Saturday, April 22, 2017

Four Years

I went to Mexico in January to stay with my father while my brother and his family were away. Some things are different, but many things in the house are still the same since Mom died. The kitchen was her domain and the drawers and cupboards are mostly unchanged. My teapot still sits on top of the fridge and pots, utensils and containers are in their rightful places. Her handwritten inspirational sayings remain attached to the fridge door with magnets.

Grandma Devins took a trip to Scotland in the late 1960s or early 1970s. She brought back a spurtle which is a wooden stirrer for making creamy porridge. Porridge was a served every morning in our home except for Saturdays when we had Shreddies. On Sundays, raisins were added to the gruel. Mom used the spurtle for years and the wood finally cracked. One of the last things she asked me to bring her from Canada before she died was another spurtle. I never found one and the old cracked one is still in the kitchen. Each morning I made porridge for Dad and myself and stirred the grains to perfect creaminess with the old kitchen tool…and thought of Mom. I almost brought it home, but left it where it belonged.

The kitchen is still the heart of the home. I squeezed orange juice while Mom’s old dog Inge, who is now 11 years old, slept in the corner. Her great-grandson who was born a couple of weeks after her death, played hide and seek at the kitchen counter. Family photos remain on top of the grand piano and I saw my mother in my face. It upsets my father to speak much about her, but he continues in routines they set together and "sees" her often.

I watched the Vermillion Flycatcher outside the kitchen window in the mornings and admired the vermillion sunset over the mountains in the evening. The swallows returned to their nest outside the door and hummingbirds hovered around the flowers in the garden as they did when she was here.

Today marks four years since she left. I made porridge for breakfast and reminisced with some family members who called. Dad is not well and seems to decline step-wise at this time of year. Here are some verses from Psalm 90 that I love.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.

Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.

Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendour to their children.

May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Circles of Control, Influence and Concern

I like to think of myself as a calm and rational person, and people who see me may believe that to be true. What they do not see is the turmoil I sometimes internalize which leads to distraction, fatigue, insomnia, inner turmoil, stress and anger. The amount of information we have to process in real time is often overwhelming and our responses can be emotional “knee-jerk” reactions. Complaining is a popular past-time at work and elsewhere, and too much whining is done about things that are not in our control

Stephen R. Covey described circles of concern and influence in his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He wrote,

”Instead of reacting to or worrying about conditions over which they have little or no control, proactive people focus their time and energy on things they can control."

In response to some stressors in my life this year, I drew three circles;-

Control, Influence and Concern. 

There are things in my life that I can control
There are circumstances and people that I can influence
There are areas of concern that I have no control or influence over at all. 

I have tried to manage my time based on what I wrote in my circle of control. An over-reaction to events we cannot control- 
a bad driver, a long check-out line, negative behaviour of other people, the weather report, the value of the dollar, and so on
drains our energy and darkens our mood. We have influence over people in close and casual relationships, but it is important to resist controlling others who are capable of being responsible for their own decisions, particularly our children and spouses. 

I recently returned from Mexico where I spent time caring for my father who is dependent in all aspects of his care. His inability to do things for himself due to advanced Parkinson’s Disease causes frustration and anger at times. We discussed this topic and talked about how his circle of control has become much, much smaller.


Like a child, he is increasingly controlled by his caregivers, leading him to ask what purpose there is in living with such a disability. He still has control of his words and reactions. He can influence the people he interacts with in a positive or negative way. It is within our power to control our attitudes, even in circumstances that are not ideal.

My three year old great-nephew came to visit while Dad was walking around the house for exercise. I watched as Great-Grandson pushed his scooter at the same pace that Great-Grandfather walked with his walker. Youth and old age, both with limited control but with significant influence on each other.

Here is the template for the circles I filled in with very personal situations and concerns. The exercise brought increased awareness of what things are most important for me to "centre" on.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Deep Winter

Northern Cardinal (m)

Winter arrived suddenly after a hot summer and long autumn season. We have received a lot of lake effect snow from the relatively warm, open waters of Lake Huron along with days of dreaded "mixed precipitation". Just before Christmas I bought snow tires for my 4 wheel drive vehicle and I have been thankful for them several times in the past month. I also bought "snow tires" for my feet in the form of vibram-soled Sperry winter boots. I prefer driving on ice to walking on ice and the new boots have eased a lot of anxiety about falling. (Here is a link to an Ontario study about the best winter boots for staying upright) 

There has been little time for birding and trail walking this month but I have been out on a couple of occasions. American Tree Sparrows, with their bi-coloured beaks and distinctive chest spot look for handouts along with Juncos, Chickadees and Nuthatches.

American Tree Sparrow (banded)

The river is home to "snowbirds" from the near and far north. Bufflehead ducks, Goldeneyes, Mergansers of all types, and other small diving ducks fish in fast-flowing open waters of the Grand River. I haven't made it down to Lake Ontario yet this winter where many other water birds over-winter.

Bufflehead (m) Duck

One afternoon I heard a lot of anxious bird chatter and looked up to see this Cooper's Hawk patiently waiting for his next meal, or, perhaps he was just sunning at the top of the tree. No songbird would dare fly in close proximity to this swift hunter.

The same day, we found a couple of American Robins on our neighbourhood digging in the dirt close to houses where the snow had receded. I usually see a few Robins in January but they are often by the river in berry thickets. 

The pictures below were taken last week. The first was after a beautiful snowfall and the second was taken the next morning as people were rushing to work. Our region has built multiple roundabouts to replace traditional intersections. I have mixed feelings about them as some people are still confused about how to navigate multi-lane versions. The car in the picture left the road at a roundabout near our home, accelerated up a sloped yard right into the townhouse. It took a day to extract the vehicle because of the structural damage to the building. I don't mind winter driving myself, but I am wary of other people who are not comfortable driving on ice and snow.

In spite of winter hazards, there is still time for fun. Our dog loves to chase a sled down the nearby slopes of the old city dump, affectionately known as Mount Trashmore. We are expecting a January thaw this week but hopefully it is short-lived so winter sport venues can enjoy a profitable season. Winter is not my favourite time of year, but I will make the best of it, especially as I see the days getting longer and pointing to spring.

Monday, January 02, 2017

New Year's Welcome

Whatever this year may bring I will remember
that it started in perfect harmony, with a bubbling
brook that sang as it rushed over rocks, 
and chickadees who chortled before 
taking seeds from my hand.

Whatever this year may bring I will remember
sunshine on fresh unmarked snow, a
crescent moon beside Venus 
in the twilight sky, and the 
exhilaration of a walk in crisp, cold air. 

Whatever this year may bring I will remember
to find joy in simple things, and take time 
to dream, and learn, and give thanks, and smile 
even when life seems overwhelming 
and the future is uncertain.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflections on 2016

As I sit here on New Year’s Eve 2016, I am reminded of the Psalm that says, 

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so we may grow in wisdom"   Ps 90:12

I am fortunate to have daily reminders of numbered days, and the harm that springs from petty quarrels and greed. It is customary to make New Year’s resolutions but it is also good to reflect on growth and changes in the last twelve months. 

I kept a hand written journal for an entire year and wrote on the last page today. This has been an useful way to keep track of thoughts, ideas, wisdom from other people, and to-do lists. I journaled significant and mundane things together because life is that way. A beautiful sunrise, a butterfly, a bird, a chance meeting, a tasty dinner all bring me joy.  Oscar Wilde was right when he wrote,

 “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Journaling made me more aware of the sacred that exists in everything. One of my goals was to appreciate the humanity and potential goodness in everyone without pre-judging by appearance or behaviour. Everyone has a back story that deserves respectful listening. I continue to appreciate the beauty of the natural world which surpasses the grandest cathedral made by man. And relationships with other people are important to cultivate as we wither physically, mentally and spiritually without meaningful social support. 

I wrote a lot of prayers in my journal. I came to realize that most of what I called prayer was self-centred and petulant. I believe the primary purpose of prayer is to change my thinking, my attitudes, and my behaviour. God is not a genie who comes and releases us from our problems. He gives us the tools to do the work ourselves. Likewise, we, by our actions, bring about change in our sphere of influence. I am reminded daily how self-centred I am by nature and how hard it is to extend needed forgiveness and grace to others.

I am more appreciative of good health and know that abuse of our bodies is not easily overcome as we age. Making good nutrition, exercise, rest and stress management a priority is a daily challenge. I became aware of the concept of “mindfulness” this year. Multi-tasking robs us of awareness of simple pleasures. We rush about, eat fast food, gorge on social media, and misuse the time we need to invest in a meaningful, balanced life. I continue to make my own bread every week. When I eat a slice at the beginning of the day, I am reminded of my connection with Jesus, the bread of life, and human kind who has broken bread for millennia. This is communion in the truest sense.

My religious background was strict and questions had pat answers. I knew the statements of faith well and taught them to many children in Sunday School. My understanding of certain doctrines and practices has changed significantly. It has been good to journal my questions and musings and to listen to others who interpret scripture differently. Unanswered questions keep us on the quest for wisdom and knowledge.

I have a brand new journal for 2017 but will keep the 2016 version handy. Every day is a gift for which I am grateful.
Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Whimsical Diversions

The old man on the dementia ward held a cabbage patch doll, a boy, dressed in a blue sweater and overalls. I watched as he cupped the doll’s head in his hands and stared lovingly into its face. 
“My little boy, my dear little baby,” he said as he raised it up and kissed its forehead before bringing it to rest on his shoulder. The tenderness he showed toward the doll was very real and touching. 

As a child I truly believed my toys came to life when I wasn’t looking. I was influenced by Enid Blyton’s books and delighted in the magical world of fairies, pixies and elves and goblins. I tried to believe in Santa for as long as possible, if not for myself, for my younger brothers. I still like to imagine little woodland creatures living under a Mayapple leaf or inside a Jack in the Pulpit wildflower. I would like to be one of Tolkien's almost immortal elves.

I watched the French movie Amélie for the first time this summer. I loved the scene where Amélie takes her father’s garden gnome and sends it with a stewardess friend on adventures around the world. In July, CBC carried a fun news story about a lady in British Columbia whose garden gnome was stolen. The “thieves” returned the gnome weeks later with a hardcover photo book of its adventures through western United States and into Mexico. So when I saw a garden gnome in a clearance sale for under $10 at a hardware store in September… I bought it. 

Mr. Gnoddy is a bobble head gnome who has been quite busy since he came to our home. He has his own Instagram account and has found many other travelling gnomes online. When our dog sees Mr. Gnoddy, she knows it is picture time and generously poses beside him. He has been to Montreal, Quebec City, Gatineau, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto and several places in between. He is going on his first flight in January. Perhaps he will be able to publish a photo book as well. 

Rein Poortvliet was a Dutch artist who is best known for his paintings and books about animals and gnomes. A Gnome’s Christmas is a delightful story book about the traditions of these little people. The larger volume, Gnomes, was a best seller when it was published in 1977. It reads like a fanciful biology text and may raise some interesting questions from younger readers.

Adults who follow whimsical diversions, from Beatrix Potter to J.R.R. Tolkien and many in between, have enriched our lives with interesting literature and art. Like the old man in the hospital, these make believe characters represent something true and memorable within us. We are never too old for imagination and play. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Earth's Crammed with Heaven...

TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws

Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world

Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things

And spiritual,—who separates those two

In art, in morals, or the social drift
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,

Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,

Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,

Is wrong, in short, at all points...

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware...

From ‘Aurora Leigh’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 

I read part of this poem today and wanted to share this excerpt, if for no other reason than to remember it myself. There are so many similes that resonate with me in her writing.

And so I will go about my day looking for inspiration in my routine, in the ordinary people I will encounter, in the hustle and bustle of the city and the solitude of nature. 

Monday, December 05, 2016

Christmas Customs and Culture

Christkindl Christmas Market

We attended the annual Christkindl Christmas market in our city this weekend. Our area was settled largely by German speaking immigrants a couple of centuries ago and while we are far more diverse now, Oktoberfest and the Christmas market are well attended events.

Traditional German band with an alpenhorn 

I asked a Hindu nurse at work if there were any December celebrations in her culture. She said no, but she planned to put up a Christmas tree and exchange gifts with friends and family. To her, it was a Canadian tradition she felt comfortable adopting. Other acquaintances are celebrating St. Nicholas Day tonight and tomorrow in the Dutch tradition. There was a Krampus run this weekend along with the Christmas market to celebrate some darker European Yuletide legends. 

Krampus is here                                                                        Catalonian Caganer (source)

Catalonian nativity scenes feature a figure who is defecating in a corner or behind a tree. The “Caganer"  or “pooper” is a symbol of fertility and good fortune in an agrarian society. He may also represent the fact that Jesus was a partaker of everything that is human. I work in an environment where regularity or irregularity is recorded and dealing with excrement is all in a day’s work. It is something common to all species who eat food, whether rich or poor, young or old, famous or infamous. It is part of our humanity. 

In Mexico, Christmas posadas are community events where participants go from house to house looking for the Christ Child. In parts of Newfoundland, Mummers go from house to house looking for food and drink in exchange for music and dancing.

Joseph at the Christkindl Market
I truly doubt that our nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus are even close to what really happened. In my mind, Mary and Joseph were likely staying with relatives in the autumn of the year. The lower part of the building housed the animals and the couple stayed there, as the guest room was occupied. They shared meals with others who were hospitable and generous. They may have been guests for days or weeks before the birth. Mary was not alone during labour but was attended by a local midwife and caring women. They were not isolated on a hill far from town but were part of the normal hum and rhythm of the community.

Legend and tradition have become the mainstay of our December celebrations with each culture interpreting the story according to their own history and perspective. Community is central to the celebration. I am fortunate to be able to participate in my community’s Christmas celebrations. Maybe someday I will have a chance to visit Spain and encounter a Caganer as part of their interpretation of the Christmas story.