Gratitude – Post 109 – Poetry

I am grateful for poetry.

I am not sure poetry can be taught. We can be taught to arrange words together that rhyme, just the same as we can be taught to play the notes we see on a sheet of music, but that is not the same as creating magic. I think writing poetry is a skill as innate as the artist’s hand that controls the paintbrush. We can be taught to admire the craft of creating an image, an understanding, with words, words so carefully chosen the result looks effortless.

I cannot write poetry and it is not for lack of trying. I just don’t have the skill, but I admired poetry as a child, loved the rhythm of it, like a train clicking and clacking, the rocking back and forth. I admired poetry as an adolescent, as someone searching for that which we search for that is without name. I was both in awe and frustrated by a poem’s meaning that at times seemed elusive and in other moments seemed perfectly clear. I appreciated teachers who allowed his/her students to find their own meaning and not be required to see what the teacher saw to get a passing grade. I remember one high school English teacher who decided her answers were the only answers. She told me I had zero writing ability, her exact words, and I may still be holding a grudge, though how silly would that be.

A very young admirer of poetry, I memorized Walter de la Mare’s works, though I may have been more fascinated with the fact that he carried a horse around in his name, which was nothing short of ideal to a ten-year-old. And then there was William Wordsworth and his host of golden daffodils that fed my life-long passion with nature’s quiet, a need as fundamental to me as breathing. As a high school teen I admired the physicality of EE Cummings who I incorrectly gave credit to as being a woman and I was fascinated by his devotion to lower case letters and his “blizzard of punctuation” as described by Harvard Magazine in 2005. Cummings challenged the rules of writing and told budding poets they could create visual masterpieces with poetry.

And like so many of us, I admired the easy flowing language of Mary Oliver who has recently died, though I don’t think she would have used such a verb to explain the action of her leaving us. Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? she asked of us, and many more simple but thought-provoking questions. She challenged us to see beyond what we know and inspired us to imagine.

I remember many of the poems I recited at the festivals as a child, every other year alternating between music and spoken poetry and if I don’t remember the entire poem I certainly remember parts of them, the best bits that I have packed along with me all these years. I can’t remember where I’ve left my glasses, but I remember there are fairies at the bottom of my garden from fifty-five years ago, which seems fantastical to me now.

If I had to choose a favourite poet or a favourite poem I couldn’t. My enjoyment of poetry shifts with the weather, with the wind, with my mood, with what I’ve just eaten. But you can never go wrong with the words of Carl Sandburg. Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.

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Gratitude – Post 108 – Christmas Remembering

I am grateful for Christmas memories. ‘Tis the season of remembering and though we get caught up in shopping and decorating and baking, the remembering is the best part for me. I was digging through my box of decorations last week and I reached for four separate items that make Christmas for me, one from each daughter when they were children, though they are always children in my eyes, especially this time of year.

Aimee and Samantha had the same teacher, five years apart, and they created a “stained glass” Christmas scene with markers and crayons. The works of art have exceeded the twenty-year mark and still I tape them to my patio doors and admire them every day. The light catches them and the scenes seem to come alive. Laurie made a Santa puppet from felt and it too is ready to celebrate its twentieth season on my mantle. Santa’s eyebrows are a bit askew and his left eye is trying to make a run for it, but I love this puppet. Thea made a snowman out of soap flakes and though he has lost his twig arms and his eyes and even his jaunty top hat, he sits proudly next to Laurie’s Santa. Each piece in the collection is a masterpiece and the only decorations I really want, decorations that keep my daughters on my knee, my arms able to gather them in, my nose in their hair breathing in their perfection.

I close my eyes when night fall comes, the lights on my crabapple tree in the front yard shining bravely through the snow and I remember my own childhood Christmas: the smell of the balsam cut from our farm, its perfectly imperfect shape; artificial snow sprayed onto the stencilled candlesticks and snowmen on the living room window’s glass; red and green paper chains looping from one side of the window to the other; attempted strings of popcorn that never seemed to work out. Perry Como’s voice is reciting the Night Before Christmas from the scratchy record player, the tinsel hanging from the tree is catching the light from the faulty string of tree lights that blink on and off of their own volition or they all go out until we can determine which bulb is the culprit. My sister and I are giggling as we lie beneath the tree in the dark, playing with the wooden nativity scene, providing the sounds effects for the donkey and cow, for the lambs as Baby Jesus lies in the manger. We are certain we can hear Santa and his eight tiny reindeer on the roof and see him peeking through the window at us, my brother pretending he doesn’t want to get up while we jump on his bed. Through all of this, we knew the greater meaning of the season, could feel the solemn promise of hope.

In all my remembering, my heart recalls no gifts, no perfectly turned out meals, no masterpiece of decorating. It is all about the texture of the memories, the warmth and the sounds, the smells all enfolding me in the beauty of the past.

Merry Christmas to each of you, and may the warmth of Christmas remembering settle on your heart and make you smile.

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Gratitude – Post 107 – Christmas Baking

I am grateful for my butter tarts; or I used to be.

The holiday season is here and you know what that means … lists. I have lots of lists this time of year. My Christmas Baking list is a good one, though it doesn’t always reach fruition. A bit like buying a gym pass in January. It seems like a superb strategy but after day three … who was I kidding.

I am a hermit fifty weeks of the year, but for two weeks at Christmas I come out from under my rock to deliver yummy baking to my neighbours for two reasons: to give them my best wishes at Christmas and to assure them I am not lying dead somewhere in my house. It’s a bit like when my mother called my house thirty years ago and almost four-year-old Samantha answered the phone. Upon learning it was my mother, Samantha had a unique and hearty response. “Hi, Grandma,” Samantha said. “I thought you were dead.” I am not sure my mother ever recovered from Samantha’s greeting and my mother may have held a grudge for the next twenty-five years, but there’s no way of knowing now.

Back to the baking.

I made shortbread and chocolate chip oatmeal cookies for my daughters’ Christmas parcels and though I wanted to include butter tarts I decided Canada Post couldn’t be trusted. But I thought I would be uber organized this year, a hopeful though delusional view of my capabilities.

I toasted the pecans after I chopped them precisely. I made the pastry ahead of time and allowed it to chill, which I never do, but the ancient recipe carved into the walls of the family cave said I should chill the pastry. So I did. Then things went terribly wrong, as things are inclined to do when making food for others. I can bake the most beautiful apple pie for myself, but the moment I decide to share it with a friend, the pastry self-destructs, the apples disintegrate into mush.

Back to the butter tarts. I seem to have habitual digression.

The pastry recipe was designed for twelve tarts. But what if? What if is never a good idea; not when it comes to hair dye or high heels or pastry. But I wasn’t listening to my personal alert system.

What if I could get eighteen butter tart shells out of one recipe. Fewer calories for my dear over-weight neighbours and more bang for my buck. Right? Wrong.

I rolled out the pastry, thin enough it would have passed through an x-ray machine undetected. I filled the shells with the roasted pecans and then poured the filling made with my very own maple syrup made from my very own maple trees. A noble gesture to say the least. Bake at 400 degrees for ten minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees for an additional ten minutes, which seems like over-kill to me, but who am I to say. The instructions went on to say remove the tarts from the oven and allow to sit, rotating each tart intermittently in the pan until cool. It was at this point I began to scream. I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say if I want my neighbours to have these particular butter tarts, I will need to wrap the entire muffin tray and provide a chisel and hammer.

Heading into the New Year I have two pieces of sage advice. 1: Do not scrimp on pastry thickness when making butter tarts. 2: Do not behave in a smug manner when the power is off in the entire province except yours. Do not do a happy dance and gloat and turn all your lights on just because you can. Because Nova Scotia Power will be listening and will hit the off switch for your power, for no other reason than because. I guarantee it.

Now I must go and eat butter tart crumbs out of a bowl. It could be a whole new tradition.

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Post 106 – Gratitude – My Neighbour’s Arm

I am grateful for my neighbour’s arm; his right arm to be precise. Let me explain.

I was thinking about the concept of aging. It’s subtle; tends to sneak up on us and if it weren’t for mirrors, most of us would take little notice of our changing bodies. But some days, Mother Nature, with her wicked side, likes to shout it out. “You’re old,” she says, her voice with a cruel attitude, like she got up on the wrong side of the bed and wants to ruin someone’s day before her morning coffee. Today was one of those days.

Mother Nature dropped a whole bunch of very wet heavy snow on us here in the Annapolis Valley last night, November 20th when I am writing this. The snow messed with power lines and the power went off because Nova Scotia Power seems to enjoy going off on a regular basis or maybe it just seems that way. The power went out while I was happily watching a suspenseful movie and I had to try to sleep without knowing the answer. I thought of pulling on my snow clothes over my pyjamas so I could start my generator at 11:00 pm, but that didn’t seem like a wise idea, so I gave up and eventually fell asleep, silently praying the power would be back on before I woke up. It wasn’t.

That meant a couple of things. Get my shovel ready and dig my way to my car, to get it moved before my lane-way clearing guy comes along. The snow was more water than snow so it was “dang” heavy. My shoulders started to hurt and my wrists were really whining. I moved my car out of the way as best I could. Next stop, the generator. I shovelled a path to the generator under my deck. I tossed my hat and jacket before I was done that bit of shovelling. I pulled the generator out from its hiding place, turned it “on” and adjusted the choke and began pulling the cord. I pulled and pulled and pulled some more and though it seemed like I pulled it three hundred times, I think it may have very well been only twenty times, but my generator stayed in its dormant, not running, asleep position. I wanted to swear. I didn’t. I wanted to kick something. I didn’t. Then I wanted to whine. I didn’t, until my friendly neighbour with the snow-blower on his tractor came to move the snow out of my driveway.

“May I borrow your arm,” I asked, my voice sounding defeated and I’m never any good at asking for help. He grinned and knew what Mother Nature had done.

“Feeling old today?” he asked. All I could do was nod.

I told him ten pulls. That’s all I wanted. If it didn’t start after ten pulls I would move away. Four pulls later he had it started and I promised him a kidney if he was ever in need.

I’m going to have to do some push-ups and weight-training to keep my biceps generator-starting worthy. I can’t be asking someone to start my generator every time the power goes out, because if I do then I fear Mother Nature is right: I am old. And I’m not ready to be old just yet. But I am very grateful that a strong right arm was within reach.

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Post 105 – Gratitude – Mind Travel

I am grateful for my imagination and for that of my friend “Lor”.

Loraine and I have decided to paddle to Finland. We aren’t just willy-nilly with our plans, coming up with some hair-brained idea without careful planning. We want to see Finland’s outdoor glass sculptures that look like they are living beings, flames of glass seemingly growing out of the marsh and gardens in blues and reds and yellows. A PBS program sparked Loraine’s curiousity and I am just game to go along for the ride, truth be told. We thought a double kayak might work nicely to maneuver across the big cold waves in the north Atlantic. We’ll have to pack a lunch and wear some warm clothes and I don’t even want to think about what rest spots we might find on our way. So with “Lor” in Fort Frances and me in Nova Scotia we will set sail in our minds and see where we end up. It is the beauty of the imagination.

I’m not much for travel, it turns out. I would be if I could do the “beam me up, Scotty” method. So instead I imagine where I might go and how I might get there and what I might do once I am there. Not wanting to travel doesn’t mean I’m not curious and fascinated by the world outside my reach, the animals of the Sahara, the waters of Victoria Falls, the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China. But if I am being honest, and honesty is the best policy, the great trail of the Gaspereau River calls me back over and over and it’s a mere eight minute hike from home. I don’t need my passport or my patience. I don’t have to sit still in a very small space for hours on end and pretend I’m still sane when I reach my destination. And I can bring Gracie with me.

As I get older, I don’t feel a panic to “see” what I haven’t seen. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoy hearing of the travels of others, their experiences and stories. I listen with great interest but without envy. I have friends who travel, who get off the main road and truly experience different parts of the world and the people who live there. They all report back with a similar sentiment: we are more alike than different.

My father was stationed in India with the RCAF during World War II and he saw the great Taj Mahal. Its ivory-white marble structure was magnificent, my father confirmed, a tomb erected in 1632 on the bank of the Yamuna river to house the “favourite” wife of the Mughal Emperor, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. I’ve only just barely managed to stifle my thoughts on that, but best save it for another time. My father kept a small box with an ivory impression of the Taj Mahal on its lid to remind him he had travelled half way around the world once upon a time. He said it was an experience never to be forgotten, but living on the Rainy River was far sweeter. I concur.

T S Eliot said, “The journey not the arrival matters.” I think all our journeys are leading us home.

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Post 104 – Gratitude – A four-year-old

I am grateful for four-year-olds, not just any four-year-old, but Linden to be specific.

I am currently in British Columbia helping my grandson transition into kindergarten. My daughter is a single mom and we had the resources for me to fly out to help the glacial move from non-kindergarten to kindergarten. As I drove Linden to school for an hour one day and two hours another day I thought of single mothers in entry level jobs whose employers would have no interest in accommodating such a schedule and whose previous daycare providers would have filled those spaces with children requiring full time care.

I’m not about to get into a debate regarding the pros and cons of gradual entry to kindergarten. I’m hearing about my Ontario grandson who has had no such gentle approach to starting school, with its rip-the-Band-Aid-off strategy and as shy as he is, he adapted quickly. Nevertheless, irregardless, hereto unto fore, or any other non-words, I am here with the wonderful opportunity to spend time with Linden.

I should mention a couple of things to set the parameters of this discussion to accurately reflect my part in all of this. It has been well documented that patience is not my strong suit. I concur, though I have certainly mellowed in my later years. Others might willingly confirm said statement if called on to give testimony regarding my skills at being patient. “At least you are consistent,” Aimee confirms and I am thinking her statement is criticism masked as praise. My skin is thick. Well, maybe not that thick.

In all fairness to me are you aware that four-year-olds would challenge the patience of a Saint? True story. Granted I am no Mother Teresa, but holy cow, how much negotiation is required to get one’s shoes on. And further, are you aware that four-year-olds think grandmas are mind-readers and if they aren’t, they certainly should be. And grandmas need to be chefs ready to adjust the menu options at a moment’s notice or with no notice at all. And while four-year-olds are engrossed in their television programs, the house could explode and burst into flames and still they would not hear Grandma calling them to brush their teeth. And grandmas need the skills of a clairvoyant to know just what four-year-old’s true needs are in any given moment.

One of the things I enjoy about having graduated from active duty as a mother to active duty as a grandmother, is I can recall my own skills as a mother as being flawless. My children never acted up, never made a fuss about what was being served for supper, always went to bed without complaint and without requesting water, without another story, without more water, without a pillow adjustment, without one more trip to the bathroom, etc, etc, etc and without maybe just one more sip of water. My children never had temper tantrums, never balked at being told to make their bed or comb their hair. Well, maybe the hair thing was a struggle, but that was the only “tremor in the force” as I recall. My children may remember things differently, but memory is a fluid thing.

I must confess when four-year-olds say they want to sleep with grandma tonight and cuddle up under my arm with a story, their head resting on my chest, their little fingers disappearing inside my hand, then all those other things really don’t matter one iota. But I think you already knew that.

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Post 103 – Gratitude – Daughters

I am grateful for my daughters. I lied in bed the night before last, waiting, knowing it was the last night of our visit, the last night of my children returning to the nest so I could pretend they had never left. I know they are meant to leave, are meant to stretch their wings so the air can lift them from the branch, but part of my “mother soul” is stuck on repeat and I still want to tuck them into bed and hear their stories and lean in for the whispers of what matters to them and fall asleep knowing they are safe. I want to tie their shoes and brush their hair and assure them nothing can harm them while they are on my knee.

But of course, time marches on and they are mothers themselves and I watch with wonder and awe at their patience and capacity to love. I see the Mother Bear in them, the shoot-first-ask-questions-later when it comes to protecting their child, along with the teaching of life’s lessons of sharing, that is never easy for anyone under three feet tall, and sometimes not easy for those of any height, and lessons about waiting their turn and eating their dinner and brushing their teeth and learning to walk and trying to talk. I saw the look in my daughters eyes, the look they give in brief moments when raising toddlers, a look that says I’m not sure I’m going to survive motherhood. They will.

There were squabbles about who was playing with what first and there were tears of frustration, but there was laughter, the kind of laughter that soaks through your skin and you never want it to stop. It is the most precious of sounds, the sound of children and fun. I am still able to close my eyes and hear my own wee ones, their laughter shaking their bellies, their eyes sparkling with joy and I freeze-frame those moments to carry me through the winters of life, when I sit back in my chair, the light coming over my shoulder and shining just right on the pages of my favourite book. I lie my head back, forgetting the words in front of me and remembering instead the sounds, the moments when a hug solved all wounds, when baking their favourite cake was the absolute best thing, when humming a familiar song with their head against my chest made sleep simple and swift and dragging my fingers through their long hair soothed all the demons that raged.

And when they have gone, for a moment in the silence and among the scattered toys and forgotten socks and scuffs on the wall and fingerprints on every surface, I can’t remember who I am.

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