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.

008

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

*

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.

IMG_4029a

before the launch

IMG_4033a

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.

IMG_4045aIMG_4002IMG_4012

IMG_4021

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.

IMG_4031

Day 6

IMG_4026

*

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?

*

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!)

*

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.

011

*

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?

010

 

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…

*

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.

003

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.

006

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.

DSCN0935_

cutting red willow for our Christmas “tree”

DSCN0940_

 

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

DSCN0894_

after our first snowfall last week…got more today

***

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.