Sunday, 21 May 2017

Grand Manan

There is a place that has stuck with me for more than 20 years. Not once have I been able to return there, but I see it in my head as clearly as any spot in my world. It is an island off an island. Along its shore sits an abandoned lighthouse slowly falling into ruin, shingles beaten grey by the howling Atlantic winds, the smothering Fundy fog, the salt spray and the endless, unrelenting neglect of the years. I always wanted to go across the bay to that island, but it never happened. So I just sat on the back deck of my friend's place drinking cups of tea and gazing across the chop of waves to the island. I don't even know what it was called.

This is really not a story of an island or a lighthouse, but that lighthouse seems forever linked in my mind with my friend. If it were not for her, I probably would never have seen it. Perhaps I would never have taken the rough little ferry across from Blacks Harbour to North Head, but because I knew a girl from Grand Manan, I had a reason to go.

I met Kelly on my first day of living away from home, ever. My best friend Mere was a year ahead of me, and she had already laid the social foundation at university, greased the proverbial wheels of friendship, so to speak, and I was moving into the same residence house. I had heard all about Kelly in letters (this was the pre-email, pre-text, pre-cellphone days, people) and she was there with Mere, waiting to meet me. I was a little jealous. "She's my best friend, not yours," I was thinking. I was 17.

Kelly had a big, giant, completely open and uncomplicated smile. It was hard to resent that for long. We were very different, but it still clicked, and we all became a gang, the Holy Cross House girls. Kelly always worked harder than any of us at school, as we were far more interested in the party scene than we were in attending classes. She always attended class. Heck, she even attended mass. Kelly was a Good Girl. The rest of us were far from "holy." We somehow made it through university, partying hard and misbehaving in any way we could. Frankly, I was not always the best kind of friend to have, and yet Kelly was always capable of seeing the best in us. She struggled at times, but she had a way about her that allowed her to see the light when the rest of us saw darkness. She kept us grounded, made us laugh. Her crazy collection of fantasy books, pots of tea, pitchers of beer, nights at the movies (Beauty and the Beast five times in the theatre) and her absolutely irresistible laugh.

We stayed friends throughout university, even when she had moved on to "serious education" and I was still flailing my way through a BA and every bad relationship I could find. At one of my lowest points, at the end of an abusive relationship, I was hiding out in my little studio apartment, in bed. Kelly came and got me, made me get dressed and took me out for dinner at Mexi's. It was my birthday. She was so kind that it made me cry.

In later years, after we had all returned to our home islands, we visited back and forth when we could. She started teaching in a one-room school on another tiny island that she ferried to every morning. I found this endlessly fascinating. I went to journalism school and ended up back in our university town doing a summer job at the newspaper. On weekends I would drive down to Blacks Harbour and catch the ferry to Grand Manan to stay in Kelly's little apartment in an old RCMP barracks. We drank many cups of tea, watched movies and read, laughed and talked into the night, looked out at the fog. It was balm for the soul.

In my second year of J-school I was floundering a bit, falling back into my old slacker ways, dissatisfied with everything in the way that always preceded a bout of depression. I spent a couple of wasted months doing excruciatingly mediocre work in a job placement in Ottawa, but I was lonely and miserable, and spent a fair amount on long distance calls. Kelly was a great long distance cheerleader. In March I was back on my Island, generally feeling sorry for myself. One night I was home alone in the house I shared with 3 friends when the phone rang. It was Mere, and she was choking on words that made no sense.
It was Kelly, she said. She collapsed, and her mom found her in the morning.
In that sweet apartment by the sea, overlooking the old lighthouse.
I remember sinking down the wall and we wept together, Mere miles away in Ottawa and me on the floor. It had been instant, an aneurysm or an embolism or one of those horrifying things that just snaps a life out like a lightbulb on a switch.

The last time I went to Grand Manan was for the funeral. Mere and I met in the town where we had all gone to university. From there we travelled down with another friend, all of us silent. It was a blur. A terrifying, numb, soaked, foggy blur. We could not hold it together, even in front of her family who were suffering so much greater a loss than us. We were selfish in our grief.

The idea that death could touch our lives in this way, take a friend from us at her young age was a shock that took our breath away. The fact that Kelly was such a good person, in my eyes a far superior human being to me, made it even more unbelievable.

I am not overstating the facts by saying that losing her changed my life. When I got back home from her funeral, I took the reins of my life into my own hands again, no longer just drifting downriver with no sense of direction. If my friend was not there to live life to the fullest, I would choose to do it in her place. I stopped waffling and started living. I applied for newspaper jobs across Canada. I ended up 5687 kilometres from home, in a little rodeo town in the Cariboo region of British Columbia, a place I had never seen and where I knew no one.

It had become clear I could die at any minute, so I'd better get out there and live. I bought an old beater car for $800 that I drove hours on gravel roads into nowhere to get a good story. I hiked up a mountain, waking up by an alpine lake with mountain sheep staring down at me. I rode in a cattle drive. On an actual horse. I lived by a lake, watching the float planes land and take off every day. To put it crudely in true Cariboo style, I grabbed life by the balls.

I also met a guy and I gave him a chance that I have never regretted.

Would any of this have happened if we had not lost her? I don't know. I just know that her loss changed the trajectory of my life. I think of her so often. When I got married. When I had my daughters. When Mere and I get together for our yearly catch-up visit. When I took my daughters to see Beauty and the Beast. I dream about her sometimes, and I wake up feeling comforted. The world is so so different now from what it was in 1999. Kelly would have loved social media, would have relished the funny cat videos and the clips from Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show.  What would she have brought to the world if she was still with us? She would have been such an amazing auntie, parent, teacher, friend. Even after all these years, I still can't imagine why she is not here.

Years ago, I had one of those dreams that are so real you could swear it actually happened. You wake up with the emotions intact, the conversation still reverberating in your head. I dreamed that Kelly came to see me, that I was so overjoyed and surprised and relieved. I still remember what she told me in that dream and how she looked, so well and so radiant.

"I'm okay, really. I'm happy. And everything will be okay."

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Snow day

Sounds carry a lot of memory, and as a child there was no sweeter sound than howling wind and the scour of snow on the house on a school morning. You could almost tell by the pitch of the wind whether it would warrant a coveted "all schools closed" day. I would lie in bed as long as possible, listening to the wind and waiting for my parents to turn the radio on. The crackling old portable radio (queue the CFCY jingle) would announce the weather and any storm closures. We would rejoice to hear that schools across the Island were closed for the day, which was far superior to the "all schools will be delayed for an hour" announcement.

Growing up on an Island, storms were serious business, with 100 km/hour winds and huge dumps of snow blowing around in it, resulting in complete whiteout conditions when the police would actually tell people to stay off the roads. I loved it. Every kid loved it. Getting stormstayed meant complete freedom, to read, play cards or yahtzee, watch cartoons, play in the snow, whatever. Glorious, unstructured time to just BE.

I loved it a little less when I grew up and lived in a big old draughty farmhouse of my own. Snowstorms were all well and good until the power went down. Going without electricity or hot water for four days with two kids in diapers was really a bit too pioneering for me. But once the girls were in school and old enough to enjoy those days of breaking free from scheduling, it was lovely all over again. No lunches to pack, nowhere to go, and lots and lots of snow to keep everyone occupied.

So imagine our shock when we moved to the prairies and "storm day" was not something that ever, ever happened. Oh, noooooo. The schools could never close, because what if that one family did not hear the news and sent their children to school, only for the children to find the school locked up?
Ridiculous, I know. Didn't they know what they were missing out on? Loved the prairies, hated the winters, that is my truth. Four long years without a single storm day.

Well, seaside winters are best but I still think we have now landed in the winterland. People do not simply embrace the season here, they become one with the winter, the mountain life and all that outdoorsy, down-muffled-ski bums-and-winter-carnival lifestyle. The best part? The winterland just had its first real live Snow Day in decades, just in honour of our first winter in the mountains.

Okay, that is probably a huge assumption but so be it. We woke up for school, and school was cancelled. Work was cancelled. For one day, adulthood was cancelled. It does not get any sweeter than that. So sweet that people actually snowboarded down the streets of Nelson. Oh, hell yeah they did.

As for us, we could not get out of our road, so what to do? Laze in bed with the cats. Drink tea by the fire. Watch cartoons. Play Scrabble. Bake. Toboggan. Snowshoe. Giggle. Live life to the fullest. Forget all the bad news, the scary stress-inducing reality of the world, all the crappy stuff we can put off worrying about for another day, a day that will be still be there with all of its worries, after the snow day. Recharge, restore your faith in fun and snow angels, hot chocolate and fresh biscuits, chili in the slow cooker and a day to be with the people you love, or the pets that you love, or just on your own. We are all more equipped to handle the rest of the week, now. Thank you, universe, for the snow day.

Friday, 13 January 2017

I resolve never to make resolutions

Let it be resolved that we will never again make New Year's resolutions based on what we saw in the flyers this week.

It boggles my mind that every single January, the gurus of marketing ensure that all of the key words are hit in every advertorial, every flyer, every promotional email. You know the ones. Renew! Refresh! Detox! Organize! Purge! Declutter! Clean! New new new! New you, too!

Ads for treadmills and magic bullets, miraculous shoe racks and plastic totes promise to make everything easier, cleaner, healthier, fresh and new. I actually find myself getting sucked into articles telling me how to detoxify with a shot of apple cider vinegar every morning and a cup of turmeric tea before bed, and nothing in between. So down the hatch with the vinegar. Drink that glass of water first thing in the morning, and follow it with ten minutes of meditation. Write down goals for the new year in a beautiful, pure white journal. But for heaven's sake do not call it a resolution, because there is no better way to curse yourself to complete and utter failure than by making resolutions. Especially if you make your resolutions public on social media. *ahem*

Apple cider vinegar with a tea chaser.
And yes, I was a total failure at the apple cider vinegar thing, but I am drinking a glass of water first thing every morning and trying to remember to meditate each day even for a few minutes. I have a lot of experience with a busy mind, and it has taken a lot of practice to slow it down over the years.

One of the biggest resolutions goals for me every year is to write more regularly, not for money or glory (because there is none) but just as a creative outlet because I can't knit or paint or sculpt or carve, or anything else, really with any level of prowess. Probably prowess is the wrong word, actually kind of an icky word. Sorry.
Years ago writing is what I did for a living, following a stint in journalism school, and I have had a love/hate relationship with the media ever since. But writing is something I can do, and as it makes life better to spew words onto a page, then it must be done.

Where was I going with that? Oh yes, goals.

Decluttering is another one of those hot topics of January. Last year I signed up for Apartment Therapy's January Cure, thinking that maybe regular emails reminding me to declutter would help clarify my vision of spare, simple space. I failed, plus my email box was even more cluttered, but they do offer lots of mindful suggestions, like how to meditate on what kind of space you want.

That being said, getting rid of stuff is so important. A few years back we moved from a 2500 square foot farmhouse into a 1000 square foot townhouse. It is staggering how many things we got rid of and how many more we fit into that small space. I am quite fascinated by small space living and love to read about tiny houses and all that jazz, but am equally enamoured with thrift store shopping. The simple rule of "one thing in, one thing out" is something that keeps it under control, and we keep a box or a bin always available for donating. It is a constant process of dropping things in until it fills up, and then dropping it off to charity.

Another goal for this year to work harder to connect with people and to maintain those connections. Somehow it was much easier to make friends when our children were tiny. Perhaps wild-eyed, exhausted parents covered in baby drool are just drawn together by some unseen force, and bonded together by mutual need and stress. Book clubs! Playdates! Birthday parties! Storytimes! So many social opportunities. I clearly remember ambushing an obviously pregnant woman (That's you, Lilah) and forging a friendship based on babies and a love of books. It is sooooo much more difficult now.
Reaching out is tough, and I've never been a joiner but I have always been blessed to have livelong friends who stay in touch. When I see them again it as if we were never apart. One glass of wine or cuppa tea and we are right back to the comfort zone. But moving around as we have means we have friends all across the country, so that is a positive, right?

Blogging is another way of reaching out, as well. Sometimes I wish I could do something BIG like Jonathan Field's The Good Life Project or Tsh Oxenreider's Art of Simple and become someone who does podcasts on .... something meaningful, but hey, not everyone can podcast so I will be happy if ten people read my blog. Or none, other than my mom. Another blog I love to read is Rita's Notebook. Rita writes about whatever the heck she wants and she does it beautifully. I especially like this post about how her teachers changed the trajectory of her life. All of these clever folks (and many more) are busy trying to make a positive difference in the world, despite the modern day Grimm's fairy tale taking place in the States these days. And when I say "Grimm" I mean, the original Grimm's fairy tales that were really, well, GRIM.

I would love to hear some goals that you all are thinking about for your lives, as well. Let us inspire each other, and reach out to others who are working hard to keep the sunshine in their hearts. By focusing our lens on good people and good things in our lives, it helps us shift our attention to optimism.

If all else fails to inspire, then go read a good book. A little escape never hurt anyone. Right now I am reading Catherine Alliott, while also rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Reading to children will always bring you joy (and giggles). I am so happy to be returning to the toddler/baby world this week by facilitating a songs and rhymes program. Which means of course that I am wandering around the house singing "Mama's little baby loves dancing dancing, Mama's little baby like to boogie down." Hey, I have to practice. I am also having a look through this list of books for children that I pinned ages ago. Have a wonderful week, friends.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Blending in is overrated

So, that year is over.

Honestly, 2016 was not my favourite year from a news perspective, but then one of the promises I've made to myself is to read less news in the new year. Or at least to seek out legitimate news, which is a bit like finding gold ingot buried in the compost heap. In a personal sense, a year of upheaval has led us from the prairies to the mountains, to a place where it seems anything can and often does happen.

Reflections on our new home place? It seems blessed with an endless supply of creative anachronism, and not just in the sense that yes, some people actually dress as though they exist in a whole different century, or reality. There is a sense of optimism here, despite the proliferation of homelessness and addiction that also seems to exist. It is a place a bit outside of time, where conscientious objectors live happily alongside excruciatingly cheery Australian ski buffs, stores have "sliding scale" pricing and focus hard on natural, organic, fair-trade, local, free-range, handmade ....where was I going with this? Anyhow, it is just that way.

It is a bit hard to reconcile the well-heeled, fresh-faced, Patagonia-wearing crowd with the dreadlocked cape-wearing panhandler with a dog and guitar on the corner, but there it is. Weirdly I feel like I fit in here just by virtue of being human. And if my child wants to dance down the street wearing mismatched rainbow knee socks, red suspenders, shorts over tights, a down coat and a top hat, no one even bats an eyelash. You have got to love that.

Certainly the pioneer spirit is alive and well, since surviving in a place where fabulously-well-paying jobs are few does present challenges. Making a living requires endless flexibility, and possibly the ability to raise your own rare sheep, shear them, spin and dye the wool and weave it by hand into value-added luxury pashminas, while composting the sheepshit into your organic vegetable gardens. Back-to-the-landers are in heaven here. As long as you've got a sunny slope then you might as well grow veg and raise chickens on it. Unless of course you can afford to pay the prices at the glorious new co-op store. *sigh

The thrifting economy flourishes in the Kootenays, so if you are willing to work for it and really dig, there are treasures to be found. Facebook buy and sell pages are unbelievably competitive so if you are serious about looking for something you have to troll the waters almost constantly, as coveted items are often offered and bought within minutes. Best buys? Ikea Billy bookshelves for $50 and a gorgeous old wood sewing table for $40. A fist pump is totally acceptable when you score a deal.

I am working at resurrecting my country skills now that we have moved away from townhouse living, back to the woods. The mountains stretch out around us, so that all we have to do is strap on snowshoes to walk out behind the house onto the trails.

Winter is well and truly settled in for the long haul, which means the oft-made resolution to embrace the season has again been made. It is so much easier to embrace winter when the very act of breathing does not feel like sticking dry ice up your nose (-50 degree prairie windchill, anyone?) but I am the first to admit I am not a snow bunny. Snowshoeing out on the mountain is glorious but the local passion for downhill skiing is probably not contagious as I have quite a high level of immunity to death-defying sports.

Creative endeavours always seem to take off in the colder months, and this year is no exception, but READING will always be my favourite winter sport. I so miss working in a library just for the flow of suggestions on what to read next. What is on your shelf for this winter? I am crushing on these books but looking for more as always, particularly as I gravitate towards light, fluffy, happy-ending fiction and I feel I should broaden my horizons. Of course, there are times (all of 2016) when fluffy happy endings are really quite appreciated. Needed, even.

 Living in the woods does make me feel like I should learn to whittle, or knit, or something like that. We've tried felting this winter, with some small success. Last week we went to the fabric store and wandered around in a dazed and amazed fashion for a while, coming out with what is most likely wildly inappropriate fabrics for my limited skills. I am pretty sure the salesclerks snickered when we left. Still, perhaps crepe and chenille will inspire my youngest seamstress child to some cutting-edge dolly creations so it will be worth it.

I am still seeking my place, and who knows, maybe I will find it here.

Monday, 24 June 2013

How to survive (and love) summer vacations with kids

Ava's very first road trip. That's Mount Robson reflected, and she is SO excited.

Remember road trips with your family as a kid? I do. It was always very exciting except for the part where my dad made us get out of bed at 4 a.m. so we could be in line for the first ferry in the morning. Yup, the joy of living on an Island in those days (pre-Confed Bridge) was having to wait in line for the 6 a.m. ferry to the mainland. Yeesh.

Anyhow, we rarely travelled all that far, maybe to Lunenburg to see the boats, or Cocagne for the boat races (see a boat theme here?), or even to Cape Breton to do the Cabot Trail. My husband remembers driving from British Columbia to Manitoba every summer. He claims his dad told them to go to the bathroom at home 'cause they weren't stopping again until Manitoba.

Now that we have our own children we know the frustration of having a small but demanding voice coming from the backseat every half-hour, "I have to peeeeeeeeeeeeee!" We are planning trips to both coasts this summer, so we are in full prep mode now, especially from a mental perspective.

Confederation Bridge...much easier than waiting for the ferry.


Accept the fact that you have to stop a lot and it will take at least 2 hours longer than you plan. 

Make a playground the destination.
Make sure every place you are headed has a playgound. And pretend that is your major goal in life, to get to the next stop so that you can go to that playground. Somehow they will endure hours of driving for some monkey bars. I swear we could write a book entitled "Playground tourism for Dummies."

Bring lots of stuff
We don't have DSs (DSesses??). No video games. But I stock up on lots of books from the Sally Ann or library book sales for the girls. No library books on holidays so they don't get left somewhere. We also bring MP3 players for each girl, loaded with lots of their own tunes. Taylor Swift, Walk off the Earth, One Direction, some clean Pink, Josh Groban, some fiddle tunes and Irish Rovers. Eclectic. We also pack lots of drawing pads, coloured pencils and doodle books because they can draw for hours.

Bring lots of food
When in doubt, give snacks. Lots of fruit, nuts and something treat-like. Road trip food like corn nuts or popcorn or (GASP) junk food. I always have to have corn nuts and cream soda on road trips.

Bring your sense of humour
If you're feeling a little crazy and you think you might scream if one more person asks "whennnnnnn will we be there?" just remember, your children will grow up and refuse to go on roadtrips with you. Enjoy! Be silly, and laugh. You will all feel better.

Camp or stay with friends with kids along the way.
That way the trip itself is part of the fun. It's not just about the destination, it is all the fun stops as well. Plus the kids can entertain each other while the grown-ups crack a cold bottle of wine and catch up on life.

Learn stuff
National Parks and Historic sites are SO great for families. They have wonderful programs to engage kids, and lots of fun things for everyone to do as they enjoy nature and learning. I know, theme parks and water slides are fun (for about 10 minutes), but nature is the ultimate theme park. Last year we bought a national park pass that let us into every park and historic site in Canada, and it was well worth it.

Fun at Lunenburg
Digging for dinosaur bones at Fundy Geological Museum

Park Xplorer program at Fundy National Park

Changing of the guard at Fortress of Louisbourg

Surviving the summer at home

Make every day a stay-cation. 
This is my first summer of being totally off, full-time parenting for the entire season. And I am ready. Rainy days call for trips to the library, where there are always lots of activities as part of the Summer Reading Program. Sunny days mean picnics at the park, playground tours (we make it a goal to visit each one in the city), and this summer it will be trips to a lake since the ocean is currently thousands of kilometres away. Swimming lessons are also on the list.

Be footloose and fancy-free.
Take the kids for a hike in the woods, find a stream, sit back and relax. It is amazing how much fun children can have with a few sticks, some birch bark and some free-flowing water in a sun-dappled forest.

Little geocachers
Go geocaching!
If you've got a GPS and lots of junky doo-dads, you are all set for this amazing outdoor activity. Everybody loves a treasure hunt, and there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of geocaches in every province. We have a little bag of goodies (called swag in geocaching language), so when we find a cache we can swap for whatever little item in the cache the girls want. Check out to download coordinates for caches wherever you are.

Go camping. 
There is nothing better than sleeping outdoors. Really, I mean it. It just may not seem that way when you have to get up in the middle of the pitch-black night and stumble to the nearest comfort station (ie. bathroom) with a child who needs to pee and flatly refuses to do it behind the conveniently located tree beside your tent. But camping is a parade of awesomeness. Stay up late, eat beans and wieners, roast marshmallows on the campfire and listen to the crickets.

Have some lemonade and freezies. Enjoy this oh so short period of time when your children are so young and full of imagination and joy and enthusiasm for the world around them. If we could all adopt that attitude, to approach each moment with the trust, optimism and fresh outlook of a child, summertime becomes all it is meant to be. A time to refresh, to soak up nature, blue skies, good food eaten outdoors, and time to reconnect as a family.

If all else fails, go fly a kite.