Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beautiful Little Weeds

The cicadas were screaming at 8:30 in the morning. The dog was trying to stick to the shade, but he still had energy and needed to be walked. My eyes were looking down, mostly keeping an eye on his movements, but also averted from the sun's glare. The ground, I saw, was baked and the grass was fried to a pale tan brown. Only the weeds were still green after a month without rain.

And then I saw them. Little squat, spindly weeds with yellow balls of flowers on them. I have no idea what they're called. I've never seen the flowers open. You'd never plant them in your garden. But they were Proust's madeleines for me on a hazy summer morning.

Because these are weeds I knew well in childhood. I sat in summer day camps at the school yard across from my house, and the counsellors kept us occupied for long hours playing Sleeping Beauty, where we had to lay very still in the grass, while the counsellors walked among our prone bodies, looking for movement. You were out if you moved. A single round could last a half an hour or more.

There was a lot of grass sitting in those days. Grass sitting and lying down in grass. And in the grass were these homely little weeds.

We're well into summer holidays now. My kids all have this entire week off and the heat has broken to beautiful warm sunshine. When the humidity was at its peak last week and the kids were peaky with illness, I let them watch their home decorating shows on television. But today, I'm sending them out to get bored, to get to know the weeds in our yard.

And maybe even for a round or two of Sleeping Beauty.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Hum a little tune to yourself. Your regularly scheduled blog will return soon. We've had a few "technical glitches" this week, chiefly due to seasonal affective disorder, a puppy and a traveling husband. As one of my sisters once said, "I haven't had two minutes to rub together."

- Jobs I am glad I don't have this week: roofer, nursing mother, construction worker, undertaker, lawn mower, garbage collector.

- Places I'd rather be: Geneva with my hubby, Metis sur Mer with my sister, Quebec with Lorilee, a walk-in-refrigerator, February.

- Things I'm grateful for: that I didn't actually set the pool on fire, that the dog was only insane twice this week, air conditioning, that my kids have regained their health, cool breezes, that the grocery store sells bbq chicken, that I picked raspberries before the heat wave got too intense, supper with friends and coffee with my writers' group.

- Things I'm not so grateful for this week: that I took on painting a child's bedroom, that my kids are constitutionally unable to put dishes in the dishwasher, that one soccer coach refused to cancel practice, having to be the sole chauffeur.

- Times I have lost it: once.

So, how about you? Fill this intermission with your answers to the same categories. Thanks! Wishing you a cool breeze wherever you are!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter

The vast majority of the audience were teenagers. One was even dressed in a Hogwarts uniform - short plaid skirt, untucked white blouse, tie. Our teenaged neighbour saw the movie at the midnight screening.

I went with my preteen son, but it must be emphasized that I was not there merely as a chauffeur or a chaperone. (We got there more than a half an hour early. For those who know me, that's like camping out -- I generally arrive with not a moment to spare.)

Our neighbour had told me that she cried four times during the movie. I wondered what might make me cry.

On the way, we talked about a survey that came out today asking who your favourite Harry Potter character was - and wondered aloud who our favourites were. My son voted for Harry. I said, maybe, Neville. The survey said Snape.

The movie did not disappoint. We were taken on a fantastic ride and it was so very well done in every way, probably the best of all the HP films.

And I did cry. I welled up more than a few times, but tears fell down my cheeks at the most unexpected time: when the forces of evil were attacking and Professor McGonagle, Molly Weasley and a small number of other Hogwarts staff and friends stood outside, casting protective spells that spread like an oil slick in the sky to form a bubble over the school. Two things made me cry: one, the sheer beauty of the bubble, and two, that those charged with this act of protection were the moms and dads, the middle aged people. The audience I sat with might have reflected the central characters of the movie - and my neighbour told me later that she cried because they were finished at Hogwarts and she was graduating high school - but there was also a very real place for me in this movie. It wasn't the teenagers who cast this beautiful, protective spell.

I wondered if I felt the weight of this more than usual because less than an hour before the movie began, my husband left for a week in Switzerland. What I hate about him going away is that the mantle of responsibility for the kids comes to rest squarely on my shoulders. I'm the one who must cast the protective spell, in his absence.

But the movie - for all the hue and cry it raised about the perils of witchcraft - reminded me more than anything has recently that there is evil to fight and children to be protected, and that protection can be very beautiful and vulnerable.

The other thing my tears made me think about was my experience with re-reading books. Until I had children, I always identified with the ingenue in a story. I liked the early Anne of Green Gables books. But after having children, I began to shift in my identification. Maybe that sounds obvious - and in one sense it is - but it makes an old, beloved book an utterly new one. It's a bit like shifting from third to first person narration.

I loved Neville in this movie, and I loved Harry and Snape too, but so unexpectedly and so very deeply, my very favourite characters were Minerva McGonagle and Molly Weasley. And, as one charged with the sole care and keeping of my kids for the next week, I am very grateful for the experience that gave me a heroic vision of what I'm doing. It may look like driving to soccer and summer camps, and tucking into bed and making and cleaning up supper, but it's also a larger and deeper role. As Harry learns, he could just go on -- but he could also choose to go back, to engage in the fray and to fight for a new and better world.

I think I'll do the same.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A La Mode

The fashion kind of mode - not the ice cream kind.

I've decided in recent weeks that I am hopelessly out of fashion. To wit: for the last couple of years, I've had a terrible time finding pantyhose. I can find colourful tights -- and I buy those -- but just not the sheer vaguely skin-toned ones. It never occurred to me that these were dreadfully out of style -- until I read that Kate and Pippa Middleton were bringing sheer hose back into fashion. Someone really should have told me. I get how this works in the summer time, but really, in the winter?

Second case in point: my boys have been insisting on wearing ankle-high white sports socks with everything for the last year or so. Every time I fold their laundry, I cluck to myself that I'm glad I'm raising children who aren't driven by trends, who have no idea how girly and geeky low cut white socks are. Finally one day, we had a conversation about this and it turns out that Mom is wrong, that every kid going is wearing such socks. I go out and buy myself some ankle socks.

Tonight, we're watching our guilty summer pleasure, America's Got Talent, and the host is wearing a white suit, or possibly a pale pink jacket and white pants. I think this is campy until later when I'm reading about a film director at the premiere of Harry Potter, wearing a very of-the-moment white suit.

Really, there should be memos issued. It's not my fault if I don't know, is it? I suppose at the very least I can provide entertainment to the more savvy fashionista masses.

It reminds me of years ago when I was working with university students and they played ABBA. For me, only half a dozen years older than then, ABBA was the music that was on the turntables of the people I babysat for. ABBA and Supertramp. I almost couldn't believe my ears - it had to be some ironic postmodern joke, right? But no. ABBA had become so uncool, it became cool again. And then, Mamma Mia - everyone was into ABBA again!

So, no hose -- or, at least, keep an eye on the Middletons to see how that works for them-- yes to ankle socks, and dress my husband like he's in Saturday Night Fever.

Okay. Got it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fumbling Toward Clarity

I'm trying to think what it's like.

It's kind of like stepping out into a stream, testing with your feet to know whether a rock is stable to stand on. Whether it's smooth and flat, whether it is well-anchored itself, or whether it will land me in the deep, drenched and cold.

It's like feeling around in the dark on my night table, careful not to knock over my eyeglasses or books, trying not to wake anyone, feeling with my fingers for the clock or the glass of water, without using my eyes.

It's like writing a poem or a story, struggling to find the exact word, the perfect way to describe an object or an experience.

It's like twisting the dial on a radio or the manual lens on a camera, with the slightest alteration causing either fuzziness or clarity.

I'm in the midst of shifting what I do for work, just a little bit. The idea dropped into my head on April 19 and here we are, two and a half months later and it's still coming into focus, still a work in progress. This, despite my determined and intense efforts, my enthusiastic conversations and even more determined listening, despite my endless reading and list-making. And despite the fact that it really is a slight change.

But then, it's a slight change that throws a picture out of focus, or makes you step into the stream instead of crossing dry-footed. It's a slight change in a poem between describing something as 'grey' or 'gray.' And those slight changes, those nuances matter intensely.

In this case, as in so much, I'm listening with my intuition more than anything else. Because I want this new step to be really me, so that I can use my best skills and experiences in service to others. If I try to be someone else, try to create a service I can't deliver, try to do something that doesn't fascinate me, it isn't going to go far and it isn't going to be fun along the way.

But it interests me what this process takes. For one thing, it takes time. Oodles of noodling time. For another, it takes false starts - putting forward an idea and then retracting it if it's wrong. It takes listening to wise people. It takes keeping my mouth shut until the time is right, to ponder the ideas in my heart. It takes a willingness to put my vision into words, to dare to sound idealistic and hokey. It takes notes on the backs of envelopes and chequebooks as well as on the computer and in a file. It takes a willingness to commit - to say yes and also to say no to other pulls. It takes a willingness to step into the water, to grope in the dark, to search for the right words, to listen for clarity.

And I'm almost there now. And soon it will been time to tell you about it. And to invite you to be part of it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Not so Voodoo

A few years back, an osteopath broke me. Or, to be more specific, he failed to recognize that I was in the process of herniating a disk and instead listened for my long tide and other such rhythms in my body. By the next morning, I was in agony.

When I was pregnant with my first child, my midwife and doctor got into arguments about how to treat a potentially developing condition, leaving me to decide whether to go with heads or tails.

My regular massage therapist was away and recommended his colleague, who decided to start our first meeting with a long conversation about bowel movements and was I having three bowel movements as long as my forearm daily. I left the office soon after that, and washed my hands thoroughly.

So, you see, I'm a little wary of what I call voodoo.

At the same time, there was nothing better than midwife-supervised deliveries and aftercare; I've enjoyed acupuncture (ok, enjoyed might be pushing it) and have found that oil of oregano and tea tree oil are amazing cure-alls. I find I straddle the line between traditional and alternative medicine, and that the best way for me to sort it out is to listen to my gut.

And speaking of guts...

This spring, our daughter suffered from recurring stomach pain and vomiting. Our doctor was little help and we were at our wits' end.

Finally, I decided to break down and take her to a naturopath. I rolled my eyes. "They'll probably want to know if she's left-handed and what her birth was like."

Instead, we were ushered into a wood-paneled room where we sat on a couch and explained our situation to the woman who sat across from us. We left an hour later with three bottles of potion and a blood test for food allergies finished. "She seems more human than our doctor," was my daughter's comment, while I nearly cried with relief at finally being taken seriously by a member of the medical profession.

And I could have kicked myself - because this was anything but voodoo. It reminded me of my great midwife experiences and was like a cross between a doctor and a nutritionist. There was no mention of birth conditions or handedness.

The blood tests came back saying our daughter was reactive to sugar, wheat, dairy and peanuts. We were told we didn't have to read labels, but if a product contained obvious amounts of dairy -- cheese sauce, for instance -- or wheat, we were to provide alternatives. It's actually been surprisingly easy, particularly because on this elimination diet, our daughter feels like a million bucks. And the weekend she cheated, she felt horrible again.

This weekend, though, she leaves for a week at overnight camp. She packed all her clothes and books and stuffed animals days ago, but I'm still carefully composing lists for the camp cooks and nurse, and stockpiling safe and delicious foods for her to take. And I'm crossing my toes that all goes smoothly, that she doesn't end up in the nurse's office every night, wracked with stomach cramps. Because that doesn't make for happy camp memories.

At a family gathering the other day, someone rolled their eyes when I told them about our daughter's diet. "They tell that to everyone," she said. I know what it's like to be skeptical of alternative medicines - and sometimes with good cause - but at the same time, in this situation, I felt like the parents of the man whose blindness Jesus cured; when the Pharisees came to get their take on the situation, they said, in effect, "Here's what we know: this is our son. He was blind and now he can see."

It wasn't a voodoo experience. And it worked. That's good enough for me.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Remembering Fun

I read an essay once, written by a woman, who had been the only child of a woman who was an only child. The author found herself, at midlife, the mother of a young son. There was a line in the essay that went something like this: there's nothing as good for a middle-aged heart as a young son.

I would add, or possibly, a puppy.

My heart went kind of middle aged this year, weighed down by a lot of life. Miserable stuff and just plain slogging. The warm weather came late. The deadlines came early. There was a lot of putting one foot in front of the other. Oh, and swearing. I never was a swearer, but this spring, my vocabulary blossomed -- like a sailor's! It became a barometer of stress - how much I swore. (I do not record this out of any kind of pride; it's just the truth.)

The first three weeks of puppydom were, again to be honest, pretty crappy. (Oops. Well, I also speak literally here.) I think I've said as much here before, but I really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, despite having had dogs as a child and teen. And, as a friend said after adopting a child, there's a lot of adjusting and we're just impatient and want to have the adjustment period over.

Gentle Reader, the adjustment period is over. Once we figured out our dog and our dog-raising style, and he figured out his bladder and bowels, it's been a delight. I've fallen in love. I've lost seven pounds, just by walking him.

And the weather has warmed and we can swim. Today was the first real day of summer holidays and by eleven this morning, my kids were making massive, splashing tidal waves in the pool, lowering the water height by several inches, then standing on the deck in the warm puddles, all the while laughing in the sunshine.

The deadlines have passed and the urgent work is over. I've readjusted my arrangement with another client to better suit my needs. I'm playing around with a new business idea, a new novel and edits to the last one.

I went to the movies. We figured out summer holiday plans that are both fascinating and that work with a dog. (It's not Quebec, zut alors, but I've made my family promise I can speak in French. To them at least.)

You know what they say about riding a bicycle - that you never forget. It's true of fun also. I have to admit that it feels very much like the first days when you're in another culture and you speak the language, but you forget words, and verb tenses, and syntax, and it feels very foreign. Later, it will come more easily. Later, you will speak without thinking, will make jokes and convey personality. Fun is that foreign language for me right now. I'm daring to begin to believe I can unburden myself, put my feet up and relax for a bit. And even stop swearing.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Salute to Teachers

I'm married to a Physics teacher. He began teaching in the fall of 1989 and we delayed our wedding for a year because people told us we shouldn't embark on marriage during his first year of teaching. He took to teaching like a duck to water, and we only regretted waiting.

This year, in early January, he got a call from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He's been moonlighting for them for a number of years now, helping out with summer conferences, acting as a consultant for curriculum projects and even zipping over to CERN in Geneva every year to teach master classes to physics teachers. The call was a request for a semester of his time.

"Sure," he said. "Which semester?"
"The next one."
"The next semester starts in three weeks."
"Yeah--" Pause.-- "Let's see if we can make it happen."

And happen it did. Three weeks later, he had a desk and a role and he had to get used to sitting all day, and being quiet, but also being able to use the washroom at will and altering hours to arrive early or late as needed.

A few months in, they asked him if it might be possible for him to stay for two more semesters, an extra year. He talked about it with his department head and principal (oh, and his wife), and decided to accept.

So, for the first time in his career, he's working through the summer.

I mention this now because yesterday was the last day of school. Yesterday we said goodbye to a beloved teacher, who has taught our son for the last two years. We said goodbye to school routines and hello to summer. And, for the first time, my husband didn't get to bid that farewell.

We sat in the backyard in the late afternoon sun and talked about this yesterday. I asked him whether the rhythm felt wrong, whether he felt like he really should be off for the summer, and he shook his head. "I could keep doing this forever," he said. "I don't feel like I need a break."

In the last six weeks, I've had the opportunity to be the project manager for a PI project and to work closely with my husband. Fortunately we've enjoyed the experience (except for the one day he called and supper was exploding, the baby bird was getting divebombed and the puppy had to poop and I was not at all prepared to talk shop. But I digress.) I know he works hard. I know he puts in long days - certainly longer than he often spent at school. But, he doesn't bring anywhere near as much work home with him at night, and he isn't presenting new and complex material to wriggling adolescents for six hours a day. He has more personal energy at the end of the day and the end of the school year.

Oftentimes, teachers get a bum rap. "Those who can, do," people snigger. "Those who can't, teach." People make snide remarks about the holidays teachers get. This experience has been interesting and confirming to us that teaching is darn hard work. And darn good work. I look at the beloved teacher who broke her foot badly on the weekend and who still hobbled into school this week, to walk her students through their graduation and their end of year celebrations and wrap-ups. I meet former students of my husband who tell me he took away their fears of science, that he listened to them and helped them.

People ask whether he will go back to teaching. He will. That's who he is. That's what he does. He believes his value as an educational consultant will diminish the longer he is out of the classroom, and he misses the teaching part.

Still, he loves this break, where he can work with smarter minds and potty breaks.

On this first day of summer, I want to salute those teachers who can and do teach. As a learner and a mother of learners, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the hard work and heart work you put into your vocation. Enjoy every bit of summer!