Write Walk

Walking the Talk & Writing the Walk

 

The Recipe


It doesn’t smell like what you think it would. 

It has a pungency like burnt garlic or motor oil. And you cling to this difference because you don’t want it to be what you deep down know it is.


I look down at the silver metal bowl which holds a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, a half cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of Dawn dishwashing liquid that has made a layer of suds that sits foaming as I dip my yellow sponge into its contents. The shaking Hungarian Vizsla, a medium-sized dog named Zoe, buries her snout deeper into the crook of my neck.


Twenty minutes of waiting moves like a long-winded sermon––painfully slow––before we can rinse Zoe’s first course of treatment off and the tomato juice round can begin. 


This is the first time I’ve encountered the spray of a skunk up close. And like so many things, it’s different from what I imagined it to be.


My legs are beginning to go numb. I’m sitting crossed-legged, wedged up against one wall of the shower, fully dressed in blue jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt. The decision for suitable clothing was not a high priority when I climbed into the stall to begin slathering Zoe with this abrasive concoction.


Water is now rushing out of the tap, a foot from the shower’s floor, so close to where Zoe stands and I sit, as we find the right temperature before pulling up the knob sending the water pressure upward to be released like rain. I’m now made aware of my clothing as the water begins to seep through my jeans, creating a pouch of wetness that is pooling at my crotch. 


Jennifer is here. So is her husband, Greg.


She’s standing at the shower door, barefoot. She’s also in jeans, damp, but not drenched, holding the shower’s nozzle, moving it over Zoe’s coat as I follow with my hands. My fingertips pushing the water through the coir-textured fur until it is emptied of peroxide, baking soda, and Dawn.  As the water falls and the denim in my jeans becomes a second skin, my t-shirt slips down my shoulder soaking. The steam of the water’s heat begins to hold the bathroom’s light in misty vapor, as my thoughts take in snatches of awareness of how unlikely it is to have this woman from my past standing beside me.


Jennifer is part of my post-university days when long walks along deserted country roads and pints of beer at The Only Cafe on Hunter Street in Peterborough, Ontario were regular occurrences.


Until recently she and I had been lost to each other. Nothing horrible had happened. Life had just taken us in different directions. But a few months ago a random internal nudge orchestrated our meeting after a decade. Two cats in a bedroom community of Toronto needed care, and my growing pet-sitting business brought me to them.  Jennifer and her husband, Greg, lived in the neighboring town, and so I reached out to her through Facebook, and she answered. 


It was an easy reunion. 


And earlier today, Jen and I just happened to reconnect again over coffee. I was in the area, this time in a town closer to the lake to look after a dog instead of two cats and we agreed to meet for a visit. And this evening, as the last light of evening faded, and I absorbed the reality that skunks can live in the suburbs, gulping down panic, I picked up the phone and knew who to call.


The sound of the shower brings me back to the room. 


I’m looking at chunks of tomato. They leave blotches of red on my second skin and cling to the tile wall behind Zoe, making it look like a murder scene. As the evening continues to unfold in its surreal fashion, this is what my mind focuses on, the new awareness that there are chunks in tomato juice. Zoe immediately begins to lick up what has made its way to the shower’s floor, which fills me with relief. Despite all, she’s not lost her appetite!


Jennifer’s husband is brilliant. He also only speaks when he has something interesting or relevant to say. Otherwise, he’s quiet. Tonight he plays the part of surgical nurse handing us sponges and refilling our empty yogurt containers with tomato juice.


And when our spirits begin to wane and fatigue sets in, he pulls out his phone and becomes bathroom DJ. First, with a little soft jazz and then Gordon Downie, of The Tragically Hip, begins to belt out the extended version of the raucous song, “Courage” (an appropriate choice to be sure), as we wait for the clock to wind down before a final rinsing.


It takes discipline to wait––an act of love that we share together. Zoe feels it. She has stopped struggling; her body no longer shakes; she seems calm as she waits for this series of unpleasantness to finally stop.


Her owners had told me about Zoe’s weakness. Saltine crackers. Now in the home stretch of our shared ordeal, I ask Greg to leave The Tragically Hip playing on the lip of the tub and retrieve a handful of saltines from the kitchen. I give Zoe two when he returns, which she eats ravenously.


As Gord sings the final bars of his song, his completion signals our own, and the clumpy goo turns a watery red as it snakes down the drain. Laughter rings out at the absurdity of it all, shaking off the heaviness of the moment and turning everything into genuine fun. 


And when Zoe is turned out of the shower, she does a dancing mamba wiggle as her long velvet ears flop from side to side, making a muffled clapping sound as she shakes her tomato-scented copper coat dry before being offered her final two saltines.


Joy comes in unexpected places, as does deep connection and love.  


photo credit: bryan padron of unsplash



The Fickleness of the Toronto Coffee Society


I hadn’t stayed in the Beach neighborhood of Toronto for several years. Of course, it would be different now. Everything else seemed to be hurling towards the future at breakneck speed, why wouldn’t the storefronts on Queen Street East be equally unrecognizable, all changing like this season’s new clothes?


I imagined that there would be a new crop of restaurants and cafes, a new selection of hot yoga studios calling out to health-conscious individuals, enticing them to sweat and BREEEE-ATHE. Of course, there would be new things to explore. But I also counted on some things remaining the same. And so when I took a Sunday morning walk past a neighborhood Starbucks just west of Woodbine Avenue, I was startled.


The patio that spilled out at the front of this particular Starbucks had always been crammed with people on weekend mornings. Dogs lined up, their leashes tethered to the black wrought iron fence that surrounded the outdoor space, unimpressed and disinterested in each other, all eyes looking intently at the patio chairs where their respective owners sat reading their papers or scrolling on their phones as they fuelled themselves with some form of caffeine. 


A familiar city picture, one that can be found on almost every street corner in Toronto.


But a new coffee shop had opened up next door with a bright orange sign, and gold letters in elegant script announcing that a ‘Patisserie’ ––French and fancy ––would serve you your gourmet coffee and sweet.  You no longer had to depend on a big, bad coffee-chain to provide you with your morning fix, for a ‘cute’ independent had moved in, conveniently located, adjacent to the green siren.


The Patisserie also had an outdoor patio with wrought iron fencing around it. In fact, one wall of the fence was shared with its Starbucks neighbor. The Patisserie’s patio was stuffed full with the morning’s throng, with their canines standing at attention at the iron gate, their communal gaze set on their own individual loved ones just inside the iron perimeter. It was the picture that I had come to expect over the last decade from the twin-tailed-mermaid’s digs next-door. But as my eyes, along with my assumption, moved past the crowd at the French coffee house to rest on the familiar real estate beside it, my eyes and assumption were properly shocked by what they saw. 


There was only one person on the Starbucks patio. One lonely person. One diehard, loyal woman sitting in a sea of empty tables and chairs. The rest, I  surmised, were sitting at the Patisserie. I guessed they had once been Starbucks patrons but had moved next door to the latest incarnation for coffee procurement. Bringing their allegiance, along with their cash, until the next new thing came along to woo them away. 


I’m sure the same baristas that shlepped coffee and wiped tables were still next door keeping the bathrooms clean and the creamer jugs full. And if they too had left for greener pastures and a new group of service people replaced them, the question that remains in my mind from such a stark example of our fickle loyalty, is at what cost?


I understand the idea of wanting to be local, of wanting to support a community business. But the proximity of this new cafe, right next to the old, made me wonder if the cut-throat business practices typically associated with larger companies, rather than being done away with, had instead infiltrated, and to my sensibilities, corrupted, the small business model by flagrantly stealing away a large percentage of the customer base of an existing business.


It made me sad.


Rather than working in harmonious collaboration, where similar services could co-exist, the coffee market, at least on this particular corner in Toronto, couldn’t bear such close competition and so one very established establishment was doomed to fail.


It seemed to be one more disappointing example of how it is less about the relationship between shopkeeper and customer, less about the dedication to good service and goods, and more about the next new thing. 


At what cost do we lose our loyalty to each other?


Green Mountain Mourning


When I left Newfane Hill that day in early summer, I took a walk. A walk I couldn’t take alone. I wanted to, wanted to have enough strength, to be brave enough, to shake off the past and move forward. I wanted to reclaim the spaces I had walked before, but I needed someone to walk beside me to begin.


The hiking trails at Harris Hill in Brattleboro, Vermont had been a regular haunt for Annabelle and me. It was one of the first places where we had learned to walk with one another without being connected by leash. We had started out small, walking attached, connected by our umbilical cord past the parking lot and ski jump, past the first incline, before I unhooked metal clasp from mental ring, unclipping our tether. And looking deliberately into my friend’s eyes, as I offered a bribery treat for good measure, I released her into Freedom’s arms.


It always took my breath away when I did. Both in anxiety and wonder. An internal commentary fighting with the present moment insisting that she would run into the forest lost forever. But then I would look at her, at Miss A’s graceful form born to run, and again I would suck in a gulp of air as I watched her zoom up the hill. Her smiley face smiling, her feathers blowing in the mountain breeze, all assuring me that it was right to risk in this way.


We walked out trust and comfort on this hill and it was the last place that I could revisit after Annabelle passed away last winter.


When Death comes to meet you and takes away someone you love, after grief begins to subside and you start to imagine that you can actually exist in this new reality, there are still certain places that are too painful to visit alone. Your connective memory is so filled with the links between ‘this place’ and ‘this person’ or ‘this animal,’ that to set foot into these pockets of familiar with your mental associations shredded and bleeding, hurts.


You need someone beside you.


Pat and Mel were Annabelle’s owners. And over the past five years that I’ve come to stay on Newfane Hill to write and to care for their sweet dog, our connection has deepened. Pat understood my heartache. How grateful I was that she did. And so we had agreed we would walk Harris Hill together on my last morning before heading back to Ontario.


That June day, squeaky clean and bright, the sun brought the shapes of the birch tree forest that stood on guard at the back of the house and the blue, blue sky into sharp focus; a happening which prior to this particular morning, I’d only associated with the cold of winter. As I came down the stairs Pat looked up at me as she put on her vest and said Mel, her husband, was joining us.


Mel is an athlete.


Swimmer, cyclist, kayaker; during the day, he is in motion. However, long strolls are not typically on his dance card of activity. So I was surprised when I learned he had decided to come too, feeling touched that he had chosen to be part of this memorial walk.


The sun held us as the car moved toward town. Somber and reflective, each caught in their own thoughts as we snaked through this Green Mountain morning. When suddenly, we were jarred out of our individual reveries as Mel swerved to avoid the roadkill on Route 30.


A red-tailed hawk––marauding predator, strong and solitary––brought down in some unimaginable way, a last tango that left him crumpled on the road.


Mel is a civic-minded individual, who is also exceedingly curious, and so pulled over to move the bird to the shoulder. Compelled by curiosity myself, I too got out of the car to look at this majestic raptor in its forever sleep. Coming so close to death, seeing the artistry of another fallen creature, seemed to bring Annabelle close.


An added weight of sorrow descended as we walked back to the car and drove the last few miles to the ski-jump. When we arrived at the trails there was a quiet stillness as we moved up the familiar trail, but an ache in my chest reminded me that although the time had come to walk this path once more, the physical presence of my dear one was painfully absent.


To live in the world again, one must revisit the concrete places detained in the past by memory’s stronghold and wash them anew with the latest unfolding. This cannot be done right away. Strength needs to be gathered, Time must do her handiwork, nourishing our open wounds with loving balm, knitting together the ugly, leathery scars of battle.


These scars transform beauty into a new version of skin deep. For the scars become beautiful, not in their physicality, but rather as a hallmark that we have LIVED and LOVED.


Deeply.


We saw a turtle that day. She was out for a solitary Saturday morning waddle in the tall grass looking for a place to lay her eggs, until we came upon her, excited to say hello.

Mrs. Turtle wasn’t quite so thrilled at being discovered as we were with our discovery.


The circle of life showed itself to us on that morning expedition. Death and Living, moving on Life’s continuum, gently closing the circle of grief, albeit with a dotted line.


photo credit: Scott Webb



Random Birthdays


She was grinning big and wide, as a high soprano pulsating breathy giggle escaped her lips. Her husband was smiling big too. He stood beside her as she produced a lime green plastic bag and offered it to me, saying, “Happy Random Birthday. It’s a Random Birthday!” 


I’ve never been good at keeping track of dates, particularly birthdays. If you asked me what someone was wearing 30 years ago, I’m your girl, but remembering the day when a friend made their grand entrance onto the Earth’s stage, well that has always been a struggle.


The irony is that MY birthday is VERY important to ME. The grander the celebration, the more well-wishers, the better, and so it’s not surprising that I have a number of friends with a similar, “Treat me like a Queen for a day, or a week, … forever” persuasion.


I had offended a few of my soul-sisters with my birthday forgetfulness, sometimes failing to remember their big days entirely, not even remembering in time to send something belated. Random Birthdays were born out of this shortcoming and proved to be a smashing success.


The beauty of a Random Birthday was that they never knew when it was coming and as long as it happened within the year of the person’s actual birthday I was satisfied that it was ‘close enough’. Their actual birthday may have been in October but this year their Random Birthday could happen in June. Cake and birthday candles, a wrapped gift, a stellar performance of the Happy Birthday song by your’s truly, sometimes some streamers and a few balloons for good measure. You know to make it really festive!


Because your dawning is cause for celebration. Because you are a gift. 


The record needs to show with at least one accompanying witness that tribute has been paid, a conscious moment has been taken, to mark this momentous event. Even if the merriment doesn’t occur on the exact day. Recognition that the day you came into this world is important, that it matters, and that if you hadn’t been born the world would be less. I know that sounds corny and that there is no way for me to ‘prove’ it, but I know it to be true. It’s also an opportunity to relish in a handful of exuberant silly, and the world really needs much more unabashed, fully-in-the-moment silly. The kind of unselfconscious joy that produces snorting laughter.


Finally, and some would argue most importantly, birthdays are a completely legitimate reason to eat CAKE! 


Over the years, I have gotten better at keeping track of others’ birthdays, my computer’s calendar has proven to be an immeasurable help to this end, and so I had forgotten about the years when Operation Random Birthdays was in high gear. To be reminded by having someone bring it to me out of the back of my past’s dusty closet and host a Random Birthday for ME was not only a complete surprise and incredibly meaningful but also a reminder that our actions and thoughts are like boomerangs that eventually make their way back to each one of us in some way and always in a future someday. 


Mine came back to me as a clean-lined, sturdy cotton lime green apron, which I adore, and a grocery store-bought marbled cake with lime green accents (clearly a theme) and chocolate icing. And it’s ALL about the icing! The little cake couldn’t hold another candle, glowing warm and cheerful, and two friends to help me blow them out.


If you have a poor memory and you want to light someone up throw them a Random Birthday! 


I promise you it’s a ball.


Photo Credit: Greg Hardwicke



Uncle Paul, Big Macs & Thank You’s


I still eat at McDonald’s.


Bad habits die slowly, and mine might outlive me if I continue to eat fast food. I try to stick to a once-a-month conscious choice binge, a sacred feast of toxic poison, but this isn’t always the case.


I was introduced to McDonald’s when I was four by my Uncle Paul, my very favorite uncle. Mom and I had taken, what was my first trip from our home in California, ‘home’ to see our Canadian family in Ontario, Canada. A trip that was filled with visits with aging relatives, that required me, a small child—to sit still, look cute and be quiet. Uncle Paul had different requirements. When I saw Uncle Paul, he took me to the park and let me jump around, and fed me food that wasn’t good for me. I worshipped the man!


The memory of sitting with him in orange and gold swivel chairs, the ones that encouraged me to swing my legs and spin; the dirt brown and tan Formica table tops that held our trays of Big Macs and fries. The ‘restaurant’—I use the term loosely— packed to capacity with other noisy kids and their parents munching on artery-clogging grease, as I grinned adoringly across the plastic tabletop at my uncle. What a powerfully happy memory. Perhaps it is the strength of this childhood comfort that I crave when I seek out my McDonald’s fix; I know the food itself has addictive properties that stir up physical cravings, but the emotional cravings also bring me back to the golden arches.


The last time I went to McDonald’s the young guy who was making the burgers got the order wrong ahead of mine. The woman whose food was missing a critical ingredient, was standing at the counter complaining and so I was forced to wait. I say, ‘forced’ but I was in no real hurry to be anywhere important and so instead I simply stood at the counter until everything was sorted and back on track.


When my burger was made and bagged and the guy in the front, a manager I think, handed me my food, I asked to speak to the cook. Immediately, the manager’s eyes, which had up to this point been dull and absent, became fully alert as panic entered them and a worried expression crossed his face. I could almost see one of those cartoon thought bubbles appear over his head, saying, “What now?” I shook my head in reassurance that there was nothing wrong and said, “No, I just want to thank him for making my food.” The manager looked shocked as his shoulders began to relax.


He called out to the cook to come out to the counter because someone wanted to speak to him.


The young guy came around to the front . He was about 5’10” with shaggy brown hair, and a round physique. It was clear he had eaten a fair share of his own McDonald’s cooking. The shine on his face told me that the working conditions in the kitchen were hot and that he had been working hard. He took one look at me and immediately began to apologize for the mistake of the other burger, thinking I was the woman whose order he had messed up, as both his manager and I both shook our heads in unison “No”. He now looked nervous and confused, looking from me to his manager and back again, hoping to find some clarity. I said, “I just wanted to thank you for making my food. You’re doing a terrific job!” He still looked confused but a sheepish grin began to spread across his shiny face, as his manager gave him a broad smile.


It was only when I turned around to walk out the door, I realized that the other customers had been watching our conversation unfold and two men gave me genuine smiles, a facial thumbs up, as I walked past them. It was my turn to feel sheepish. My intent was not ‘to make a scene’ but to tell this young guy that he and his work ‘had been seen’.


The burgers that are made at McDonald’s are highly processed, unhealthy food; no one can deny this point. Despite this fact, I think there is value in recognizing that there is a live person who is in the fast food kitchen, who is behind the counter making the sandwich, and then to acknowledge that other person’s labours, her efforts—that are only being compensated by a minimum wage—to consciously be aware that I’ve just been fed by another person. To close the gap of disconnect between those that serve me and the people that I serve by bringing our labour into consciousness.


It may not be McDonald’s, it could be a more upscale fast food restaurant or even someplace really nice, but do you ever think about the person that is making your meal? Do you remember that they are putting a piece of themselves into what you are consuming? I think this awareness is a critical step toward genuine gratitude. And personally, I don’t think happiness is possible if we aren’t grateful for the tiny morsels of abundance that fill our lives.


And these little giftings of abundance are everywhere.


Today I was ironing and thought about the person who made my pants, wondering about the living person who sewed them together, probably in some sweatshop in another country. A person with a story, emotions, a family and dreams. A person who had bad days just like me. Someone trying to figure it out just like all of us.


Not everyone can afford organic food or eco-friendly clothing as a matter of course. There was a time when I felt really angry and bitter about this fact. It made me feel hopeless. But we all can say thank you. We all can genuinely appreciate the work that another person does, that helps sustain us directly, or indirectly, every single day. It doesn’t have to be words spoken out loud, but a thought of thanks internally, “Whoever made my jacket or my new swimsuit, thank you. Thank you. Thank you Subway person for making my sandwich. Thank you for wearing that hair net and name tag and serving me when we are really no different, a counter top and whole lot of opportunity being the true length that separates us. I see you are a person, just like me.”


I do believe this makes a difference. I do believe that thankful thoughts build harmony and well-being which is the foundation of positive change. Real change happens in the small stuff. The stuff that we walk out every single day.


I challenge you to give an internal thank you to every person who serves you today.


Change happens with you.


Now.


[photo credit: Oluwakorede Enoch Adeyanju]




Mud


I thought I knew mud in Vermont.  


When living in Newfane, a dirt road takes me up and down a hill––a hill that city folks would call a treacherous mountain––to get to my little nook in the woods. I know about trenches of wet earth that threaten to take out the innards of my car if I don’t navigate my path with steely precision. Quicksand roads that turn my vehicle into a bumper car, pulling it right and left, higgly-piggly; roads that would challenge even the most competent of drivers.


Holding the steering wheel steady as the mud plays tug-of-war with the wheels for control, I’ve learned about the fine line between ‘gunning it,’ to take advantage of physics’ momentum, and when to drive real slow in order to avoid the deep-rutted walls that stand at attention like imposing citadels ready to carve out the bottom of my car like an advancing glacier. Mud in all its mess and dirt is a formidable opponent that requires its challengers to bring all of themselves when entering into mud’s domain – honed reflexes, grit and nerve, along with a touch of bravado. All of these are required before stepping behind the wheel to face the shifting road.


My intense dislike of this mighty foe has grown over the years, that is, until this year when awareness opened. 


After a particularly grueling trip down and back up Newfane Hill one March day, I dispatched a text to a friend and neighbor who would be returning that evening after being away for a week, to warn her of the dire driving conditions. When she returned without incident, she reported that the roads had improved dramatically since she had left. 


Sure enough, out for a walk later that night I found the condition of the road to be markedly improved from earlier that day. How little time had passed before such a momentous shift had taken place. And like a flash, a fresh thought came and revealed a connection between this unruly terrain and my beloved mountains and awe-inspiring sea. It brought a new- found respect to the slop produced by the spring-time thaw.


I love the mountains and the ocean. I know I am not alone. And for me, it is their changeability and moodiness that fill me with spellbound wonder. 


Nature’s chaos is expressed in these impressive landscapes. Like a dramatic conductor, with wild white hair, flailing her arms frantically calling on her musicians, the mountains and sea, Nature urges them to bring the squiggles on her pages to LIFE. Verdurous mountains and ocean swells churn up a deep soundless music, the music before the notes, that invite me to sit for a while in the place of reflection and contemplation where all of life is born.


As I walked at twilight surveying the road that had been made firm once more, I realized that mud is of a similar persuasion. 


It is a container that houses the mutability of Nature; the essence of LIFE. And through this medium of rich earth, mercurial Life is allowed one more canvas to paint herself into full expression. 


When I saw that mud was another one of Nature’s emotional children that played with wind and water, heat and cold, to be shaped anew day by day, hour by hour, my distaste, and even some of my dread, evaporated or at least was altered.


Mud no longer could be reduced to something that was cloaked in merely fear.


When I lifted the veil and saw that mud was just another one of Nature’s creations, my love for the texture, the mystery of mountains and the ever-changing movement of water penetrated this thing that I had previously judged ugly and revealed something more. Was it love or understanding that brought this change?



The Newfane Hill Walking Club


The jangle of her collar and the sound of her opened mouth breathing in my ear came from the backseat as she readjusted herself in anticipation. She knew she was going for a walk and she knew she was getting a treat!


We had to drive to the end of the laneway because Annabelle had been habituated to the electric fence perimeter of her home’s property and would not cross it though it had been turned off for over a year. She was such a good girl that the only way to get her across the boundary line  that moved across the driveway was to drive her across. And that is exactly what we did each afternoon around two o’clock.


Barnaby was the first to join our crew. Barnaby was the Pyrenees bear, masquerading as a really big dog. He lived at the next house on Pound Road. Barnaby spent his weekdays outside on the front porch where his bed was set up for napping and watching the world go by, even though there wasn’t much world on the private laneway. This of course was when he wasn’t making the rounds in the neighborhood for treats and pats. He really did have a secret life that his people knew little about, a whole world of friends and experiences that were just his own.


The sound of his collar as he lumbered down Pound Road always reminded me of the pocket change in an old man’s pants. When he arrived at the crossroads of Pound and Timson Hill, he greeted Annabelle and me as we were adjusting her leash, just in time for the first shelling out of treats.  I suspect this was Barnaby’s initial motivation, the hope of a gastro handout, but I also think he was lonely.


And then our three became four.


Luna was the next and final member to join. She looked and moved like the Loonie Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil, her small sausaged body encased in course brown fur. She  had tornado capabilities, but unlike her grumpy cartoon counterpart, her motivation to twist into the air at breakneck speeds was pure joy. This whirling dervish Boston Terrier had more energy than her little body could contain. She barked passionately at her Lady’s front door that stood across from the mailboxes until the door was opened to her and she scampered out to join our collection of misfits.


Luna had no regard or time to listen to or obey commands. She was the self-appointed point dog, who always took the lead, the first to tear down Timson Road, ripping through the wind as her little body got smaller and smaller in the distance. I always felt out of my depth when we got to pockets of uninhabited road where the woods grew up thick and Luna decided to leap with an exuberant grin off the main path into the brush, swallowed up completely from view.


She wasn’t my dog, she refused to listen and cars were heavier than she was. But, she always looked so blissfully happy when she joined us! How could I possibly refuse? And whether I felt confident or not, it had been decided, The Newfane Hill Walking Club had been born and I was in charge of this motley crew.


Barnaby stayed closer. And it wasn’t just about staying close to the snacks. He kept an eye on Annabelle and me with a sort of herding instinct.  He always seemed to be conscious of his charges; first, checking on Luna off in the distance and then trotting back to Annabelle and me who brought up the rear. He rarely found the need to kick into high gear for anything and because of his hulking size he could move among all of us with ease. Whenever he was ahead, he continually turned his head backwards to keep track of where the end of the pack was. He was content in letting me think I was alpha, and when I would call to him to remind him to stay to the side of the dirt road to avoid being in the direct line of an unlikely passing car he would acquiesce, though, he, like a quarterback, always knew that he was in control of the ball.


Annabelle was on leash, a leash that was threaded through a belt around my waist so my hands could remain free, a leash that, although expanded into a great line of length, was nevertheless an umbilical cord that her doggy friends didn’t have to wear. It was the equivalent of wearing a helmet or protective clothing when your friends are allowed to run free and you know you’re an athlete. I felt like a helicopter parent hovering over the strongest kid on the block. 


Annabelle knew she could give both Luna and Barnaby a run for their money if she wasn’t tethered to me.  I knew it too. So did they. But in her youth she had been a runner who paid more attention to her nose than the call of her master and so harness and leash were her unfortunate fate.


We both felt dejected about the reality of what was, but when the leash was expanded to its farthest distance and Annabelle was attached but still walking alone, there was a harmony that passed along the line that connected us one to the other.


Nobody fit in, each was a lone wolf in his own way, walking in an unlikely pack. The dogs themselves didn’t share any great affection for each other, but I think it was the mountain air, expansive space and craving to be swept clean by icy gusts that drew us together. We needed each other to travel the road - no one could travel it alone. And so it is with us in our day to day - we all are awkward misfits, who need to walk in groups so the fresh air can clear out the cobwebs that come to settle in our lives. When we do, everything feels clean and new as we trudge back home refreshed and invigorated.


Annabelle passed away last year and Barnaby moved further upstate. Luna’s chocolate brown face has turned grey but she is still as exuberant as ever.  Life has moved on and things have changed, but memories of those cold winter afternoons walking with three four-legged companions on a Vermont mountaintop still warms me.



“Auld Lang Syne”


Burns' original Scots verse

for “Auld Lang Syne”


I

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,


and auld lang syne*?


Chorus:

For auld lang syne, my jo,

for auld lang syne,

we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.


II

And surely ye'll be your pint-stoup!

and surely I'll be mine!

And we'll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.


Chorus


III

We twa hae run about the braes,

and pou'd the gowans fine;

But we've wander'd mony a weary fit,

sin' auld lang syne.


Chorus


IV

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn,

frae morning sun till dine;

But seas between us braid hae roar'd

sin' auld lang syne.


Chorus


V

And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!

and gie's a hand o' thine!

And we'll tak' a right gude-willie waught,

for auld lang syne.


Chorus*


“Auld Lang Syne”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80PlTeDollo**


We have made it through the holy nights of the holiday season. We’ve closed with the celebrations of the Epiphany and before that we rang in the New Year singing Robbie Burns’ classic, “Auld Lang Syne.” A song that asks us to remember by reminding us what we have forgotten. 


And with this paradox in hand we move into the deepest part of winter.


A time of extreme darkness, the harshest months of the year, before the light returns. This time of darkness invites us to dig deep into its mysteries, offering us its wisdoms if we would opened our hands and receive. To receive from the depths, from the places of not knowing, to trust in the consuming, to have faith we will not be consumed. For it is only by experiencing the darkness that we can recognize the light and only by relinquishing our power, or our idea of it, that we are given true power. It is in the empty space where all is found, where our hope is found.


Unfortunately, our world teaches us that Shadow is bad, it instructs us to push away the time of Shadow. But to do so is at our own peril. To do so is to ignore the relationship between Shadow and Light, to fail to recognize that Shadow can only exist because the Light is near.


By pushing away what we most desperately need, we miss the gifts that Shadow brings to us.


Shadow provides shade and protection when our fragile skin is not equipped to receive the full heat of direct sunlight. The shadowy darkness is a place of respite which nourishes in a way that can only come from the dark and the silence. This truth is not simply the case in the physical world but provides insight into our emotional landscape as well. Shadow’s arrival informs us that our emotional skin needs some protection and rest. It’s not pathological, on the contrary, it illustrates our body’s innate intellect urging us toward health. It beckons us to slow down and walk our path with more intention by making our world a little smaller. In a manic and busy world, where ‘busy’ is held in the highest regard for its own sake rather than any sort of meaningful output, is it any wonder that the gifts of the Shadow are scoffed at and bathed in shame? 


We all know, intuitively we know, the destructive pace of constant action only leads to misery and early death. This is not overstated. But to honor the rhythms of our own internal seasons requires a courage not many of us possess. We are all worse for it; as individuals, as communities, as society at large. 


Everyone loses when we do not allow winter’s slowing to guide us into an internal slowing and respecting the Shadow within.


The sadness of life, the melancholy and introspection should not be feared. Fear gets us stuck and blinds us to the guidance that sadness brings. For it acts as a lamppost, which sheds light on what needs to be looked at more closely, to be cleaned out and thrown away.


As is so often the case, we shoot the messenger who is our help and our hope for wholeness. Instead of receiving its insight with gratitude, we vilify our strongest ally. Rather than running away from sadness and pain, if we lean into it and let it take us where we most need to go, we will find a liberation in the deepening.But this requires trust and is also counter-intuitive. It runs in direct opposition to what our fear and our world is telling us to do.


Nature is familiar and comfortable living in the paradox. She is our teacher. Loving, but not always gentle when teaching us her important lessons. She is a living cousin to our unconscious nature and reveals what Time has said needs to be revealed.


So in the spirit of Robbie Burns’, “Auld Lang Syne,’” where we remember by acknowledging what have forgotten, let us move more earnestly into the paradox, finding the courage by ‘.. tak’[ing] a cup o’ kindness yet’ as we venture into the darkness.


*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auld_Lang_Syne

**The Barra MacNeils Auld Lange Syne, permission given by Andre Bourgeois of the Barra MacNeils 

*** photo credit: Jenna Hamra from Pexels



Shower Etiquette


For a number of years, I lived in Camphill Village, an intentional community, working with developmentally delayed adults. We lived in house communities, often made up of twelve adults, who commonly shared just two bathrooms.


Whether in a home of two or twenty, the harmony of communal spaces is dependent on how willing each of one us is to step outside of ourselves and consider the needs of others. When living with someone else, what we SAY we believe about change and equality is put to the test in a daily, not-so-sexy way.


Global change begins in the bathroom.


There is nothing brag-worthy about bathroom etiquette. But if we can master a few simple steps, our home can become a kinder, more thoughtful place to be. And CLEANER too!


Brush Your Hair BEFORE You Shower. Women of the world, this one is more specifically for you, although it wouldn’t hurt for men to put a comb through their hair as well before stepping into the tub. We shed, especially in the winter, and when we wash our hair, those loose hairs land in the tub and all over the floor and clog up the drain.  It’s unsightly. Like other bodily functions of our own, which we don’t mind because they’re ours, they become gag-worthy when they are inflicted on us or we inflict them on someone else. Our runaway hair can, and often does, produce the same horrified reaction in others when we don’t take the time to clean up after ourselves. Do.


Clean Out the Drain. Another place where hair collects is in the drain. Investing in one of those drain sieves not only saves your bathroom from expensive plumbing bills down the road but makes it easy to scoop out the gross things you don’t want anymore and NO ONE else wants to see. I’ve even found toenail clippings in a drain sieve. Even when they're your own, your toenail clippings are just yucky. And when you clean out the drain, use a tissue and wrap it up so the person emptying the wastebasket doesn’t have look at your old hair and dried-out toenails.

 

Dry Off IN the Shower. A Camphill old-timer told me about this pearl of wisdom and it’s a gem.  Dry off IN the shower. Bathmats quickly get wet. One use and they really don’t feel very nice for the SECOND person using it. But, if you leave your towel near the shower so you don’t have to get out of the shower to retrieve it, you can do most of your towelling off INSIDE the shower. And if you have long hair, if you again put a comb through it while still in the stall, collecting the handful of hair your vigorous shampooing has released, and putting it in a pile on the lip of the tub to discard with what you will collect from the drain, it can be one fluid action. And then when you step onto the bathmat most of the water has already been dried off your body and the mat is in good, or at least in reasonable shape, for the next person. We really do have to start thinking about that second person, the next person, the person who is coming AFTER us.

 

Do a Quick Rinse of the Shower. Hair isn’t the only problem, dander or flaked off skin, also comes off when we bathe.  So turning the shower nozzle back on for a quick sweep of the tub or stall removes all that and AGAIN gets it ready for someone else. You also don’t need to clean the tub as often.


Close the Shower Curtain When You’re Done. This is for the environmentalists and the penny savers in the group. When a shower curtain remains bunched up, it is prone to mold. A moldy shower curtain shortens its life and requires another to be purchased sooner than it would have, had it not been left bunched up after it had gotten wet. Thus, more plastic in a landfill, and more dollars spent on a wasteful purchase. If you pull the shower curtain across the shower, you allow it to dry, which makes it less appealing to mold. It takes a second, that’s all, and it REALLY MAKES A DIFFERENCE. A difference you can see!


Change, real change, happens in the small things, in the things we do everyday. 


Walk it out.


Start with shower etiquette; it’s a good place to begin.


Photo Credit: Russ Ward



Apple Cottage Cheese Pancakes


In my third year of university I lived with Marisha Plotnik in a second floor apartment with baseboard heating and no insulation. I had just returned from volunteering for Canada World Youth for six months in Ghana, West Africa. CWY was, and remains, Canada’s equivalent to the Peace Corps. When I headed back to school that fall, although I had taken off my globetrotting shoes, I still had itchy feet. And as I stood in the classroom that had been converted into a makeshift housing office my head began to swim as I looked at handwritten ads on index cards taped in rows to a blackboard.


I had already come back to the housing office several times that day, after visiting revolting apartments, to look once more at the increasingly shrinking options for a studio apartment. Each time I returned, I noticed another woman who also was hovering around the single unit options.  She looked normal. And sharing an apartment would most certainly expand our options and lower our costs.


I asked.


I don’t remember what I said. I was 23 and self-conscious, but I mumbled something coherent enough that she agreed to look at apartments with me and we’ve been friends ever since, which is now close to 30 years. 


Marisha was smart, brilliant really, and pretty too. She also had a pinch of odd, maybe it was just an awkwardness, but it was lifesaving, otherwise her perfection would have been annoying. In so many ways she was all the things I wanted to be and wasn’t.  She was a Waldorf grad* and so she was comfortable in the outdoors. I had grown up in Los Angeles and wasn’t. She also knew her away around a kitchen and could knit socks; I could boil water and open a bag of chips.  She wore cozy scarves and fuzzy slippers when she cooked and she listened to public radio which inevitably would make her snort and squeal with laughter, before a great thunder would gather and a warm, deep, rich guffaw would spill merriment into the kitchen. 


I was never sure if it was the oven or Marisha’s laugh that made everything so warm. 


And when she drove her Hyundai Pony, (do you remember the Pony?), that she affectionally called ‘Mitten,’ she often drove it without turning on the radio at all. Instead she CHOSE to drive in silence. My 23 year-old mind was blown, irritated and a bit twitchy in the stillness, but grateful to have this remarkable teacher guide me into this realm of quietude. We would drive down to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings and Marisha would buy a big hunk of bacon from the pig farmer and all sorts of root vegetables and I’d go to the Stickling Bakery’s stall and buy baked goods.


But coming home was my favourite part of the morning, when the smell of strong coffee permeated, and the cut sunflowers from the market found their new home sitting on the red floral tablecloth dropping yellow-powdered pollen beneath their vase. And Stuart McLean, a CBC icon, would share the latest happenings of Dave and Morley on ‘The Vinyl Cafe’ as the hunk of bacon, now sliced, sizzled in the pan. As another beautiful aroma did a promenade around the tiny kitchen building a crescendo of mouthwatering smells that fed my olfactory palette as my belly waited. 


Marisha, wrapped in her apron, scarf and fuzzy slippers, would be rummaging in the pantry, fishing out the tub of flour, then going to the fridge to collect eggs and butter as I played sous-chef, sitting at the table, chopping walnuts and grating apple. The kitchen was singing as the pancake batter was assembled.


Marisha taught me all sorts of invaluable lessons that school year, but introducing me to the comfort of silence and Mollie Katzen’s vegetarian cookbook, Moosewood, specifically her ‘Apple Cottage Cheese Pancakes’ FRIED IN BACON FAT, was life changing.


My outdoorsy friend has spent the last 20 years living in NYC and my LA city roots have all but fallen away, as flannel and the smell of wood smoke has replaced glam and the pulse of the city for the fresh air and stillness of Vermont’s Green Mountains.


*Waldorf education is based on Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical principles which recognize the totality and essence of an individual when instructing students.


**photo credit: Aaron Blanco Tejedor


words 739


Apple Cottage Cheese Pancakes 

à la Mollie Katz’s Moosewood Cookbook


4 eggs, separated (yolks optional – use all, some, or none)

1 cup cottage cheese (low fat ok)

1 cup (packed) grated tart apple

3/4 cup flour

1-2 tsp lemon juice

optional: 1 Tbs honey

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 salt

optional: 2 to 3 Tbsp finely minced walnuts or almonds 

oil or butter (or bacon fat) for frying

optional toppings: real maple syrup

sour cream or yogurt

Berry sauce


Beat the egg whites until stiff

Combine all other ingredients (except toppings and frying oil) in a medium-sized bowl and mix well. Fold in the egg whites.

Heat oil or melt butter in skillet. When it is hot enough to sizzle a drop of batter on contact, add a spoonful of batter. Fry on both sides until firm and lightly browned. Serve right away, topped with syrup, sour cream or yogurt; and/or Berry Sauce.


They’re delicious cold too!

Photo credit: Aaron Blanco Tejedor.


Where’s the Gravy?

 

The biblical narrative, ‘Tower of Babel,’ speaks of a time when ‘the whole earth had one language and used the same words.’* It was after Noah and the great flood, when enough time had passed that pride once again had run amok, and frail egos puffed with self-importance. It was out of this hubris that the idea to build a tower to the sky and play God was brewed and work began in earnest. It is a cautionary tale of human arrogance and God’s reckoning. 

 

For in a moment, God relinquished the gifting of complete understanding of the other by scrambling language and making it impossible to communicate.

 

Babel. [Illus. from Psychology Today]

 

I’ve wondered in recent years, when I misunderstand someone’s words completely, or they have misunderstood me with mine, whether an updated form of Babel is now plaguing our world. A 2.0 version, more insidious in nature and therefore more difficult to detect. Where language’s visual symbols––words spoken or on the page––remain unchanged, lulling us into a false confidence that we are understanding what is being said, as well as being understood. The reality, however, is that there is often a great chasm between us of confused meaning.

 

The salience of this theory gelled for me recently through the unremarkable subject of dog food location. This trivial matter led to a complete communication breakdown. But because the concern was innocuous, emotions remained level, which made the real issue easier to notice: the same word didn’t mean the same thing to me as it did to somebody else.

 

I had landed in the outdoorsy town of Peterborough, Ontario, the Brattleboro of the

North, to dog-sit two senior Golden Retrievers for five weeks. Besides being sweet and low-key, Goldens are also known for their weak hips which meant that both pooches each received a daily scoop of glucosamine ‘gravy’ powder in their evening meal. The dog owner had told me I could find more gravy in the “cellar, on a shelf.”

 

In my mind, the word “cellar” was synonymous with “basement.” So, when given the

instructions, I immediately made a mental picture of where in the basement the gravy

was and then forgot about it until the supply began to run low. When it came time to replenish, I went to the basement many, MANY times, returning to the kitchen empty-handed. 

 

As a last resort, I emailed the homeowner for more information. Why is

ASKING the final “go to”? I would say, like those Tower of Babel people, it has something to do with our pride and bluster. And also like those Tower of Babel people, our communication breakdown is found in our words.

 

The same directions were given, “gravy was in the CELLAR, under the FRONT stairs.” My brain again replaced the word cellar with basement, ignored the word “front” altogether, and focused on the word “stairs”. The only visible steps were those leading down to the ‘cellar’, and so I went with great confidence down the STAIRS to collect the gravy in the cubbyhole directly beneath them.

 

NOPE.

 

Frustration set in, regardless of the unexceptional nature, I was STILL

feeling cranky and irritated and wanted to blame someone. Maturity told me high

emotions were not the best helpers when figuring things out and if I desired resolution I

was going to have to slow down.

 

It was time to read the homeowner’s email again. Each word. Inchmeal.

 

“FRONT,” I saw the word for the first time in a meaningful way. I couldn’t picture how the words “front” and “stairs” fit together in the layout of the house that I was imagining, but because I was stymied, I finally discarded my mental image and was able to see what was directly before me. There in the musty light of a little-trafficked area of the basement was a door to a closet, which was directly below the FRONT door STEPS, steps I could not see as they sat above the basement ceiling and were not visible. And in the gloom, on a shelf was the gravy.

 

Exactly where I was told it was.

 

How often do we misinterpret each other’s meanings because we THINK we’re talking about the same thing? How often does a conversation come to a grinding halt because both parties are blind to the subtle, but essential, differences in understanding between them? We use the same words, but definitions vary, often due to our individual experiences and biographies that have coloured our wordbook of meaning unabashedly outside of the lines. And we miss each other.

 

It happens a lot.

 

There are reasons why it does.

 

A constant diet of information delivered in sound-bites has harvested short attention spans, and easily ignited scorn, all of which makes us bad communicators. We live in a time of Babel 2.0. What can we do to combat it?


For me, with the dog food, the veil lifted when I asked.

 

And when the answer came, slowing down to listen.

 

*Genesis 11:1



Ladies I Need Your Help

 

Okay, Ladies I need your help. 

 

Holes in the front of my shirt, actually shirt(s), for it is every single one. This is the problem. This is the mystery. HOW do they appear? Little holes in the fabric near my navel. Holes that never appeared in my youth, not that I ever noticed anyway or at least remember. But even a decade ago, a half-dozen years, I have no recollection of shirts tattering at my belly.

 

Every cotton t-shirt I own, which is a lot of t-shirts, as they are practically a self-issued uniform, have them. From the most inexpensive, to ‘good quality’ pretty-penny shirts have these same tiny holes.


There has been a progression in my reasoning. Like any good scientist specializing in sub-standard fabric will tell you, significant incremental steps must be taken if conclusive findings are to be made.

 

Hypothesis #1: Belt Buckle

 

When I thought I was the ONLY one, I assumed that my belt buckle’s pokey tooth thing, that slipped through the eye of the leather, was the culprit. The prong did sit just underneath the unsightly gapes. But when I stopped wearing belts to avoid the problem and the holes continued to appear, another theory was hatched.

 

Hypothesis #2: Counter Tops

 

I love my girlfriends for many, many reasons, and commiserating about wardrobe malfunctions and damage to beloved articles of clothing is not least among them. I stumbled on a fellow comrade in the tiny hole mystery when a friend and I stood in her kitchen. The outrage that skirted across her face as both her hands reached for the hem of the t-shirt she was wearing and held it taut so I could examine with my own eyes that the tiny holes had invaded her cotton as well. 

 

The relief.

 

The relief of knowing we are not alone is not excluded to weightier matters; the trivial whoas of day to day are also lightened when we walk with another. My friend had her own ideas on the cause of t-shirt shred. 

 

Countertops.

 

She leaned up against the kitchen sink to demonstrate. Sure enough the holes seemed to line up with the level of the counter. Eureka! After the delight of discovery subsided, the reality that the drudgery of homemaking tasks also had the further cost of destroying clothing left me a little sour. Our whinge then moved into bemoaning the inferior quality of today’s products, the lack of pride in workmanship, the greedy multi-nationals that make sub-par goods that just feed our landfills, as our ‘throw-away world’ continues to demand the latest and newest to replace the shoddy, as we all scream, “THE ENVIRONMENT! THE ENVIRONMENT!” “Little Chicken, THE ENVIRONMENT!!!” 

 

Oh we humans are an inconsistent lot.

 

But in the end is it simply an erosion of standards in manufacturing? Or is it the punishment I give my t’s, as I hurl them repeatedly against unfriendly counters? My mother never wore t-shirts like a uniform the way I do when doing our family’s dishes. Her requirements for the few she owned were drastically different from the punishing demands that I make.

 

So is it my belt buckles, the counter-tops or a deplorable calibre of present-day products? My guess is it is a combination of all three. 

 

Ladies, I need your help …


<photo credit: priscilla-du-preez>



Rabid Fan & Conversion


I am a Celtics basketball fan.


I know players names and their numbers, not all, but I do know those of the 2018 Eastern Semi-Finals dream team.


It didn’t start out that way.


In fact, just figuring out the dynamics of the retired lawyer’s living room was what took precedence over paying attention to any movement on the television screen. It wasn’t until the third night of the playoffs that I realized I had taken Luna’s seat. I thought she was just being friendly and wanting to cuddle, but when I figured out the right corner of the couch was preferred seating for this senior boxer, I moved.


But that first night, that magical first night of the semi-finals, when the Cleveland Cavaliers and their silver bullet, LeBron James, had their backsides whooped by the giants in green, I didn’t know that I had made a faulty seating choice. I also had no idea that by the end of that game I would become a newly inaugurated CELTICS fan, bathed in the afterglow of beauty in motion. At tip-off I was still more interested in watching the antics of the seasoned rabid fan who sat beside me yelling at the television while I did arm exercises, moving my right hand from the tortilla chip bowl to guacamole, to my mouth.


And 1! And 2!


REPEAT, while using my spare hand to pet whatever cat that had decided to walk by my lap to investigate who the interloper was who was sitting in Luna’s place.


I saw my first Celtics game last winter, an uninspiring game, and so on that first night of the semi-finals, I was far more attentive to the busyness of my immediate surroundings: the menagerie of pets and my host’s passionate pronouncements. Her word arrows were hurled toward the flat screen as seriously as if she were speaking to her players courtside. I had never seen an armchair coach in action and was fascinated by her gravitas.


This basketball enthusiast has a spirited will. But I imagine it has softened over time, much like her red hair. However, her kindness is fierce and insistent and her vulnerability relatable.  A New York Jew who had fallen in love with Vermont’s Green Mountains and left the city that never sleeps for a garden patch and dirty hands. She, of course, was not the first New Yorker I had heard about who had been hypnotized and left defenceless to the mysterious beauty of this Eden State. 


Although her bold spirit was transplanted to a hilltop, her New York pluck did not slacken and in her 50th year, she enrolled into law school.


It is this gumption and acumen, this surprise, that inspires me and keeps me coming back.


Maybe her defence attorney experience is what is filled up, nourished, when she watches basketball; maybe it’s just her innate fire that fuels her emphatic shouts. I don’t know what deep place her barking orders come from, all I know is that her zeal is infectious and her animals are cute and sharing snacks is more satisfying than eating them alone.


It is because of this mad fan, who shared her love of the game and her beloved Celts with me, that I found myself sitting on her couch in the dwindling light of a spring evening, the first game of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals in Boston, the game that made me a basketball fan.


Key Celtics players were on the bench due to injury and it was up to the less seasoned rookies to pull it together and shine.


Jaylen Brown made the first swish of the night, which opened the floodgates to a flurry of mesmerizing and unbelievable dunks. I learned about ‘three-pointers’; shots that are made from a ridiculously far distance from the basket, because they were raining like huge orange balls of hail into the Cavaliers’ bucket.


Everything about the game was electric. The chemistry of the players, the fans (known as the ‘sixth player’), all worked together as one unit, something only made possible because the team had left their egos in the locker room so magic could happen out on the court.


It was a choreographed dance, as breathtaking as the Bolshoi Ballet.


It was magnificent.


It was history.


It was the underdog beating the man.


Poetry in motion.


Final score: Celtics 108, to Cavaliers 83, it was a beautiful trouncing.


I was hooked.


I am hooked.


And it’s all because of one rabid fan.



photo credit: chelseaferenando




Is that You Aunt Helen?


Her fine white hair, unkempt, was pushed off of her pale, drawn face. She was tucked into crisp white hospital sheets; a thin white blanket had been laid across her shrunken body. Her frail shape, ashen and small, was framed by the white wall that stood behind her. The effect was stark and depressing. The only things that held any colour in the room were her blue eyes. Wide like an owl’s or those of an infant: searching, deep, blank. She stared at me and I stared back.


I didn’t recognize her. 


I didn’t recognize her at all.


Was this Aunt Helen or was this her roommate?  I hadn’t seen my aunt in over 20 years, not since Uncle Paul’s funeral.  She had married into our family, had married my uncle, when they were both in their late-50s; so much of his story had already been lived, and it was easier to lose track of her when he had died. But today on this crisp fall afternoon, when the sun’s light was soft, and the trees were shocked with saturated colour, Aunt Rita, my mother’s sister, and I had made the trek to this long-term care centre in the west-end of Toronto for an overdue visit.


So much time had passed.


I stared hard at this woman, taking in her details when my Aunt Rita, who had been out in the hallway talking to a nurse, entered the room and exclaimed, “Helen!” REALLY? I was stunned; turning my gaze back to this unrecognizable woman, searching even more intently, trying to find something in her face in which my memory was acquainted. 


Nothing.


It was only when she spoke that I recognized her as someone I knew. The gravelly smoker’s voice was unmistakable. It was jarring to hear something so familiar from so long ago coming out of this stranger’s mouth.  To see facial expressions animate her, expressions I knew to be my Aunt’s, but that now seemed foreign and incongruous when they moved along this countenance.


What makes a person recognizable to the outside world? 


What makes them uniquely themselves?


I had no clue that I had relied so heavily on the familiarity of a person's physical appearance until it was no longer there to cue me. I find it amusing that as someone who has claimed that the most essential aspect of a human being is that which is intangible, it was I, who was completely flummoxed when it was only the nonphysical part of my aunt that was recognizable.


The essence of my aunt continues to move through her in voice and movement despite how time and disease have ravaged her body. Her crabby temper may have mellowed, ever so slightly, as her greeting to my Aunt Rita confirmed, “I never liked you, but thank you for coming,” but is a marker, nonetheless, of character and person.


We are not merely our physicality. Our vigour is housed here and enlivens here, but the two, although inextricably linked, are separate. My aunt’s world has shrunk down to four white walls; living does not get much smaller. And yet, she STILL lives.


The essence of who she is, who she has always been, still lives in what is becoming an unrecognizable and lifeless shell. Her life force has vacated much of her physical being, leaving a lot of her body empty of ‘her’ as it were, but the life force that still quickens is most assuredly Aunt Helen.


No question.


(A note on the image: stock photo “Canva wilted flowers on table.”)



I See You


The smothering proximity of people was wearing me down. Personal space was non-existent and I felt intruded upon, unnerved.  


“Miss, Miss.”


Outstretched hands grated on my worn down faculties. The need was insatiable and never-ending. Hands empty, bodies hungry and people afraid.


I didn’t look at them. I kept walking, pretending they did not exist. I was scared to see them. I was disgusted, irritated, angry.


“LEAVE ME ALONE!!!”  


But they didn’t. They swarmed me instead, always empty, hungry and afraid.  And they were angry too. I could see it in their eyes, their misery and frustration, their rage that I wouldn’t HELP THEM. That I wouldn’t even LOOK at them, SEE them, see that they were human beings, not insects to be swatted away.


But I only walked more quickly, dropping my head, averting my eyes, trying to move past, trying to get away. I was a North American woman traveling alone in New Delhi. Although not hungry, still feeling empty and very much afraid.


That night in my hotel room, after taking a shower and washing off the day’s grime, the panic and vitriol began to subside and I got quiet.


I knew my approach wasn’t working; it wasn’t working at all.


Besides, feeling incensed and frightened, I felt like a jerk for treating people with such disdain. My behavior had made it glaringly obvious that there was a great chasm between who I wanted to be and who I said I was, with who actually lived inside and came out when the pressure was on.


Nobody deserved to be treated with so little respect. My dreams of reaching higher consciousness made me cringe. How superficial my definition had been, how easily it had cracked when challenged.


There had to be a different way.  


And, of course there was, more challenging, to be sure, but it existed. I went to bed with an alternate course of action in mind and slept soundly.


The man was about my age, thin and brown, a wisp of a moustache sat atop his upper lip.  Grey polyester pants that had been made into shorts, the ends frayed; a burgundy long-sleeve shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, only buttoned up to his pecs, miles too big; worn out black flip-flops.


“Miss, Miss, do you have a dollar?”  


I could feel my jaw tighten and my entire body clench when he first called out to me.


It was the following morning and it was time to find out whether my intentions were just fluffy bits or would actually withstand a serious poke. I took a breath, a deep one.


Inner peace didn’t just exist in ideal conditions.  I needed to find it here, right now.


I knew it was here.


I stopped.  I took the fraction of a second to find his eyes, his deep chocolate brown eyes and looked at him straight. I let him take in my eyes' expression as well, made sure that we connected for a millisecond before I spoke and then said: “No, I’m sorry.” 


My eyes didn’t leave his while the words left my mouth, my eyes affirmed what my words were saying. They were unwavering but then softened into a smile as did my lips as I said, “Thank you.”


He looked at me, surprised, and then with a slight nod of his head in understanding as he backed away. 


I saw him.  I really saw him. And he also SAW me SEE him. 


And he saw me too.


I’m sure that was the difference.


I must admit that not all of my solitary walks in this heaving motion of humanity were as successful. It was an effort that I did not always welcome. To consciously choose active love when my feelings had other ideas was stretching and HARD. To take the time to make eye contact with another in order to say, “No,” with strength and kindness made me work. But when I did, when I acknowledged the humanity before me, things seemed to shift.


‘I see you.’


If we take the extra second to truly SEE another, to take in the person before us, everything changes.


Photo Credit: dmitry-baye



Fake News & Side-Seams


The snapping sound of moving fabric as it was unfolded with a flick of a practiced wrist is what I remember most. 


snap!  


In quick succession, done with precision and skill, without thought. 


A movement carried out 100s, if not 1000s of times, releasing piece after piece of fabric into the air, a short ride on a Genie’s carpet, wafting weightless before it landed onto the small piece of space before me. The sound hung heavy in the ethers as each sheet of silk began to build a rainbow mountain of cloth.


snap!  snap! snap!


It was jarring, the way a door that unexpectedly slams is jarring, or the way all of India had made me feel since I had arrived.  


But sound was pushed aside, as colour moved forward to fill me up with its pulsating hue.


Yes, I also remember the color, vibrant color. 


The entire palette of the Crayola crayon box plugged into an electric outlet and vibrating Indian style. Oranges and fuchsias, even the black had a sheen that glistened. These radiant colours seemed more intense when contrasted by the drabness of the room.  


Off-white grimy futons covered the floor, as muted grey light seeped through the only window that was on the opposite wall. It was a silk showroom, and the two young Indian proprietors had greeted us warmly as we walked through the door.


Handing us chai tea, offered in small clear glasses that seemed better suited for orange juice rather than a hot beverage, they encouraged us to, “Sit,” “Sit,” as they motioned us down to the floor. I almost dropped my tea as my eyes adjusted to the gloomy light.


Varanasi, India, home to the Ganges River, burning ghats and gurus; a place that attracts thousands of tourists each year.  But this consecrated city is also known for more than this sacred river and its holy men; the weaving of fine silk by the Momin Ansari Muslims has also brought notoriety.


I had begun my six week trip to India alone and in its capital of New Delhi. But in the last five minutes of a bus tour of the city, I befriended another woman from Holland who was also traveling by herself and who shared the same given name, Susan (clearly a sign), and so we decided to travel together.


Our first stop was Varanasi, not only to check out the river but also to purchase some traditional Benares silk. On our train ride there, Susan struck up a conversation with a handsome Israeli tourist with smoldering eyes and our two became three. 


The day we set out to find silk was dreary grey. The effect was intensified by charcoal coloured stone pathways, so narrow that two Westerns barely had room to walk side-by-side. To my North American eyes, this foreign setting was more like a movie-set than what I knew to be real life. 


We had decided on what silk shops to visit the night before at the guesthouse where we were staying. However, the following morning we puzzled over our map once more before setting out. Even in two-dimensions, the streetscape was complicated. I couldn’t concentrate. I was dizzy and constipated; my body’s way of dealing with culture shock wasn’t to clear everything out but instead to close the plumbing down altogether. And so I just hoped my fellow travelers were better cartographers than me. 


The Lonely Planet, the Bible of all travelers, said that the shop was not on one of Varanasi’s main roads but rather in the labyrinth of skinny pathways that could hardly be called streets.  As we began to walk down one cobblestone alley after another, I moved forward with growing trepidation.  The further we went, the more lost we became until our sense of direction finally failed.


It was sheer luck that led us to where we wanted to go, although the strapping Israeli believed it was his wit and savvy that had brought us here.  Susan gave me a look that indicated that she too knew that fluke was the real guide to our destination.


After our morning’s tour, in what felt like repeated circles, my brain had gone numb. Instinctively, as I sat on the dirty futon I reached out to touch something familiar, something to ground me.


Fabric. I knew fabric. 


At least I thought I knew fabric.


In Brattleboro, Vermont––the booming metropolis of fashion––part of my shopping experience had always been comparing what my fingers felt, and my eyes saw, to what the label in the garment confirmed. I had become skilled at distinguishing good quality cloth, which for me was natural fibers, versus what I deemed subpar synthetics. The tag on the side-seam reaffirmed my tactile estimates.


I felt smug and smart when I did this.


Here, in this place, where nothing was familiar, where my senses were continually being bombarded by the new and the different, I reached out to touch the purple scarf that had landed closest to me. But here too, my point-of-reference failed me. 


I hadn't ever bought silk. My fingers and eyes had never encountered its glossy texture up close and therefore were at a loss to conjure up the comfort of my memory’s experience.  I did love the rich grape colour, how the fabric felt as it glided between my thumb and fingers but I didn’t know.


And yet, as my fingers moved over the sleek texture …


Aww … better. The fog was lifting.


I reached for another piece of cloth; a sari made entirely in creme but with a pattern of paisley woven into the fabric. Again my hands and eyes both agreed that it was beautiful; no label, but still certain.  


I looked up at one of the shopkeepers who hovered beside me, holding up both pieces to him and asked, “How much?”


He pointed to the sari and said, “$250,” that would be in American dollars. And “$50,” for the purple scarf.


I slowly lowered the fabric in my arms as I swallowed hard. I knew that part of being a tourist included paying more, that was part of the unspoken agreement of travel. But without the label to confirm what my fingers were just learning to feel and understand, my uncertainty couldn’t be reassured. I had no idea if the quality of the garment warranted the splurge.


In the end, as was the case in many instances while in India, I had to trust my internal compass to direct me when making a purchase.


It didn’t matter if I was overcharged–in many cases I was sure that I was–the question became, “What did I think?” I had to let go of all the outside rules because I had no idea what they were. And because I didn’t know what was objectively fair, the only reasonable question I could ask myself was whether the item was, “Worth it to me?”


When my group-think failed to work in my new surroundings, I was forced to establish a new metric for assessment.


‘What did I-think?’ became my new baseline.


This experience came back to me recently when I was watching the 6 o’clock evening news, and I heard, yet again, the phrase ‘fake news’ being bandied about by the newscasters.


I found myself thinking, The label in the garment is gone. 


And I think it is.


The certainty that comes from an agreed upon label of values and beliefs is no longer in our proverbial side-seam. There are no directions that unequivocally tell us who we are as a Society that we can refer to when we need to find our ground. The loss of this security is not only uncomfortable, but often painful, as we stretch into a new way of being.


We never act our best when we’re in pain.


It can make us do and say ugly things.


But thoughtless accusations and emotional tirades don’t help in the in-between-time of label-less side-seams. Listening helps. A conscious effort to see, to touch, to experience the unfamiliar before us helps. 


The profundity of the present moment is priceless.


To accept, and not to be scared of, not knowing is in fact the doorway to clarity. 


And until a new set of assumptions, that we all can agree on, solidifies to make a new label that we can sew into the framework of our side-seam, rather than judgement and blame a more productive approach might be to rely on our own intellect and reason, maybe our compassion and heart too, and ask ourselves the question, “What do I think?”


And in the end, when I asked myself, “What do I think?”


I bought the purple scarf.


[Photo Credit: Jose Aragones]



barking soliloquies


Annabelle is the low-key English Setter that I spend time with while in Vermont. She seems to become more gentle and more laid back as the years creep forward, or maybe I've just gotten to know her better.


Regardless, there are exceptions.


Mornings after breakfast, and in the evenings after supper, she waits at the front door with anxious anticipation, impatience brimming until I open the door and she is free to dart out to begin her rounds.


Part of her routine is to bark. She barks a lot.


To the unrefined ear, Annabelle’s earnest pronouncements are noise. I too felt that her barking was excessive when getting to know her. But that was before I took the time to watch her nightly laps, before understanding and love took over and brought me eyes that could see.


In her younger days, her tail at full-mast, a feathery flag that she held up behind her, she trotted the perimeter of her home’s landscape, sounding like the town crier, announcing to her world that morning had come or evening was nigh.


As she has matured, the vigor of youth has slowed, and she no longer feels it necessary to do circles of the property while shouting her emphatic message. Rather, she sits at the top of her hill; tail fanned out on the green grass behind her, ears perked forward at attention, her face moving from side to side in an impassioned rhythm, using the oratorical skills of a prized speaker who understands the value of the dramatic pause.


I’ve wondered what prompts these barking soliloquies to a faceless world.

What is it that compels Annabelle every morning and every night, to speak? And why speak out to no one in particular?


This week, I watched a bird behaving similarly, its lengthy speech sans audience. Not only was there no other bird nearby (that I could see), there were also no pauses in this bird’s song which would suggest a reciprocal call in the distance (that I could not hear). Dubious research methods to be sure, but it did lead me to ask a more profound question,“Was this bird, like Annabelle, vocalizing only for himself?


Which then led to the question, “Do we need to speak, is it something essential for all living creatures to express themselves, even if there is no one there to listen?”


It makes me think differently about those who insist on talking on and on and ON when it is clear that everyone in the room has checked out and are no longer listening.


Maybe there is just a part of us that is hardwired to express ourselves whether the world is paying attention or not. Maybe the primary purpose of speaking is to connect with others, to the outside world, but maybe it is also a way to connect with ourselves. Could it be a way to help us organize our thoughts? A way to integrate another piece of who we are that can only be done if we take what is inside and bring it outside so that we can bring it in again? I don’t know.


A bird doing this is a stretch, but maybe...



Covered Bridge Cathedral


When I am in Vermont, there is a bridge that I must cross to get to the recycling depot. I don’t know what it is about the West Dummerston covered bridge that calls on my reverence. I don’t know why it makes known, without question, that it is deserving of my highest regard and deepest respect.


All I know is that it does.


Whenever I reach its threshold, as I wait for the vehicle from the other side to pass through, I feel compelled to quiet myself and my car before entering into its sacred space. Instinctively, I reach for the volume dial on the dashboard’s console and turn it down to zero. The hum of the heat or AC is also silenced, as my hand reaches for the handle on the driver’s door panel, to roll the window down—all the way.


Whether in blazing heat or sub-arctic cold, something in me hungers to taste the palpable echo of silence. To get as close as I possibly can to the outside world, to listen to all time as it merges for a moment, conducting itself into silent stories within these hallowed walls.


This bridge seems to be a portal of sorts, where past and present meet, stand side by side, opening to one another for a moment before carrying on along their own trajectories to their separate ends.


I’ve entered an old country church, suspended above a lazy springtime river, or a frozen block of winter's snow. My imagination’s ears can hear the lonely sound of a horse’s clopping hooves, led by a solitary rider, as both bring sound and movement to the air of a still, dark night. I hear the footfalls of a courting couple, walking aimlessly and slow, in joyful innocence, willing the night to last forever, full up and overflowing in each other’s company. A time gone by, and yet their new love making a solemn vow, which attaches itself resolutely and forever into the thick wooden beams of this sacred place.


The bridge feels like a keeper of stories—stories of the past, those being lived out now and stories that have yet to come into being.


I feel like a small child in its presence, begging it to reveal all that it knows, but the bridge only seems to smile at my inquisitive longings, holding its wisdom softly, its resolve still firm, keeping its own counsel as I pass through once more.


The West Dummerston Bridge in Windham County is not the only covered bridge that conjures up these feelings of awe and wonder.


The design, the workmanship, the history of these Vermont bridges provide living, functional artifacts that speak of the cultural and historical spirit of the green mountain state. They hold the values of Vermont in their trusses: natural beauty, craftsmanship, and longevity.

The next time you drive through a Vermont covered bridge know you are experiencing some of the best of Vermont!



The Man on Newfane Hill


The echo of bullets firing in the distance has always been a part of the Green Mountains I know.


They never seem to come in rapid succession, instead, a lazy intermediate warp that weaves through Nature's woof, blending with birdsong and gurgling stream, to form the tapestry of sound that moves through the landscape. The Man on the Hill has taught me that this is called, ‘slow fire,’ and is standard when you are shooting from 50 yards. These unhurried balls of lead have been paired since the beginning of my life in Vermont with the soft rolling hills in the distance that my eyes drink in each day.


It started with the sound.


Even before I met The Man on the Hill, the shooting in the distance had enchanted me; the crack in the silence belonged here in this wild and alive Eden.


What had started out as an unsettling jolt in the quiet, had become a sound of comfort. I was unaware that it had captivated my heart, that the firing of a gun had charmed me, had no idea that it had planted a seed.


I spend half my year on Newfane Hill housesitting and writing.


My hermit tendencies have been allowed to flourish here: I’m shy in a way, selfish too, protective of my precious time in Solitude’s arms, fiercely on guard like a momma bear with her cub, wary about who I let into my garden oasis.


So my contact with those on Newfane Hill has been limited; a few brief conversations, exchanging pleasantries, commenting on the weather or the beauty of this special mountain, a hesitant wave as I move back into my world of one.


Other than a polite ‘hello,' I haven’t known the man who fills up the still air with lonely gunshots. And yet, when word got back to this grizzled gentleman that I was a writer who wrote in the morning, the gunshots stopped until 1 o’clock each afternoon.


This would have been the extent of our meetings if my front door lock hadn’t decided to dissolve as I left the house for a day’s outing.  A kindly neighbor dispatched an SOS call on my behalf, and The Man on the Hill was the one to respond.


Arriving in his vintage jeep, which looked more like a dune buggy to my unrefined eyes, was a man in his late sixties. Still strapping, although a little rumpled from wear.


I knew that he was the man who shot guns, a man who had changed his shooting schedule for me, a stranger, so that the mountains could be still as I wrote.


I think his prickly demeanor was meant to be off-putting, but strangely I was not. Instead of retiring to another room while he changed the lock I stayed with him to hand him his tools and to talk.  


He was surprised to learn that the lock was actually broken and I wasn’t just a whiner from the city who was crying wolf. When he realized I knew the difference between a Phillips and a Robertson screwdriver, his apparent litmus test for a credible stranger, his facial features softened and he relaxed into easy conversation.


Raised in the back-country of Springfield, Vermont, he had made the hike of four miles each way to school; a mile of that from his house to the main road. No electricity or phone, not a police officer or fireman to depend on in an emergency, wild animals both a threat and a potential meal.


The Man on the Hill spoke of his youth. He would hunt on his way to school, change his clothes once he arrived, put his gun and hunting clothes in his locker and then change again at the end of each school day to hunt all the way home.


He could shoot a coyote dead, right through the head, cool and emotionless.


Always an outsider, living on the edges, misunderstood and readily left out.


He handled ballistics for the local police department which was why he often filled up the alpine silence with gunfire. But he also spoke of history, politics, and nature, making it clear that his gruff exterior hid depth and heart.


As this kind, smart, old-timer shared his tales, I found my courage.


And so I asked.


Would he teach me to shoot?


I had never shot a gun in my life; I hadn’t even held a gun. My grey hair and laugh lines illustrate that this is a remarkable period of time and it was shocking to me when this desire had bubbled up to my surface.


He said he would.


He was a gunslinger in the truest sense of the word.  


When he held a revolver, his surroundings seemed to disappear; all receded into a background of grey, becoming shapeless and silent. It left only The Man on the Hill and his gun, both looking at their target.


When my shooting lessons began, he picked up his gun to demonstrate how to shoot safely. Though standing beside him, I felt myself to be in a different part of Time, his moving much, much slower than my own.


It was only at the end of our first lesson, made up entirely of theory and safety practices that I held my first gun and shot my first bullet. I could feel both fear and excitement well up as the Smith & Wesson K-22 Revolver was placed into my hands. I was holding death’s underling; the cold steel giving me the power to kill; the weight of this fact heavier than the gun itself.


Lining up my mark, focused, my front sight in line with the notch at the rear site and holding it at 6 o’clock on the target, allowing the gun to wobble around the bullseye 50 yards away. It was like patting my head with one hand while making circular motions over my torso with the other; total concentration made my brain hurt.


My most successful shot was my first. One circle away from the bullseye on the target page. After catching my breath and discovering my good fortune, rather than chalking it up to luck, I immediately wondered if I was a savant. The following week’s target practice crushed this delusion quickly when shooting oranges turned out to be shooting the dirt that surrounded them.


And so ended my shooting career. The desire to shoot was fleeting, like a summer infatuation or a passing flirtation.


After that, our weekly shooting lessons were just an excuse to get together and gab. Instead of lining up targets and shooting guns, we sat on the back porch and circled life’s eternal questions with our words.


My world in Vermont is textured. It is filled with the sights and sounds of some of Mother Nature’s best works, some of humanity’s most profound and yet strikingly simple kindnesses, which, in their combination bring together a world that is unique to these Green Mountains.


 


Write Walk


Walking the Talk

&

Writing the Walk


by

Susan Cruickshank


Susan Cruickshank is a dual citizen who spends half her time living in Vermont, while making her home base in Ontario, Canada.


She is growing her freelance writing

—Vermont Views Magazine

The Sunlight Press—

while chipping away at her first book, a memoir.


You can find her on Facebook:

 https://www.facebook.com/LivingANewFuture/

and Twitter:

Susan Cruickshank @LivingANewFutur