herself and her toys. “You’ll be safe here,” she reassures them.

*

I’ve had a bad day and feel like crying. I call Stan to see when he’ll be home and if I have time to go for a walk. “I’ll be there in 15 minutes,” he says.  I decide to stay home so we can eat as soon as he arrives. A moment later he calls me back. “Don’t wait,” he says. “Go for a walk now. The sun is setting and you’ll like it.”

*

I take Belén home after a midnight pool party with the youth group. Instead of going straight to bed, we plug in the kettle and brew some tea. She looks at my literary magazine on the table, the one with the weird poetry that neither of us understand, and makes fun of it. Then she tells me about an image from her day that she wishes she could capture.

“Why don’t you write about it in your journal?” I suggest.

“Ugh! No way! That’s too much work. Besides, it’s frustrating. It’s like I’ve got all these words, but when I put them together they don’t hold anything. Like an empty box.”

“Mmm,” I say while sipping my tea, glad she’s not journaling after all. Glad she’s talking to me.

*

The Cree drummer and pow-wow singer invites everyone from the bleachers onto the gymnasium floor. He tells us to hold hands and dance in a circle. Slowly people get out of their seats and reach for other hands. The singer beats his drum and wails his foreign melody while we step in time. I see the Nigerian obstetrician, whose clinic is just down the street, and the Jamaican lady who works at McDonald’s. The politicians, who came to deliver their obligatory speeches, are now holding hands with mothers who have babies on their hips. The Indian dancers, dressed in white turbans and tunics, slide along beside old men with stiff legs and cowboy boots.

*

I’m not sure how, or why, but in these moments I feel Advent. I feel His coming. These random, mostly-normal moments in my mostly-normal week are reminders for me. God is here… in my three-year-old’s empathy, in my husband’s prompt to watch the sunset, in late-night conversations with my teenager, in a round dance, and in the waiting for Susanna to get better.

Let’s keep waiting and watching together.

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Resources: We watched this 2-minute video in church this last week and it got me thinking about advent again. Also, this post by Rachel Held Evans gave me some ideas that we will use this season.

 

Failure #15: Explaining 13 years

I open my email and read the new message:

Can you send me your bio by Nov. 1?

Vivi is playing on the couch beside me, snot running down to her lips while she narrates the drama between her stuffies. She seems happy enough so I wipe her up and decide to respond right away. This won’t take long, I think. All I need to do is copy and paste, then tweak it a little.

I scrap a few phrases and re-read the paragraph that’s left. I can explain why I spent four years in Bolivia, wandering dirt roads and drinking chicha, but the 13 years that follow–when I started having a family–are harder to summarize. I write a couple sentences that seem awkward and vague at best. How do I spin staying at home, for more than a decade, with a professional sheen? I type some more, read it out aloud and immediately press delete. Not right again. It takes me the entire morning, between snacks and laundry and picture books, to come up with something reasonable. My failure is not the choice I made to work at home with my children (and community)–that’s something I’ll never regret. My failure is the limp words I use to describe it.

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Halloween cowgirl

*I’m curious about failure. This post is part of an experiment where I observe moments I experience failure (in a broad sense) and record scenes without adding further explanation or perspective.  Read more in the introduction to the series here.

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

The gift of the almighty “NO”

Vivian has learned to put two very important phonemes together: the almighty /n/ and /o/. As she toddles around the house shrieking, whispering, chanting, singing, and repeating them over and over, she appears to get a charge out of simply uttering the word. Like a kid revving a dirt bike with more kick than they can handle, Vivian’s throttle is stuck on no and she’s loving the wild ride.

“Do you want some milk Vivian?”

“No.”

“Do you want me to pick you up?”

“NO.”

“Do you want a cracker?”

“NO!”

“Do you want to run around naked?”

“No-ooooh!”

Of course, she ends up taking the sip of milk, wants to be picked up, is reaching for the cracker, and loves running around naked. You might wonder then if she even knows what she’s saying, but she understands alright; the expression in her voice proves it. The sharp /n/ coupled with the stacatto /o/ belies her intentions. Dramatic body language often accompanies her verbal rejections. When she senses we might want her to stay put or come near, she arches her back, propels her tummy forward and sprint-toddles in the opposite direction. This, while yelling no, of course. She is clearly thrilled with her negative feedback and the fact she is the one in charge of giving it.

This newest obsession is different than her other antics. While writing on the walls, climbing on the piano, playing in the toilet, rummaging through garbage cans, and throwing books at me while I’m in the shower, might be troublesome from my perspective, that isn’t her intent. When she does these things she is simply exploring her world and leaving a trail of chaos in her wake.  With “no” however, being troublesome is the point. It is a conscious, even joyful, display of obstinacy. I imagine her growing sense of identity–that part of her just now realizing she’s a separate individual–clapping it’s hands gleefully while she decides I think I’ll be difficult today just for the fun of it! Just because I can!

Of all the gifts life offers us, this is one of them; the ability to choose the way we respond. Regardless of what life hands us we can decide if we want to be pleasant or disagreeable, to rage or keep silent, to ignore or address, to whisper or yell, to hit or hug, to yell no or yes. And what a marvelous gift this is. Is it any wonder Vivian can’t get enough of it? What power, what influence, what control is afforded us with our reactions!

Something terrible happened a few days ago. Our friend Jason died. He wasn’t just a friend though, he was his wife’s high-school sweetheart, his son’s favourite place to sleep, his daughter’s biggest fan (and security agent), and the best fishing guide our family ever had. I am still not sure how to write about it; I will need some time to think about it first. What I do know, what is easy to write about, is the beautiful way his wife Shelly has responded. She is the one we’ve all looked to, watching to see when it’s time to panic and waiting for her signal. But she never sounded the alarm. Instead, she opened her home and invited us for trout supper. She let family live with and care for them, week after week, so they could be part of her journey. She lay beside her husband in their own bed until the very end, reliving memories and making him feel safe. She planned a funeral with ice cream sundaes and mini-sticks. Shelly is answering the ugliness and pain with grace and spirit and although she and her 41-year-old husband were powerless to the cancer cells, neither gave up control of choosing bravery instead of despair, celebration instead of defeat, love instead of bitterness, and the hearts-open-and-honest bigger life instead of the isolated smaller life. For their children, for me, and many others, that has made all the difference.

During these last few weeks, knowing this hard thing was about to happen, nothing else seemed important enough to write about. But I was mistaken. Everything’s important. Every little thing is important and worth writing about. When, if not now, should we notice the December sun shining on the red willows? How my 83-year-old neighbour uses her new cane with panache? Or the way Vivian’s belly button sticks out when she’s running away from us? These ordinary details are worth paying attention to; Jason would tell you that if he were here. Vivi might even tell you this if she had more vocabulary, but she’s only got her NO and that’s amazing enough.

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cutting red willow for our Christmas “tree”

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Not about lacto-fermented carrots

I’ve read that successful bloggers always have something to offer their readers: a recipe, a bullet-point list on raising children, or step-by-step instructions for homemade deodorant. When I started this blog I anticipated doing the same but I don’t have nearly enough helpful hints as I thought. Take for example, my lacto-fermented carrots. I took pictures while chopping and prepping them, sure the process would be ideal blog material and today, three weeks later, when I should be uploading those photos all I want to write about is the November rain collecting like beads of glass on the plum tree, or the faint smell of smoke on my husband’s neck after he checks his honeybees. My inclination towards the poetic, instead of the practical, is partly due to the way my experiments usually turn out. Out of the six jars of pickled carrots, three are developing a furry cap of blue-green mold (more adventurous fermenters wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a little surface mold but I don’t need to eat carrots that bad). The other three jars turned out perfect, full of crunchy, zingy carrots marinating in probiotic goodness, but a success rate of 50% takes the wind out of my publishing sails. And even if I had loads of fail-proof DIY advice I’m too self-indulgent to dispense it. It’s more fun, and even addictive, to describe than prescribe. To relive a conversation or a scene that touched me, or made me laugh, or for some reason I don’t even understand won’t leave me alone. So today, all I have to offer are my eyes. It’s quite likely you’ll walk away empty-handed and for this I am sorry; you can scroll to the end of the post to find a link on fermenting carrots.

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The line of vehicles outside my friend’s house surprises me. Could there be that many people here? I see the women through the lit-up kitchen window and her uncles and nephews in the driveway. A few of them are building a hunting blind and others are smoking in the garage. As soon as I step inside I’m offered a chair at the table and a drink. The baseball game plays on TV while one auntie snuggles her nephew in the recliner and another serves up beef on a bun. Grandma sits at the table, listening to her daughters and granddaughters make each other laugh. If a stranger walked in they wouldn’t guess anyone was sick here, but they’d be impressed by how much these people like each other. And they’d be right on the latter account. It reminds me of the velorios, or wakes, in the Bolivian village where I used to live–how the entire community would gather in the house of the bereaved family all night long, visiting, wailing, joking, playing drinking games and eating, but never leaving the family to face the dark alone.

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The boy from down the street takes off his superhero mask when he comes to our door for treats. I hold Vivi with one arm while I drop chips and chocolate bars into his bag with the other. When they leave, Vivi starts barking (a breathy impression, vaguely reminiscent of the sound dogs make) and I know why. She’s trying to tell her daddy about the boy that just came to the door, the one we’ve seen once or twice with his new puppy.  We clap when we realize her message–she recognized the boy and made the connection! I tell her how smart she is. Stan says, “We’re so happy. You DO have a brain in there!”

One of our favourite things to talk about at the table is Vivian, and the barking incident is perfect content for our meal-time entertainment. The girls love it when I re-enact something that happened during the day and often beg for a re-telling as soon as I’ve finished my story. On Sunday it’s Stan’s turn. He recounts what happened on Saturday night after the girls left their Halloween candy unattended on the couch. How Vivi quietly unwrapped the foil from a ball of chocolate. How she licked her finger after touching the treat tentatively and then investigated further by scratching it with her fingernail, as if she were a scientist. And how she brought this small sample to her mouth for a second taste. While Stan watched from another room he could tell she’d reached the conclusion of her experiment by what came next: a high-pitched “Oooh… ringing with unexpected pleasure. Maybe this is just what babies do when they discover something all on their own, something brown that tastes of milk and sweetness, but we don’t think so. We think it’s another sign of her brilliance.

***

The church is solemn and quiet while the pastor begins the communion service. “It’s a celebration,” he tells us. “Just as Christ wanted his disciples to remember him every time they ate and drank together, we do likewise.”

Then I think the same thing I do every time. Why so little? Did Christ really want us to nibble squares of bread or stale crackers, as if we have appetites of small birds and enjoy awkward parties? Personally, I think Jesus was picturing something more natural, with real food, wine, maybe some music, and good conversation. The guy sitting in the row behind us must be thinking the same thing because he interrupts my thoughts in a loud voice.

“Hey Stan, I saw a documentary on TV this week.”

Maybe the guy isn’t thinking about communion after all.

Stan turns his head half-way around but doesn’t make an audible response. Soft music is playing. People are searching their souls and praying quietly.

“It was about wasps.” The man continues, detailing more fascinating facts.

I doubt anyone within 20 feet of us is praying anymore. They’re thinking about fatal wasp attacks. Stan nods slightly, as if to say I hear you but won’t be adding any more to this conversation. I turn around and see his wife’s sweet, God-bless-you smile shadowed by worry. She leans in on her husband and tries to cue him with her hands but he doesn’t notice. Or if he sees her, he doesn’t care. Her expression turns to a grimace and she whispers urgently. I feel sorry for her and wish I could tell her I don’t see her any differently, no matter how loud her husband’s interruptions, and that it’s too hard for any of us to hinge our identities on our husbands’ behaviour. At last he heeds his wife and quiets down.

Stan doesn’t say anything about it until we get home and he comments, “Well he certainly took the celebration part to heart, he sure seemed relaxed enough.”

***

Stan strums his guitar and shrugs his shoulders up and down to the beat. Belén sings an octave higher than her dad, matching the soul in his voice… I am a poor and wayfaring stranger… She concentrates on her finger, sheathed in a piece of steel conduit custom-made by her dad, skating along the frets while improvising a slide-guitar solo. Her face creases with a frown/smile as she experiments with the syncopated beat and searches for the right notes. The sound is wrong. And wrong again. Then it resolves itself and everything is right, even what I thought was wrong.

***

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after our first snowfall last week…got more today

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Here’s the lacto-fermented carrot recipe I loosely followed. I added garlic, dill and a grape leaf (the tanins maintain crunch)to each jar. The jars bubbled and got really foamy on the surface for about a week and now they look flat again. I think the bacteria have stabilized and should keep the carrots in good shape in my basement for a while. The taste is what I’d hoped it would be.

Breath in Our Lungs

It’s easier for me to see God in retrospect. Maybe I’m too full of myself in the present moment. Or maybe the present is too ordinary, or too painful, and I’m too blinded to see Beauty. But whether I realize it or not, every moment is holy, infused with Life itself. Even Vivi’s wobbly steps, to the last gasps of the dying, are fueled by the God “who made the world and all things in it… He Himself gives to all people life and breath.”* This is the song all around me but I don’t always hear it. Today I’m singing along.

It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only**

My sister shows me a picture of her friend’s newborn baby, her perfect face framed by swaddling blankets. Looking at the photo, I wouldn’t know she has skeletal dysplasia, that her lungs will never develop, and that as soon as she was born her parents wondered when she might die. After preparing themselves for the possibility of a stillbirth, or perhaps meeting their daughter for only a few minutes, they are thankful for 30 hours with her. For thirty hours of a beating heart. Thirty hours of inhales. Thirty precious hours of exhales.

It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

The gravel road winds through poplar groves, swamp, then spruce trees, and finally an open vista of the valley. Goldenrod decorates the ditches flanked by swaths of canola. I am running alone, waiting for my family to catch me on their bikes, when I turn around and see the bear. It’s big, black, and looks smooth to touch. It’s also about 200 meters away which makes it all the more beautiful. Seconds later a cub bounds after the mama. I wait to be sure I won’t miss another cub and to confirm they aren’t moving in my direction. Soon the rest of my clan catches up and passes me. Grandma and Grandpa lead the pilgrimage down the mountain. Cousins switch bikes. Uncles add stragglers to their loads. After ten miles we wheel, and limp, into Tim and Kristalyn’s driveway. Alive. Sore, but alive.

It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

I’m loading the dishwasher and sweating. Stan is pounding up and down the stairs to his tool room; he is a man on a mission. But it’s the wrong one. According to me, he should finish installing a screen door so I can get some cross-breeze in this place. Instead, he’s building a bee hive.

“Would you be alright if I duct-taped some screen up?” I ask. Stan can tell I’m not just trying to be creative and answers as if I’d been nagging him all morning. Which, in my mind, I had been.

“Well what do you want me to do, Woman? Put up a screen door or capture you some feral bees?”

My sweat glands scream Are you kidding? while I say,Capture feral bees of course,” knowing Stan sees right through me.

A few days later he brings home a souvenir from his mission: a piece of honeycomb. We offer dessert to anyone who stops by, which means dipping fingers into the honey puddle or chewing on a piece of comb and letting sweetness gush into your mouth. Parts of the comb are capped brood which we get to see hatch in our kitchen. Stan studies the perfect hexagonal artwork in between google searches on bees and wild hives.

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It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

Last week Vivian learned two important survival skills: walking and killing mosquitoes. I’m not sure which is more helpful or more entertaining to watch. When she comes back from toddling outside she re-enacts what happens by slapping her head and making serious guttural sounds. She will tell dramatic stories about the winged predators on demand. You just have to crouch down to eye-level and whisper the trigger: mosquitoes.

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It’s your breath in our lungs

My sister Tara and her kids visit us. We bake, swim, cook, clean, yell at our kids, cook, clean, walk, read to our kids, supervise sales of all kinds (garlic, baking, and ice cream to name a few), bike, hike, and cook and clean some more. Occasionally we manage coherent conversation. One night, after all the kids are asleep I’m reminded she has a life of her own I ask her questions about her friends, church, and future plans. I wonder why we are only getting to this now, when they’ve been here for two weeks already, and then I remember. The children. Mainly the two smallest shysters who take turns loving and hating each other. Eli alternates between offering her his soother and charging at her; Vivian screams and pinches then ducks in towards his neck while he hugs her. They are learning about the push and pull of relationship.

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It’s your breath
in our lungs
and we pour out our praise to You only

The cancer has grown back. It’s in his esophagus, bones, lymph nodes and spread to his lungs and liver. This is not fair. Not how the game is supposed to go. It makes scared and sad just to write it.

Still. It’s your breath in our lungs…

We’re listening to Joni Mitchell and the girls are trying to sing along but it sounds terrible. I’m drafting this post with one hand and eating hot nachos with the other. I look up from my paper and say, “I don’t care what happens tonight except that you have to get your butts in bed by 8:00.” I’m determined to stick to my guns on this one. That is, until Stan gets his guitar out and starts figuring out a Civil Wars song. Susanna slides her fingers up and down her violin until she lands on the harmony. Her eyes get big when she surprises herself with the right notes. A nervous smile turns into a wince when the chords turn sour. We press play on the youtube video over and over again, straining to hear all the notes and who sings what. Belén sings along, even when we want her to stop. We shush her; gesture wildly at the screen; and glare. Nothing works. Her voice floats on top of the recorded music. We shoot more dirty looks her way. She cups her hands around her mouth and resorts to humming. She can’t stop singing.

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…And we pour out our praise to You only

It’s your breath in our lungs. It’s in every creative impulse, song we sing, and story we tell. It’s in every ordinary conversation, and every milestone reached. It’s the trace of you in every bee, bear and bone in our body. In every mother’s desperate cry, and even every cancerous cell. It’s your sustaining power. It’s your breath in our lungs, and we pour out our praise, pour out our praise to You only.

*Read Acts 17:22-30

**Listen to All Sons and Daughters sing their song here.

Beans, Wine, and the Real Vivi

“Mom, do we have to clean today?”

“Nope, no cleaning. I mean, no extra cleaning. We just have to tidy up after ourselves–like if we eat, we’ll clean those dishes,” I explain nonchalantly. It’s a bit of a lie, and by now all of us know it. Because somehow this cleaning up after ourselves seems to take most of the day. The summer is more than half over and I’m still mystified by how much work the four of us create. No sooner do we clear the couch of one load of laundry than the next fills the cracks between the cushions. Lunch dishes crowd out breakfast dishes that are nesting in last night’s supper pots. This kitchen was perfectly clean at five o’clock yesterday I’ve been known to say, hoping everyone else will realize the gravity of the situation and acknowledge the mess we make. But I don’t expect them to understand it because I certainly don’t. I’ve been looking after myself for at least 20 years now (running a household with children for the last eleven) and still don’t understand the math of household maintenance.

I do know green beans are part of the equation. Each time I pick them I feel incredibly grateful to be growing our own food. I also feel incredibly sweaty and itchy. The mosquitoes ascend like plumes of smoke, attacking my neck, wrists, and ankles as I swish through the plants. Swatting and blowing them out of my face I remind myself that this, too, is one of the benefits of gardening. It’s called appreciation. The next time I open up a plastic bag of store-bought beans and dump them into my pot I will be thankful. Instead of balking when the cashier tells me the total for my groceries I will wonder how such a great amount of energy can come so cheap.

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I love purple beans

It’s not just the beans. The ruby-red siren song of cherries, raspberries, strawberries, and tomatoes are factors in the formula we never seem to balance. For the last six weeks I’ve kept a stack of empty buckets at the back door so we can fill them at a moment’s notice. Which, of course, leads to other urgent jobs, like stomping cherries for wine. Another reason our days at home get hijacked by nagging and the tiresome task of looking after ourselves is because it’s hard to keep up while we’re at the beach. Which means I have no right to complain about anything.

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All three girls treading Shelly’s cherries with very clean feet. I promise.

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Garlic harvest!!!! The girls garlic did better than mine. I planted mine in a heavily composted bed; theirs was in poorer soil. Not sure if that was the reason?

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Belén skiing for the first time at the Whyte’s cabin

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Susanna after her ski. Thanks to Duane!

***

When babies reach their first birthday it’s cause to celebrate. According to me, all the hoopla should be for the parents; the ones who give up so much to ensure those helpless, seven-pound, naked creatures survive. In Vivian’s case, it wasn’t just her parent’s lives that were turned around. Her sisters’ world changed too. Which is why her birthday party was more about them than Vivian. They planned the games, bought prizes, and helped with the cake. It wasn’t baby-friendly either. No healthy rice cakes here to mark the occasion. No siree! We served New York style cheesecake with cherries—because that’s what we like. I didn’t get the obligatory picture of Vivi blowing out the candles, and I don’t even know if she tasted it. Did I mention this was more about us?

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The girls had games for both the moms and the dads. Here Stan is asking his Dad to answer one of the questions on the beach ball: “What is my favourite toy?”

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The moms’ game: be the first to find your crying child while blindfolded. Even the 40-year-old children had to cry so their moms could find them with the candy soother. (I’m looking for Susie in this picture.)

I’m not sure what I would’ve done without Belén and Susanna this past year. Susanna seems to have extra patience when mine runs out. Like her dad waiting for fish to bite, Susanna sits quietly by Vivi’s crib humming lullabies while Vivi tosses and turns, making sure she’s asleep before she tip-toes out of the room. Belén is the one who hates for her to cry, who hears Vivian screaming while I’m giving her a bath and appears at my side with graham crackers. While the tap water pours off Vivi’s head and body, Belén plies her with crackers and soothing words, anxious to stop her tears. And though it’s probably not best-practise to stuff your baby with treats while bathing, I don’t tell Belén to stop. It’s hard to argue when the baby is happy.

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The walker Stan rigged for Vivi works well. Maybe too well. She hasn’t really struck off on her own yet.

But, despite all this care, something has happened to Vivian lately. I think it has to do with becoming human–like she’s got a brain of her own or something. Imagine! Never mind that she can’t talk yet, she’s got opinions alright. She probably has political preferences too, we just don’t know them yet. We noticed all of this because of the way she throws her head back and cries now. It’s not a hungry baby cry, but more of a I-need-my-way wail. It’s the way her limbs turn to wet toilet paper when we want her to stand and the way she stiffens them like iron when we want her to sit. All of this makes me think she really is her own person. At first this was disheartening, realizing she won’t be perfect or even what we projected onto her infant-self, but I’m coming to terms with having another complex human around here. So much for sweet baby Vivi without personality. Here’s to the real Vivian. Happy birthday!

Tricia

PS. The math of household maintenance got a whole lot simpler with Stan’s parents around for the week. There are good reasons why three-generation households are common in many cultures.

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doughnuts

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We played a little game that landed us up at the ice cream shop. Can you tell who lost?

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Different

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Lamb’s quarters

If you have jumpy little black bugs in your garden, and if the arugula you planted has holes in it one day, is shriveled the next, and totally gone the third day, you might have flea beetles. I love arugula, especially with feta cheese, toasted pecans and cranberries, so I plant it every year. This year I planted it twice–both times the seedlings succumbed to flea beetles resulting in my sixth consecutive arugula crop failure. Which of course doesn’t matter one whit when I consider real crop failure and livelihoods on the line, but in my little world it is something to take note of. Don’t plant arugula…will not survive flea beetle.

Besides the arugula fiasco, I’ve taken note of something else. Just about the same time my second planting of arugula went down, lamb’s quarters started elbowing out the Orca beans. I always have these weeds in my garden, and I often munch on them before pulling them, but today I had an idea. Why don’t I let a few of these silver-powdered plants reach maturity, harvest their seed, and dedicate a whole plot to them next season? It’s a nutritional powerhouse, doesn’t cower to the flea beetle, and best of all, grows like a weed!

Once upon a time, lamb’s quarters greens received more respect. Their ancient name was “all good,” and all good they are. They contain more iron and protein than raw cabbage or spinach, more calcium and vitamin B1 than raw cabbage, and more vitamin B2 than cabbage or spinach.  According to Joan Richardson’s Wild Edible Plants of New England, lamb’s quarters “even outclasses spinach as a storehouse of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin C, and great amounts of vitamin A, not to mention all the minerals pulled out of the earth by its strong taproot.” (from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association)

What makes arugula so much better than lamb’s quarters anyway? I did a taste test with the greens I harvested from my garden today (butter crunch lettuce, red leaf lettuce, spinach, and lamb’s quarters) and enjoyed the young lamb’s quarters as much as the rest, if not more. The nutty flavour is not as bitter as the lettuce and will go fine with pecans and a balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve read the seeds are also edible and can be ground into flour or cooked whole (like quinoa), but will update you further when I have some more first-hand information!

***

Our annual skip-school day is a sacred tradition the girls talk about months beforehand. This year I send them ahead with Shelly while I stay home for Vivian’s first nap, hoping she will be well-rested and ready for the dunes just like her big sisters. While she sleeps, I ready the back-pack carrier and envision walking for miles along the shore, like always. I grab wieners and anticipate roasting a perfectly salty hot dog. Like always. I fold my towel and look forward to laying in the sun, water evaporating off my freshly cooled skin. Like always.

When we arrive at the dunes the sun is high. It’s just past noon and Vivian is starting to get hungry. Should I feed her now or put sunscreen on her or try to build a lean-to shelter for shade? I set her down to look for baby food–which I forgot to bring, while she cries and eats sand. There are tent caterpillars everywhere; on our blankets, our water bottles, our sandals, and our legs. I flick one out of Vivi’s hand and try to cover her up from the sun with my long-sleeve cotton shirt. It doesn’t work. She crawls forward and bungles her knees in the fabric, the sun beats hard, and I’m wondering if it’s okay for her to eat chips all day. I’m also wondering how long we can last.

This isn’t like I planned and doesn’t match my memories of visiting with the other moms, laughing while kids vault off sandy cliffs, and joking with them about what “all the children in school are doing”. I haven’t taken one picture of the girls jumping off the dunes or heard any of the conversation around me, much less contributed to it. I am too worried about Vivi, the worms, the wind, getting her to sleep again and why this feels so different than last year. After nursing her awhile with her fleshy white legs jutting out from my sweaty belly, I know we need shade. I walk down the beach while the wind pushes hard against me and dig my heels into the sand. Towel whipping in the wind and cooler tugging on my shoulder, I yell back to my mom trudging behind, “The ambiance isn’t quite like I’d hoped!”

It’s true, the ambiance is different with a ten-month-old. My mom and I whisper about it while Vivi snoozes on the blanket beside us; how this summer will be hard and so will the next, and then maybe, by the time she’s three, things will go back to normal. How relaxing at the beach really means multitasking: conversations that ebb and flow while chasing a little one, filling up buckets of sand, monitoring liquid intake and readjusting sun hats.

When I worked as a liaison with high school exchange students, their orientation manual included a section on making judgements and how things don’t have to be “better” or “worse”.  Sometimes they are just different. Now, like the exchange students, I am learning about my new landscape; calibrating expectations so my internal gauge reads different instead of worse. Instead of leisurely roasting my own hotdog like I imagined, I go without until Belén finds us in our new spot. She comes back shortly, kicking up sand and running with a sizzling wiener at the end of her stick, cooked just for me. Later, Susanna and I count to three and dive under the water. It feels like freedom and I manage a few strokes before my Vivi radar turns on. I look back to see her with my mom at the water’s edge. They are just fine.

Back on shore, the day stretches into its finest hours–the wind dies down and the sunshine sweetens into a gentle heat. Belén is dangling her feet from the dinghy and Ainsly floats beside while they make up terrible jokes in a secret language. Susanna is throwing a football with Jack, and Shelly sits nearby in the sun. I watch water droplets disappear from her tanned shoulders, instead of my own, while sitting with Vivi under the shade of a poplar. Vivian is bare-bummed (sure to pee any minute), her mouth is mustached with grit, and I just gave her another potato chip, but she is quiet. Perfectly still. This is when I decide we can stay just a few minutes longer. Everything is going to be okay.

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My mom and Vivian

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Tricia

PS. Here’s a quote I forgot to add to my last post. It’s one of many I highlighted in Ueland’s book:

“Art is infection. The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too. When I read this in Tolstoy it seemed like a great flashing discovery. But perhaps I would not have been so struck by it if it had not been for my class. I saw in their writing how whenever a sentence came from the true self and was felt, it was good, alive, it infected one no matter what the words were, no matter how ungrammatical or badly arranged they were. But when the sentence was not felt by the writer, it was dead. No infection.”