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Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Under a Buttermilk Sky

This weekend I was visiting with Mom and Dad following a workshop I was presenting in Victoria.

We were sitting in the living room when Mom looked out of the window and commented “Oh!  It’s a buttermilk sky.  I haven’t seen one of those in years!”

Although I had never heard the expression before, I immediately taken by the romance of the phrase, and the sound of the words as I rolled them around in my thoughts savoring them and wondering how I could use them in a story. For some reason they also brought to mind a phrase in the movie “Meet Joe Black”  in which the angel of death refers to Anthony Hopkins speaking in “round pear shaped tones.”  Both phrases have the same feeling and resonance and warmth of the melodious tone of a handbell when it is invited to ring.

The title “Under a Buttermilk Sky” sprang to mind.  The words, the title and the tale, are in waiting.  They are not ready to come out, but when the inspiration comes, they will pour forth in a vibrant river of words, emotion and story.

When I asked Mom about the origin of the phrase and what it meant, she thought that it was just a prairie expression used to describe a hazy sky clustered with tiny puffs of clouds like the curdles in buttermilk.

Like Eskimos have many words to describe snow which dominates their landscape, prairie people have many words to describe the huge sky which covers the prairie from horizon to horizon like an overturned cereal bowl.

I can remember when we first left the prairies for the foothills of Alberta, and being amazed by the rolling hills, mountains and the trees that clustered in the river valley, and foreshortened the landscape giving it a more intimate feeling, although without diminishing the expansive feeling of the sky.

Twenty years later when we moved to Vancouver, I can recall how long it took me to overcome the feeling of claustrophobia that would arise whenever we drove along the highway lined by dense and towering trees into town because I no longer had unobstructed horizon to horizon views.  I often still feel the only way to see the sky is to look directly upwards.

To this day, although I no longer have a desire to live in the dry Alberta climate, I am in awe of the hauntingly beautiful landscape and the expansiveness of the sky.

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Social Masks

Intentionally or not we walk through our lives wearing masks to avoid fully sharing ourselves with people.  Its partly a byproduct of our transient, nuclear family society in which conditions us to be independent.

We are constantly moving, and so are the people in our lives. Few of us are born, raised, work, live and die in the same small community or family groups any longer.  We leave our families and communities to go to school, to work, play, marry and travel.  Our lives ricochet off other lives, in a cosmic pinball game, rarely dropping into the  winners circle where we have a chance of developing a real relationship.

The upshot of this is that we have developed a situational shorthand called the social mask.  We generally don’t intend to hide who we are, but the threads of the stories of our lives are too long and complex to reweave for everyone we encounter.  Social masks are like personal samplers.  People experience, and come to know who we are based upon the small snippet of time they interact with us, and tend to assume that the whole bolt of fabric is exactly the same as the small swatch they have seen.

Social masks are a protective mechanism that makes it possible to deal with the relationship overload of living in a large and mobile society.  One of the advantages being privacy, however the other side of that coin is distance.

Social masks distance us from one another.  When we are accustomed to concealing information about ourselves, it becomes difficult to decide which information to reveal and when it is appropriate.  As a result, we risk ending up in relationships with cardboard cut out figures, limited by our social masks.   And therein lies the challenge.  How, when and can you go from a cardboard relationship to a real one?

If we are not careful, social masks lock us away from having enough rich, involved and unconditional relationships. We need people. We need the intimacy of a community of people that know us, understand who we are without having to tell them, accept us and will rally around without asking when we need it.

For that to happen we have to consciously drop our masks sooner.  We have to take the risk of exposing our soft underbellies, and revealing who we are at the core.  We have to communicate and consciously choose to create community.

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My life is composed of “crystalline moments”, snippets of memories preserved with all the clarity and precision of a finely cut gemstone, yet which pulse with color, sensation, and emotion.  Some are intricately detailed vignettes that chart the highs and lows of my progress through life.  Others are merely flavours and impressions of events.  Their facets reflect aspects of my history, none giving a total picture, but all a peep into the past.

It is the crystalline moments I press into service when my children voice that age old demand, “Tell me about the olden days”.  I share with them the hauntingly peaceful experience of sitting in my darkened bedroom with my elbows propped on the window sash looking out across the roof tops at the black velvet night sky and listening as the distant train whistle echoes gently through the prairie night.

Then there is the sharp squeak and crunch of snow during a frigid Saskatchewan winter.  I recall the dim, overheated and smoky atmosphere of the skating shack and the black lumps of coal that fed the stove used to keep it that way.  My Dad endlessly and patiently ties and reties my skates only to have me ankle painfully around the rink once or twice before coming back to the shack to warm my hands and ask him to do it again.

Because my children live in Vancouver, I know they cannot truly understand, but I tell them about the incredible rush of freedom and joyful release spring brought after a prairie winter of galoshes, swaddling layers and cabin fever.  I was free to play outside unencumbered.  I can still hear the hollow tapping of the heels of my shoes on the finally bare concrete as I skip and play hopscotch.

I tell them about Art, the milkman, and his horse drawn cart.  The older boys climb into the back of the cart to steal dripping knobs of ice that they suck on and throw at each other.  The girls just pet the horse and watch as the grain trickles out of his feed bag before he ambles on down the street, and we return to our game of the moment.

Art was the last milkman with a horse drawn cart in Regina, and I count myself lucky that I have a story to tell which I consider to be a remnant of the olden days of my parent’s time.  If not for Art, or lumps of coal or the boardwalk that ran in front of my home I would be confined to telling my children stories of how difficult life was when we had to make do with black and white TV!

Crystalline moments are the memories I fondle in private as I recall the comforts and sorrows of my life.  They give me solace and strength to soldier through the rough patches of life, knowing that there have been better times, and there will be better times again.

Crystalline moments are the anecdotes I tell my children to smooth their path with my experience.

Crystalline moments are the shared history, with friends, family and husband, which creates a comforting familiarity and sense of community, that insulates me from the harem scarum uncertainties of life.

I am much more than the sum of my crystalline moments, but they are the foundation of who I am, what I value and what I will do with my life.  They guide, not govern and accompany me on into the future, as I create new crystalline moments.

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I’m sitting here at Boundary Bay Park on a picnic table listening to the crows chuntering away in the trees above me.  They do this hollow snapping together of their beaks which creates a drumming sound.   Too fast for at least my human reflexes and sound patterns to repeat.  I’m sure there is a bird expert somewhere that can reproduce it.  Maybe my friend Brent could, although I think he is more of a watcher than an impersonator.

Besides, there seem to be so many different calls, that it boggles the mind.  What are they saying, are they laughing at us sitting below them in the trees in danger of being shat upon?  Are they plotting their next sandwich capture?  Are they just partying and bickering amongst the neighbors?

What is it that they can find so fascinating to discuss ad nauseam?  They begin by dawn and are at it seemingly without stop.  They must go in shifts, because they seem to have no time for hunting, eating and mating otherwise!

Crows strike me as being dirty and unsavory. Perhaps it is the experiences I have had with crows that colors my opinion of them.  Like the crows we encounter kayaking who are in your boats trying to steal food while you are ferrying your bags up the beach, and then when you drop the bags to chase the boat bandits away, the second shift flies in and attacks the abandoned food bags.  They hunt in packs and you are helpless against them.  The only protection is experience and vigilance.  Food and plastic bags are just never left within sight or they are at risk.

Of course it is not only the food that is at risk, sometimes it can be your brains!  I mention this, and may perhaps be exaggerating some, but probably not much, since my run in with nesting crows.

It was my habit to get up early and go for a 5 km walk each day.  As I left for my walk, I would be subject to the cat calls of crows balanced on the wires lining the street, like rows of bored construction workers.  On the return trip however, the crows would get downright territorial and swoop and threaten as I approached home.  Diving for my head necessitating me to duck, to avoid run-ins and possible claw entanglements.

It all seemed very unsavory to see them pecking in the garbage at one moment and then diving for my head the next.

Is that unforgiving?

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Coffee Tables are the topic of the day, and I am sitting here beside three coffee tables of indeterminate age and lineage.  They came into my life shortly after getting married, when my mother in law decided she could no longer stand them and went out to buy some she liked better.

Unfortunately they were passed on to me and while 34 years ago I was thankful and appropriately grateful, I am feeling less so these days.

I can find no valid reason for getting rid of them  I need to move them to the top of my priority replace list.  But right now they refuse to die.

They have survived in spite of the assault of generations of children, and courtesy of Joe’s younger brother, a lifetime supply of petrified gum attached to the underside which we had to chip off.

SInce the first generation they have been colored and painted on, they have had Spirograph designs impressed into them.  They have been danced on and used as forts with blankets thrown over them.

And of course they have been used as horizontal storage for books, magazines, junk and snacks.  They are dining and computer tables.  We have used them for games and on occasion they have even been used for coffee.

I can not fault their usefulness, or their bullet proof construction.  Although I had to refinish them about 15 years ago to remove the original finish that had become sticky and gummy, there is not a dent or a wobbly leg to justify retiring them.  The fact I dislike round coffee tables just does not push them to the top of the financial priority list.  There always seems to be something more pressing . . .

And then there is the unfortunate fact that Joe loves them.

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Spring Fog

It was a bright spring morning, so it was a surprise when an unseasonable marine fog breeched the bluff and slowly morphed into a giant roll of cotton batting that tumbled its way down the hill,  thickly shrouding our neighborhood and bringing a welcome quiet, before continuing through town, and drifting insubstantially through the fields beyond, periodically revealing ghostly farm workers toiling in the fields.

I was on the most prosaic of trips, to drop off documents at our accountant’s in preparation for the impending tax deadline, but it is amazing how a little vignette of a transient fog, drifting, shimmering and rising off the fields as the bright sunlight slowly burns it away can serve to highlight your connection to the universe.  Somehow that little dance of nature, which would have occurred witnessed or not, engendered the most profound sense of peace and connection I have felt for some time.  It served to remind me of the vastness and permanence of the universe and my own insubstantial and transient  role in it.  Taxes, errands, responsibilities, should, musts and have to’s are all insubstantial and transient illusions in contrast to the reality of  universal energy.

And as I sit here in reflection, I realize that I saw God today.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

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Americans are the people the world loves to hate.  Their larger than life national persona, is a crucible that polarizes people’s opinions.

They are arguably, loud, arrogant, ignorant, hawkish bullies.  Intolerant religious fundamentalists, oblivious to the impact their moral certitude has on others, they live with a flamboyant sense of entitlement.

They are also an open, friendly and generous people with a national culture of service.  They are confident, courageous, determined, intelligent, social and scientific innovators and achievers,  who have made innumerable and immeasurable contributions to the world.

It is however, ever so much easier to focus on and be suspicious of the differences in others than it is to stand back and reflect on our own personal and national failings.

In spite of living within walking distance of the USA for the past 15 years and spending a cumulative total of abut a month in Ohio, spread out over 6 years during my daughter’s time at school, the week we spent in Florida when we went to watch the shuttle launch last week proved to be the first time I took the opportunity to more objectively observe Americans and to observe my own reactions and judgements.

America is a challenge for me.  As an introvert, I find myself both in awe of and intimidated by the effortless enthusiasm and passion of the extraverted American persona.

If you didn’t already know or suspect, America is statistically a nation of extraverts.  There are many theories about why that is so, but whether it is a biological population of extraverts who survived the harsh conditions of emigration to a new world, or it is a cultural self-selection of people who founded a new nation and thrived,  it doesn’t really matter.  It just is.

Coming from a culture that is inclined to be quieter, and less aggressive than America, it is easy to focus on those areas where we experience friction and discomfort.  However, in our own way, if we are to be honest, we are guilty of harboring an unwarranted, holier than thou, highly judgmental attitude towards our neighbors.

Canadians have our own cultural and individual strengths and weaknesses with which to contend. We are not better or worse, merely different.

We will not always find a comfortable cultural ‘fit’ between nations, but if we are ever to achieve a measure of peace in the world, we must learn to take responsibility for creating understanding, tolerance and eventually an appreciation of our differences with others, rather than focusing on the inevitable areas of friction.

Ultimately we are all human.  We have the same basic needs and desires.  We are not so different from one another that we cannot find common ground on which to build.

Taking personal responsibility for our attitudes and beliefs and being willing to let go of ‘being right’ about those beliefs will empower us to create a culture of peace and to build peaceful relations with our neighbors and eventually with our enemies.

We must embrace the belief, that if we are to have peace, it begins with me.

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