Truth and Reconciliation

I am quicksand today, a bowl of sugar sitting in a tropical rain, an unsuitable environment for thought of my own. But this, offered by my friend Steve, resonated deeply with me. Follow the link; it’s worth a few minutes of your time, much more so than most of my ramblings.

We know the mantle of victimhood is unproductive. But we know equally well that the tentacles of trauma are far-reaching, that the changes they bring to our epigenome are passed on from us to our children and grand-children and great-grandchildren. We all need a little mercy, and maybe if we put our minds to it there’ll be enough to go around someday?

Grow Mercy

Turning off Autopilot

While waiting in line for a macadamia nut gelato earlier, I saw a sign that urged me not to be afraid to do nothing but sit and think while at the beach. It sounds good, but the thing is this: sitting and thinking can yield some unpleasant insights into ourselves.

Without insight into ourselves though, pleasant or otherwise, how can we grow? How can we hope to move beyond those things that, like the turtle I saw today, surface into view only extremely briefly and rarely?

Most of how we operate is subconscious, deeply submerged, habitual, which is of course the antithesis to conscious living. Being conscious to the present may not always be fully pleasant, but it is surely truer and less destructive than living reflexively and unaware of the lengths we go to in order to manage our fears.

Busy-ness is one of my escapes from reality and fear, I’ve come to see clearly again. Being productive, getting things done. And being anything but busy this week, reality looms large. How I see myself, both good and bad, what I’m profoundly thankful for and what I’m bitter about, what I’m confident with and what I’m terrified of—it has all come into sharp focus.

Social and laughter-filled vacations are therapeutic, of course. But I think a retreat from all that distracts and numbs and enables our escapes from reality is revealing and empowering in ways that the usual ones can’t be. The unexamined life is, as Socrates said, not worth living.

Someone, I don’t know who, has said “to change your life: start immediately, do it flamboyantly,” and while that isn’t always desirable (impulses can after all be regrettable), there is something in those words, having spent more than a few decades on autopilot, that resonates with me.

There is often much we’d like to change about our lives and ourselves (at least there is for me), but though we may think what needs changing is this or that external situation, what really needs changing—what it is that gets in our way of contentment—is usually much deeper and trickier to arrive at, and completely out of reach on our chatty, busy, and numbing autopilot.

The deeper, much stickier, and less pleasant truth I’m arriving at is that, besides missing him desperately, I’m hardly conscious of a self apart from my husband anymore. I mean I know in theory, but I don’t know in the ways that count, in the ways that make us resilient enough to bend with the wind.

After a While

In part because my Ahi tuna burger/margarita lunch left me too tired to swim again right now, and in part because the winds are so strong today that my skin has already had a thorough sand-exfoliation, I’m sitting in my tiny little corner room at the Paia Inn right now, about to read my novel, but true to my personality, examining my life first.

Is this a good thing to do on a holiday? I don’t know, but it happens to me. And of course in this age of WiFi everywhere, reflection often involves the Internet, which is how I came across a poem by Veronica A. Shoffstall just now, which, given the personality I’ve worn for endless years now, resonated with me. The good-byes it refers to at the end are of course, in my mind, not only relational good-byes, but all the many good-byes we must all say throughout our lives.

It may mean nothing to most of you, but on the off-chance it will resonate with one of my readers, here it is.

After a While, by Veronica Shoffstall

After a while you learn / The subtle difference between / Holding a hand and chaining a soul / And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning / And company doesn’t always mean security.

And you begin to learn / That kisses aren’t contracts / And presents aren’t promises / And you begin to accept your defeats / With your head up and your eyes ahead / With the grace of a woman / Not the grief of a child

And you learn / To build all your roads on today / Because tomorrow’s ground is / Too uncertain for plans / And futures have a way / Of falling down in mid flight

After a while you learn / That even sunshine burns if you get too much / So you plant your own garden / And decorate your own soul / Instead of waiting / For someone to bring you flowers

And you learn / That you really can endure / That you are really strong / And you really do have worth / And you learn and you learn / With every good bye you learn.


A Different Kind of Trip

Last night, inhaling humid, warm, exotic tropical air, watching cotton dresses all around me ripple in the wind as I waited at Café Des Amis for my friend, I felt joy. I know it’s not what happens to you that matters, but rather who you become through what has happened, but still: I continue to struggle against what has happened, against my new vulnerability.

But I’m gone to embrace and honor the vulnerability that took up residence in me eighteen months ago, to swim and be alone by the ocean for a week. To honor and embrace my new self, but also to honor and embrace and absorb the strength of the ocean and the sun, and to allow it to fortify me.

My daughter captured it perfectly with these words she sent me yesterday as I said bon voyage (I didn’t know she was a poet!), and I ate them, and am doing exactly as she suggested.

“Swim deep, surface when you’re ready for oxygen

Let the earth support your body,

let the sun kiss your insides

Feel the power of the swell,

Together you are one.”

Fathers, ’64 Valiants and Love

As a very young child, perhaps three or four years old, I used to walk out the gate in the back fence sometimes, to wait for my father to come riding down the back lane on his bike. I’d missed him while he was at work.

He rode his bike to work year-round back then, even though we lived in a part of the world known for bone-chilling sub-zero temperatures, and for winds that could power half the country if harvested. We didn’t have a car yet, but as much as I’m sure it was enormously inconvenient for my mom at times, we hardly noticed. The ride in the back of the wagon they pulled us to church in was just fine, and when I was eight years old, we got a 1964 Valiant, which my father taught me to drive a decade later. By that time it had a clutch that sometimes needed a little teasing to work properly, but I still drive a standard.

I promptly parked that Valiant on a hill, and being an adolescent girl with no understanding of transmissions and things, neglected to put it into first gear, and (if you can believe this) to engage the parking brake. I was utterly mortified to come out of the building and find the trusty Valiant a short distance down the hill and nestled in the branches of a large tree. (My children have since ruined some of my possessions; I now understand the patience and grace it took to weather these things; thanks Dad.)

It was a beautiful wide-open space to my parents though, southern Alberta, a place to leave behind the terrors of WW2, a place to build a home of their own—which my father did, from scratch, evenings after working all day—and to plant a garden to feed us with abundance. We had the freshest vegetables in season, which we snacked on directly out of the garden. There is nothing like sun-warmed tomatoes off the vine, or sweet southern Alberta corn, husked and eaten raw. Then for the rest of the year, we enjoyed the ones my mother pulled out of her basement cool-room, a refrigerator-like pantry my dad had built in our basement.

Years of abundance, years of hard work for my parents. But hunger never leaves you. Though my father has always preferred tools and screwdrivers over the garden or the kitchen, he now volunteers weekly with the Fraser Valley Gleaners, where he goes to chop tomatoes and onions and anything else that has been donated by grocers and farmers, which is then dehydrated for soup and sent to the hungry around the world, millions and millions of servings every year.

A deeply engrained work ethic never leaves you either. A few weeks ago, when they were here on a visit, Mom and I left him to dig up some sod while we ran to the store to pick up some bushes and flowers. We’d planned to be gone for just an hour or so, but I made him promise to stop digging at the half-hour mark to have a rest, and have a glass of water. He’s strong and fit, but still; he’s 83. I poured the water, and Mom put it on the deck railing, and made sure he knew it was there. She knows him, and knows that if having a drink of water means taking off shoes to come inside, it definitely won’t happen.

When we got home, there was a large mound of overturned soil, about six feet by six feet, in the corner of the yard. Dad, by this point shirtless and clearly overheated, was still jumping on the shovel to get yet another turn of sod. The water glass sat on the deck railing, untouched.

I made him sit down and drink a vial of Ginseng and a glass of water while I prepared a little lunch. He had his single slice of bread with a sardine and a side of red cabbage, and, thirty minutes later, still looked overheated and exhausted. I liberally salted some cucumbers and, putting on my bossiest self, made him eat a few slices (he limits his salt intake) and told him to go rest.

An hour later, he came up freshly dressed and perky and, were it not for a coffee date with
his sister, would have gone right back out to continue digging.

That’s my dad. I didn’t fully inherit his determination to get the job done completely and
immediately, but I did learn from him a few things about working hard, about being resourceful, about compassion for those less fortunate than myself, about the values of community and faith and integrity and unselfishness and honesty, just to name a few.

Thanks Dad, and Happy Father’s Day.

How Not to get Freshly Pressed: Avoid Ten-Step, Be-Happy, How-To lists

I’m a little bored with the ten-steps-to-anything-you-want lists. Ten steps to happiness. Ten steps around your stone-walling partner. Ten steps out of your personality box. Ten steps to keeping your impossible boss happy. Ten steps to being organized. Ten steps to project confidence. Ten foods to avoid. Ten foods to include. Ten steps to a thin and fit you. Ten steps to a beautiful garden. Ten steps to improving your finances. Ten steps to entrepreneurship. Ten steps to successful breastfeeding. Ten steps to making your posts stand out. Ten steps to being Freshly Pressed. On and on.

I’m new to this, so I could be wrong, but I kind of doubt that praising honest and messy writing over tidy little solutions lists will get you Freshly Pressed. It seems that despite the glut of self-help stuff out there, we still value prettily packaged up and simplistically optimistic over reality.

But sometimes some of us just want to know our lives aren’t the only ones that aren’t all neatly tied up. We want to know that others with similar experiences are managing, and we want to learn from them, but we also want to know that they sometimes don’t manage well at all. Some say this not-managing stage ought to be private, that we ought to offer the story only once resolution has been arrived at. I disagree.

Most of us derive comfort from being reminded that we’re not the only ones who live with insecurities and anxieties and sensitivities. We feel less alone when we’re reminded that others too live with pain, and that they sometimes handle them less than graciously, too. We need to present our best faces at work, and in public in general, and sometimes even with family and friends, and it’s true, nobody enjoys the Forever Victim. But nobody likes Ms. Perfect either, so what’s wrong with striking a balance?

I’m not opposed to helpful information. I’m not opposed to organized writing either. But I am opposed to the idea that the writing always most worthy of our attention is shiny, happy, and primarily informative. Sometimes gritty truth and reality are most worth reading.

Because the truth is that ten steps may or may not get us anywhere but depressed. The truth is that it’s not always black and white and simple.

We come with challenges, personalities, and limitations as varied as the jungle. We’re strong and weak, accomplished and frustrated, happy and sad, productive and lazy, generous and selfish, emotional and rational. We’re conscientious and lazy, principled and compromising, caring and self-absorbed, charming and irritating, tolerant and image-conscious. And we’re all these things for a million different reasons. 

Life does not consist of tidy little stairways, and we don’t often grow beyond the constraints of our particular personalities or find the courage or grace to achieve our goals or endure painful situations by way of ten simple steps. These things involve looking at our deepest fears and motivations and the honesty of fellow travelers. We don’t find community and comfort in being surrounded by people wearing their I’ve arrived badges.

Optimism, direction, information, yes. Picture where you want to go and who you want to be, yes. But be present in the moment too, with yourself, with those around you, with realities that may be painful.

I love to read, but not lists, and not only stories that are finished, all loose ends tied up, problems resolved. I read those who honestly and intelligently and bravely and with humour face the realities of being human, of loss and heart-break, and yes, limitations. Sometimes the waters are blue and the sky is the limit, and sometimes our wheelchairs or our ages or decisions others have made on our behalf are the limit, and sometimes no ten step plans are going to help.  And sometimes we just need to hear from others left cold by the bright-siding, just-do-it lists. 

But as much as the world of literature respects the darker realities of human experience, and despite the reality that many bloggers are actually looking not so much for answers as they are for others who might understand, who might be willing to engage in something less amenable to a numbered list, what mostly seems to float to the top in the blogosphere is the perkier, tidier, how-to stuff.

I’ll have to come up with ten steps to change this.