November 13, 2014

Musings on Municipal Elections

Elections for the municipality and district school board happen this weekend in my part of the world. I already know who will get my votes. I have read the candidate Q and A's in the newspaper, read their leaflets, talked to many of them in person (this is a small town) and silently crossed off my list those whom I know have good intentions but perhaps not the necessary skills and/or related experience for the job I would be entrusting them to do for the community.

I am impressed so many people have put themselves forward as candidates. Eight people are competing for municipal councillor in our district, two for mayor, and six for three school board positions. To have so much choice for leadership is a luxury for voters. Currently serving on two local boards, I am well aware of the commitment and work needed to properly do the job one is voted to do (hint: it is never enough). What is even more true of such positions is how misunderstood they are. Few people really know what goes on behind the scenes and just how much of one's time such positions can involve. I am not paid by taxpayers to do what I do on the boards I serve, but I can imagine the pressure I would feel if I were. I have had a taste of the bitter fruit of dissatisfaction and at times downright anger that comes from the caring public when my board has made an unpopular decision, and that is only within the small arts community here. I cannot imagine how crushed I would be if after years of dedication and public consultation I succeeded, for example, in building a bicycle lane from my town to the resort community down the road - something I would dearly love to see happen for the pleasure and safety of so many - and a large percentage of citizens despised me for it and thought nothing of hurling hate-bombs at me at public meetings and in the 'letters to the editor' section of our weekly paper.

Many of us are far too eager to criticize those who make decisions on our behalf. Of course the internet has only made the situation worse. Newspapers demand names when writing a letter to the editor, but any Jo Schmo can leave a nasty comment on a website using an alias. To counter this current ugly trend I think this might be a good time to be grateful to the many people who care enough about our communities to run for council and school board and open themselves up to scrutiny from the discontented populace. Of course we also must hold them to account due to the fact that they will, in fact, work for us, but I also believe we could all benefit from counting slowly to ten before hurling those hate bombs. If we do our homework before making decisions on the issues at hand we will often realize there are, as my mother-in-law tends to say, three sides to every story. Engaging in a complaint session with the guy across the street for an hour does not make us an expert. Asking questions, listening to answers, paying attention to what happens in other similar communities, reading the newspaper and attending the occasional council meeting or information session does not make us an expert either but it gives us a wee bit more credibility as a voter and community member.

In my opinion, to give them credibility, municipal government must be made up of people who embrace the big-picture mentality. They must look at their role as a humble cog in the wheel of a forward moving vehicle, one they know full well will always move too fast for some and too slowly for others. They must work well with others and cooperate. They must listen more than they talk and be eager to consider new ideas. They must be prepared to back up their arguments against such-and-such a policy with plenty of research (they must enjoy reading or at least be able to study lots of dry documents). They must have the interests of the whole community at heart and not just one part of it. They must not be toadies of land developers. They must be people-persons. They must be open minded and scrupulously honest. They must not build anything extraordinarily ugly (Am I the only one who believes the raspberry sculpture in Abbotsford fits this category?) or environmentally irresponsible. Do I ask a lot of them? Absolutely. But no more than I would ask from myself.

I thank everyone who has served for the past three or more years, especially a certain local farmer who has given three terms and deservedly wishes to spend more time with his family. I congratulate, in advance, all those who are elected for the next term to serve our community and our school children. You have your work cut out for you, but I hope you will perform it willingly and with at least a few of the qualities listed above.

A friend once suggested I run for council. I responded thus: "I just can't get excited about drainage ditches, which seems like a very important issue here, so no. I will stick to the arts." For better or for worse, 'til death do us part it seems.

October 31, 2014

Halloween Then and Now

One Halloween at the end of the last century of the last millenium
my friend Barb and I joined our families together 
for a fun night of trick or treats.

A paleontologist, an alien and a cat (?)
went door to door 
with a knight, a wizard and a fairy princess.

When we walked down the main street of Courtenay
people kept saying, "Great costume, Dumbledore!"
"I'm just a wizard," was lost in the cotton ball beard.
Fairy princess and cat (?) grew tired.

After bags and buckets were filled
with sweets for the sweet
we gathered in Barb's street 
for the neighbourhood potato gun blasting of pumpkins.

Fireworks popped and cracked nearby
but the potato gun's blast and shatter thrilled the kids
to no end.
The parents didn't exactly stand back 
and keep their hands in their pockets either.

The knight, the wizard and the fairy princess
were followed by another a few years later.
I don't remember what she dressed up as for her first Halloween. 

This year that little sister is thirteen
and uninterested in going door-to-door calling out 'trick or treat!'
She did go to school dressed in costume today.

She and her friend will hand out treats at our door tonight.
The knight, the wizard and the fairy princess grew up and
are all away at work and college, so the mime must take over Halloween duties.

"I'm looking forward to seeing all the cute little kids," she says.

"I miss the knight, the wizard and the little fairy princess (who was
a fairy princess three years in a row)" I say.

But, I am very glad to have a mime around the house.

Happy Halloween! 

October 20, 2014

Autumn Mists and Apples

'Tis the time of year for reflecting on 
the 10 months past, 
their fullness realized
in the turning leaves
 and rising mists from empty fields.
The harvest was good this year.

The view behind our house

I have made so much applesauce 
apple crisp and apple muffins.
A friend shared her bumper crop.
She had more than she could ever use.
Her children are flying the coop
 like mine are.

The grocery bill is shrinking
but my freezer is full.

Is there any thing more perfect than an apple? 

These ones are Macintosh.
They've just been washed.
Now they will be sauced.

For your listening pleasure, a newer take on an old standard,
'Autumn Leaves'

October 14, 2014

Clean and Be Thankful

I cleaned my oven this morning, and the job was done with a parade of cleaning products including vinegar and baking soda, SOS pads, dish soap, Mr. Clean and a lot of elbow grease. I knew it would be much simpler to spray on some Easy-Off, leave it to do its magic and then simply wipe off the grime, but the last time I did so I was sick and swooning from the toxic fumes for days. That stuff is nasty.

I do not enjoy cleaning my oven, to say the least, but this morning while I scrubbed a couple of months' worth of baked-on cooking I got to thinking. (Who are we kidding here? The last time I cleaned my oven Mark Zuckerberg was trying to get into a fraternity.) Music played in the background to keep me company but my thoughts ran free - when I was not singing along to the Mamma Mia soundtrack at the top of my voice, that is, something I am only allowed to do when no one else except my youngest is home. She sings with me of course, being a Musical Theatre kid.

Two of my three living-away children were able to come home for Thanksgiving this past weekend. The third had to work and celebrated the holiday with a dinner cooked by his roommates. The rest of us enjoyed all the comfort and cheer of being together at home. We cooked and baked together, sang (ABBA was strictly forbidden) and were silly together. And while we cooked and baked the oven smoked. In fact, every time I basted the six and a half pound chicken the fire alarm went off.

Anyway, while I was cleaning the oven I was telling myself I had better not complain about the task because, as much as I detest that particular chore, I was lucky. Lucky enough to have an oven in the first place. Lucky enough to have a beautiful, plump, organic chicken carefully raised by some farming friends to cook in said oven. Lucky enough to share that chicken with a loving family, even if one of us had to be absent. Lucky to have enjoyed the delicious leftovers in front of the TV with my youngest after her siblings left to go back to their respective post-secondary institutions and her dad worked late. Lucky to have a gainfully employed husband. Lucky to have children who desire to further their educations and make something of themselves. Lucky to live in a democratic country which, while not without its problems, remains a relatively safe and reasonable place to raise a family and build a future.

I remember when I was a girl and would be out walking with my mother. As we strolled down the hills of Nelson with the timeless view of the lake below and the streets lined with trees in full flame of fall colour against a blue, blue sky my mother would invariably say, "Aren't we lucky to live in such a beautiful place?" I would generally agree. I also remember when I would whine about being hard-done-by or some such teenage complaint she would invariably say, "Just be grateful." Well, with the news the way it is these days, Mom, I can honestly say I am both lucky and grateful to be where I am and with whom, enjoying the benefits of your healthy and wholesome upbringing filled with books and walks, love and talks.

My oven looks a lot better now. I baked some apple muffins after lunch and my youngest is enjoying two as an after school snack. The fire alarm remained silent throughout.

This Billy Joel song cheered me up the other day when I heard it after a particularly bad news day in the media. The video even features a smoking oven.
 We Didn't Start the Fire

October 1, 2014

Walk of Ages

The waning year and I were both feeling our ages
so we took a walk together along the lakeshore

The clouds were heavy with moisture 
 The lake reflected the grey above it

We walked the path toward the hot springs source
in search of the fountain of youth

The trees reminded us with age comes dignity, wisdom and sheltering kindness
 beauty often forgotten in this shiny, hungry, forward leaping world

A pair of cyclists rode past us
none too young themselves, but active

Wildflowers grew among the thorny blackberry
trumpeting out messages of eternal hope and sweetness

A winding waterway, still and placid
fed the lake in a constant, quiet way
lilypads and insects giving life to its surface

Snowberries glowed pearly white in the forest gloom
heavy bunches of perfect orbs bending their fine and supple twigs 
into arcs reaching for rest on the ground

Tipped with autumn red and orange
green leaves waved goodbye in the breeze

A trio of ducks followed the shore 
keeping another woman's retriever and me at bay

The fountain of youth needed a paint job
but her water was promising and sent up clouds of steam into the cool air

Returning, I took the narrower, treelined path. 
Like the trees I leaned toward the water and the light

Rosehips glowed like little round coals in the fire
Tougher and brighter than the roses of summer
they would feed the birds in the cold days to come

The year and I having made our peace with time together
I took myself out for a birthday lunch and went home for a nap

Many thanks to my daughter, Emma, who designed my new blog header. I was ready for something different, and she was eager to use her digital design skills newly aquired at college. 

September 12, 2014

A Writer's Daughter

My dad and me - taken in 1970 by Reg Feuz

Five years ago this month I started my Letters to the World blog. I barely knew what a blog was, except that my dad had started one and it was like a diary available to read for whomever could find it on the internet. I started it as a way to become more disciplined in my writing, and as a way to kick off my forties with something resembling creative productivity. I remember those first few posts. They were relatively brief, generally humourous, or trying to be, and a little bit earnest. As I sent them out into cyberspace with the click of a few keys on the keyboard, my heart fluttered, my stomach lurched, and I could not rest until someone responded to them in some way. The person I most wanted to hear from was my dad.

My dad would never say anything negative about my blog posts, but if he was silent about a particular post I would wonder how I had failed. I could not help it for in writing I believe he was my litmus test. If he wrote a response it was short, to the point, and always encouraging. Even if I received no other reaction from any other person I would be satisfied, and I believe a large part of my blog was written to him.

I remember when I was in college and struggling with an essay. After wrestling with my opening paragraph for a couple of hours at my bedroom desk I would go downstairs in search of some fresh point of view. My dad, usually reading in the living room if he was not doing dishes or writing in his basement den, would look up at me inquisitively as I sat down and exhaled a tell-tale sigh. I would talk about my current struggle, but instead of tackling it head on and in an obvious way, my dad would start to tell me a story, seemingly unrelated to my problem at hand. My dad had a lot of stories to tell, about his childhood living in different provinces across Canada during the Second World War, about his family's experiences on Lasqueti Island after the war, about his work as a surveyor for a BC Hydro project in his early twenties. Sometimes his stories grew tentacles and I would begin to absorb them rather than truly listen to them, but he would always circle back to the beginning and I would marvel at his ability to do so. After the story I would excuse myself and go back to my essay to find that the ideas and the words now flowed easily. I could not at the time figure out how he managed to help me clear my mind and set it going in the right direction, but I think I might know now. Through telling me an unrelated story he was not only giving my brain a break from the task at hand, but also helping me to think like a writer who was passionate about what I had to say on a particular subject, always keeping the different aspects of the essay in play until the end. I cannot say that my essays were all brilliant, but at least I would get through them and be somewhat satisfied with the results - all a student can hope for much of the time.

My dad had been a land surveyor and a school teacher, but as the youngest in the family I only remember him as a writer. He loved teaching but gave it up to write full time when I was five years old. By living with him I learned what it takes and what it means to be a writer. For Dad, technique was important of course but what was behind it mattered more - "The spirit of the thing" he liked to say. The spirit of the thing was what I believe he was hammering home to me through his storytelling when I was in college. High grades did not seem to impress him much. My being satisfied with what I had produced conceptually was much more important to him. I will admit I was puzzled by his approach, for back then I planned to be a career academic and viewed grades as a marker of my progress toward my goal. Perhaps he knew better and was pushing me on to a life beyond the analysis of other people's writing. In any case I am forever grateful to him. He challenged his children to think hard, to reason, and to never in any case, sell out on our gifts and talents. He was sometimes hard to live with, like many creative, passionate people uninterested in compromises, but I loved him immensely. In June of this year I went to visit him and we had a beautiful time together. He was very ill but we were able to talk and laugh a bit in the old way, and at times we were silent together. The morning I left we embraced tearfully and I told him I hoped it would not be too long before I could come and visit him again.

My dad died peacefully on the morning of August 26th, between nursing shifts and before the daily round of visits from my mother and other family members, at the hospital where he spent his last nine days on this earth. The news of his death did not come as a shock because I had been expecting it for some time, but nothing can completely prepare one for the loss of a parent, especially one who played such an important role in one's life and made such an impact. A large number of people, family and friends old and new, gathered last week to celebrate my dad's life. Plenty of laughter, some tears, and plenty of talking and visiting filled the few short days we had together. At times I imagined I could hear my dad's deep voice joining in the conversation with his usual gusto, telling a story from when he was young and healthy and full of vitality. I like to think of him as young again now that he is free from the encumbrance of illness and pain. I will continue to write with him in mind and hope that he is looking down on me as I type this, and as I adjust to my new reality without his strong physical presence in my life.

I will miss my dad's quick emailed responses to my posts, those little live connections with him that I have cherished over the past five years. He never held back from giving me the thumbs up if he thought I deserved it. I know I can carry on writing without his responses because he succeeded in setting me on the right track in my writing. I know when I have 'the spirit of the thing' because I can feel it in my gut.

Thank you, Dad. For everything you gave me, but mostly for your love - the true spirit of the thing.

August 22, 2014

Reading Material

Although I never actually heard my parents say, "You are what you read", I do think they believe that to be true in most cases. My mom read virtually every book we children brought into the house just to be sure of what we were putting into our heads. A book brought home often disappeared during the night and was replaced on the bedside table before we woke up in the morning. Mom would usually tell us what she thought of the book, too, especially if she didn't like it.

When I was in grade seven I made bi-weekly trips to the local library and soon became fascinated with stories about troubled young girls lacking parental support. I distinctly remember one about an overweight girl who ran away from her miserable family, and somehow got trapped on an island where she had to survive by killing and eating raccoons and such. The experience changed her, of course, and she lost a great deal of weight, which seemed to solve all her problems. While against censorship in general, my mom finally appealed to me to stop bringing home such depressing novels. I suppose they were dragging her down.

I spent many hours as a pre-teen brushing my mom's long, dark brown hair while she read to me. We made our way through several Noel Streatfield novels (my favourite), the Little House on the Prairie series and The Von Trappe family stories. When I was bored I merely had to say, "Mom, I need a book to read, and she would lead me to the floor-to-ceiling book shelves which lined the entire length of the front hall : "Here's a good one," or " You'd love the Anne books," or "How about The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe?" Mom took volume after volume off the shelf, and having read each of the books herself gave me a concise librarian's description of it. After dismissing most of the books with "Nah," I finally made my choice. My literary education then continued as I lay on the couch calling out for the meaning of this word or that, as most of the books I read were written before I was born.

Another memory lives in my mind like a short film. One afternoon I was sitting in the living room reading a magazine. My father was in the chair opposite, also reading. I soon became bored and began rifling through the rack beside my chair. Lo and behold I discovered an unfamiliar magazine: an edition of True Confessions. I picked it up and started reading a story about a young woman who goes off with a married man to a cabin in the can guess the rest. I think my fascination stemmed largely from my surprise that such smut could even get through the doors of our house, and here it was found lying cover to cover with National Geographic World and a Sharon, Lois and Bram songbook. As I soaked up the explicit descriptions of events in the story, as only a ten year old can do, I began to feel a distinct, steady sensation like a laser beam crossing the room. I looked up to meet my dad's over-the-glasses gaze which, having been a teacher and parent for many years, was a look he had perfected. He lowered his eyes slowly down to the title of my chosen literature, and then up again at me. "Don't you have anything better to read?" he asked quietly, but oh, so effectively in his deep, sonorous voice. Without a single noise from my lips, I replaced True Confessions in the rack and took up a copy of National Geographic World. "That's better," he said with the trace of a smile. The next time I went to choose a magazine, True Confessions was gone. I never saw it or its kind in the house again.

After I moved out my parents turned my bedroom into a study/library and transferred all the books into it from the front hall. The study has a lovely view of the back garden where the cherry tree of my childhood bloomed until it rotted and had to be taken down. On a recent visit I had forgotten to bring a book, and asked to borrow one. My mom brought me a thick novel - a one volume edition of Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy. I settled down into the pullout couch for the night and began my transport into the wickedly funny world of Kingston, Ontario's intellectual society of the 1950's... Mom let me take the book home to finish.

The photo above, while not an actual photo of one of my childhood bookshelves, greatly resembles it.