Saturday, 19 November 2016

Beauty and the Big Stink

A few days ago, I awoke with a sense of “good things happening today”. I was working on a project, and it was going well. For a change, the sun was shining. The house would be empty all morning. It was a perfect storm of good things coming together.

So I got dressed and was almost ready to take the stairs to my hideout, the studio, when Someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, but aren’t you forgetting something?”

Gotcha! A week earlier, I’d (again, sigh!) realized I was neglecting the routine of my sit spot and a walk by the river, with the inevitable results thereof: disconnectedness from myself, my art and my Creator. I’d used the excuse of family commitments in August and September,  the record setting rainfall we’d had in October and November, and the old stand-by: somuchtodo on other days. Last week, after rough times, I started walking again...and already, just a few days later, I was off track. We are our own worst enemies, aren’t we?

So I pulled on my walking shoes and set off. So much beauty to absorb: the sun shining in a clear blue sky, the last of the colourful leaves clinging to branches, the invigorating sound of the raging river, the deep, underlying peace of the woods as I descended the path.

Peace and beauty ... and stink. Big Stink. The stink was everywhere in the woods.

We live in God’s country, they say here--the land of plenty. And the land of plenty includes salmon. All the rivers in this area are salmon-bearing streams, and at this time of year the fish come up the rivers by the thousands, already dying but needing to do that one last thing before they breathe their last: spawn. “Our river”, the Puntledge, is no exception.

Dead salmon beside their "nest" of eggs, which unfortunately have become uncovered because of the raging streams.

Because we have had record-setting amounts of rain, the rivers have been flowing into the woods and parks along their banks, carrying with them a lot of dying salmon. When the rivers recede, the woods are littered with the carcasses of these dead fish. I'm told the playing fields of the biggest park downtown had their share, too: imagine dead salmon on home plate, the outfield, under the swing sets, and in the soccer goals. Dead fish were belly up all along my walking path. Hence, the stink.

It's a good stink, though. It’s the stink of life. Salmon is a keystone species, meaning that if they disappear from the Valley, so will many other things. Bears and birds will have less food –one study showed that 137 species of fish and wildlife - from orcas to caddisflies - depend on the Northwest salmon for their survival.

The walking trail and the rivers are inhabited by a large population of gulls these days: dead salmon and uncovered eggs make grocery shopping a breeze. 

Without salmon dying in the streams and on the shores, the rivers won't have enough food to feed the new hatchlings, and the woods will become malnourished, for even the trees and vegetation depend on the rotting carcasses for key nutrients.  Up to 40% of nitrogen in streamside plants is traceable to salmon. It's even in your wine: one study close to a salmon-bearing stream showed that about a quarter of the nutrients in grape leaves came from dead salmon. They are so important to the environment, the local fish hatchery loads up the carcasses from the "egg-harvested" salmon into the back of a truck and spreads them around in the woods and rivers. Check out this web page for more fascinating facts:

In other words, there would be no beauty here without our big stink.

This got me to thinking. I do get so upset with myself for neglecting the things that I know are life-giving: walking, solitude, spiritual reading to name but three. This neglect is the “stinky” part of my life. But...perhaps it’s also true that without the stink, there will be no beauty. If I did everything that was good for me, well wow! I would be perfect. (The resident sweetie, my children and friends will be the first to say I am no such thing.) What a high standard that would be to live up to. Nobody can do it. If you think you can, you have a bigger problem.

Better then, to accept the stink and appreciate it for what it is: a reminder that there is something rotten in the state of my soul, and I’d better tend to it. That stink can be my friend if I pay attention.

So I begin again. I walked (occasionally holding my nose) and hummed a tune (Teddy Bear’s Picnic: “If you should go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise...”). I kept my eyes, my ears, my heart open to listen and take it in.

I know – the stinking salmon tell me – that beauty will come out of it.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The World According to Crow

The crow has been a constant companion on my blogging journey.

She was the first one to whisper in my ear, “The time has come to begin working on your dream. It’s time to combine your love of art and your love of writing and send it out to the world.” Her feistiness was a teacher and an encourager. The more I learned about the crow, the more I realized that she and her family had many lessons to teach us lowly humans.

Ms. Crow and her family are big squawkers: they use their voices to alert others in their tribe about dangers. If something’s wrong, you’re going to hear about it. They share their knowledge about where to get good food. They live together in family groupings, and their extended families help raise the young. They fiercely protect their nests. They love to play and can be quite mischievous.

Crows have been known to leave gifts for those who have helped or fed them. They are adaptable to new conditions, and learn from experience. Well, I could go on and on – if you have been reading my blogs over the past few years, you will have learned along with me. We can learn a lot from the genus Corvus.

So it made sense to me that when I did self-portraits (one each time I turned the calendar on another year), I would use the crow as a metaphor for my life: a crow with beads flowing out of her beak was me, squawking, using my writing and quilting to share some thoughts with the world.  (That's her at the top of this page.) The crow dancing: that was me, too, realizing that even if I was no spring chicken, I was enjoying life.

The white crow flying out over the world, carrying ribbons and fibres to add to the tapestry of humanity was me expressing my growing awareness that we all have something to contribute to this beautiful world, and that all our contributions are important and necessary.

When I turned 68, it was time for a new self-portrait. But this one was different. I couldn’t just have this portrait feature a single crow. Call me a slow learner, but it finally dawned on me that crows don’t live alone. Rarely do you see them wandering alone through the woods or down city streets. There’s almost always a couple of other crows within calling distance. At sunset during the fall and winter, they gather in flocks, then fly to their roosts where they hang out with their friends and family overnight, dispersing in the morning in small groups to forage and explore. In spring and summer, they work together in their family groups to build a nest and raise a new crow brood. Unlike a lot of people, crows know they are stronger when they are united, when they learn that they are more alike than they are different, and that they need each other.

At the same time, over these past years of blogging and reading and learning, I have  become more and more aware of the interconnectedness of all things in this beautiful universe that we call home. Our planet is but a tiny speck in this particular galaxy in the universe, which is whirling and expanding and getting ever bigger without our lifting a finger to help it along. Yet everything we do, every word we say, every endeavor we engage in, has a ripple effect, making an impact on the future. Wow. Wow. Wow. Truly, I can’t grasp this, but I know it makes me want to fall on my knees in wonder. Also to bow my head in confession and sadness, for too often I am living my life in a state of complete oblivion, my heart and mind and senses deadened to this miracle called life.

This little wall piece is my feeble attempt to try to express some of these thoughts. I am – and you are – one of those crows, flying out over the world.

The crow’s eye view of the world shows mountains and prairies, fields and rivers and lakes, houses and towns, night and day.

This is our wonderful world, given into our care  by (at least, this is my own personal belief) a loving Creator who is exceptionally patient with and forgiving of our self-centred foibles.

I need to remember this. I need to rejoice in what we have. And I need to keep working, to work for the betterment of the flock and all those who come after. Come squawk with me if you agree. We can keep each other company as we fly through life, working and squawking all the way.


Sunday, 30 October 2016

Fourth Quarter Thoughts

For weeks, I’ve been thinking that I need to write an answer to the blog I posted in April this year. In that blog, I wrote about dormancy – that I felt as though my life was in a dormant phase, waiting for conditions to be right so I could find answers to a question I’ve been asking myself.

This was the question:  Now that I am in the 4th quarter of this game of life, what am I supposed to be doing? What is good, and worthwhile, and meaningful and my best use of the time remaining?

Over the months of thinking about this, some things have become clearer. It helps to know I’m not the only one who thinks about these things, and that wiser heads than mine can give some advice. This week I came across a blog by Parker Palmer, which I’d like to share because he’s such a wise man and way ahead of me on this road, this adventure, called life.

You can read the blog at the website of On Being, a wonderful exploration of spiritual ideas from a wide variety of sources. Palmer’s weekly blog appears at this  address,

I’ve also reprinted it here, slightly rearranging the words.

A Shrine to Meaning
by Parker Palmer

I love this poem. It needs little commentary from me. Behind it lies a question many of us ask ourselves from time to time:

    by Leonard Nathan

    So you aren’t Tolstoy or St. Francis
    or even a well-known singer
    of popular songs and will never read Greek
    or speak French fluently,
    will never see something no one else
    has seen before through a lens
    or with the naked eye.

    You’ve been given just the one life
    in this world that matters
    and upon which every other life
    somehow depends as long as you live,
    and also given the costly gifts of hunger,
    choice, and pain with which to raise
    a modest shrine to meaning.

Given my small, ordinary, un-famous, and fleeting life, what can I do that’s of true worth and value? Then it offers an answer that I find simple, real, moving, and doable.

I re-read this poem occasionally and ask myself, “Using everything I have — including my own ‘costly gifts of hunger, choice, and pain’ — what can I do today to keep raising the ‘modest shrine to meaning’ I'd like to create with my life?”

Maybe it’s planting a tree, maybe it’s a random act of kindness to a stranger, maybe it’s offering comfort to someone who’s hurting, maybe it’s writing a thank-you letter to a mentor who saw your potential and drew it out...

There’s always something meaningful I can do to honor the gift of life in myself, others, and the world around us. Just do it!


Saturday, 15 October 2016

Safe or Sorry?

“Let’s take the trailer out for one more run before we kiss camping goodbye for another year,” I suggested to the RS.  “Let’s go to Tofino.”

Tofino, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, is known for many things: fabulous surfing beaches, whale watching tours, funky ambience, good restaurants. Mild temperatures year round. At this time of year, tourists begin arriving for storm-watching season,  but that was not our goal. We wanted a quiet, relaxing time with lots of beach walks and reading

So we packed up and took off on Monday this week. It was a beautifully sunny day. Although the road to Tofino is twisty and narrow with lots of ups and downs, the trip was uneventful. The set-up took hardly any time at all. The campground had all the amenities, including wifi, was well treed and fronted on the beach. We walked there and watched the sun go down and congratulated ourselves on this good idea.

Day Two: another beautiful day. Another beautiful walk, this time around the lighthouse at Ucluelet. The interpretive signs told of storms and shipwrecks galore, but the sea was calm and blue. Ah, yes, this was the life.

Later that evening, we checked our e-mail and facebook. Uhoh. “This doesn’t sound good,” I said to the resident sweetie.

Announcements bordered in red, with lurid neon lines on weather maps, spelled out trouble. The remnants of Typhoon Songda were headed our way, and would be most felt on open West-facing coastlines. That's where we were.

We could expect winds gusting up to 100 km./hr. and 200 mm of rain over the next three days. There would be three storms, each becoming more intense, with the first hitting us on Wednesday evening. Anything not tied down would be prone to flying about, tree limbs might fall, and of course, there would be power outages.

Suddenly, this trip did not sound like such a good idea after all. We went to bed in a somber mood, and my sleep was disturbed with  dreams of downed power lines draped over our trailer ... or worse.  We were ready to pack it up early and get out while the going was good the following day. Actually, we were ready to run away from possible danger.

We are realizing, as we get older, that we are more aware of danger all around us. Just driving out to the Coast, pulling a trailer over narrow winding roads, is dangerous. Taking a walk on the beach or along an interpretive trail can be dangerous too.

The danger has always been there, but perhaps as we age we are becoming more aware of our vulnerability. Our instinct is to retreat, to run for safety. Don’t take a walk on that trail: a bear was sighted there a month ago.

Don’t climb on the rocks, you may twist your ankle. Don’t camp in the forest, a tree may fall and hit you. These are all very real possibilities – small chances, but real possibilities -- and as the saying goes, “Discretion is the better part of valour.”

Yes, but ... Unfortunately, each time we run away, our world becomes a little smaller. We won’t take the trip, we won’t sign up for the new activity, we won’t reach out to people we don’t know, or who are different from us, because, after all, we could get hurt.These experiences could spell danger.

In the morning, before packing up, we took one last walk on the beach -- the beautiful beach blessed by a rainbow.

We looked at each other. Hmm. Almost at the same time, we said, “Let’s tough it out.” We want to live in a world that holds challenges and surprises. There may come a time when our camping and traveling days will be over, when we won’t have the energy and resources to deal with challenges and surprises. But, hopefully, not for a while yet. Right now, we will tough it out, and enjoy!

Which is what we did. We weighed our choices, and opted for the challenge. We accepted the risk and hoped for the best.

The storm Wednesday night was much less severe than predicted, and on Thursday we had a great time walking on the beaches, outrunning the waves that smashed up on the shore, climbing rocks, and dodging the sporadic rainshowers. We watched surfers throw themselves into the waters, reveling in the excitement of trying to stand up on a board. We were happy campers.

Thursday night, the second storm hit, and it hit hard. It knocked down trees, one of which fell on top of  a camper’s car, knocked out power, turned tent poles into a pile of spaghetti.

The possibilities had become real. (But, we slept through most of it and emerged unscathed!)

Friday, we went home.

Did we make the right choice when we decided to tough it out? We think we did, but others would think differently.  What would you have done?

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Far from Perfect

The winter storms have come early. Late in the afternoon yesterday, we were battered by high winds and huge bursts of rain that rattled our windows and lasted all night long. It was a good evening to stay inside.

It was not a good night for the plants, however.  This morning, when we drew back the curtains, we saw the devastation. The dahlias and sunflowers that were still brightening our fall garden were bent and broken.

The sunflower was a goner, laying flat against the ground. This was very sad. It had had a hard life. We planted it in the wrong place to begin with, up against the house wall. It struggled to find enough water to thrive, and during the early summer, we pretty well wrote it off. It was hiding behind some climbing beans, and we forgot it was there. But lo and behold, when the heat of August arrived, it grew ... and grew... and grew. Early in September, we roped it to the downspout. When we left for a two week trip, it had reached the roof. When we came back, it had stretched its bonds and was leaning out over the grass, its many floral heads held on curved stems, stretching out and reaching  for the sun up above. Both the RS and I became the sunflower’s cheerleaders. We jerry-rigged a support structure to prop it upright, and found stronger, unstretchable ropes to hold it there. Its stem was now thicker than my arm, and its top was covered with dozens of buds and flowers.

In the secret language of flowers, sunflowers stand for happiness. That’s how we felt every time we saw it. You go, girl, I said.

But now, the storm had knocked out the supports, and the stem had toppled, pulling out the roots.
What to do?

This is what I did:

The bouquet of bruised flowers joins the last of our produce: imperfect apples and tomatoes not quite ripe. And all quite lovely.
 Sure, the flowers were battered and bruised, with torn petals and twisty stems. But together in that vase, if you didn’t look too closely at the details,  they created a bouquet that will brighten our Thanksgiving table. A perfect rose standing alone in a silver bud vase can’t compete with this gathering together of colour and vibrancy.

As I picked each twisted stem and put it into the vase, I admired its tenacity and thought about how much these happy flowers  can teach us about life. We are all of us a bit battered and bruised and torn up. We’ve had to struggle against adversity, and had the opportunity to grow and become stronger for it. Some of us even now are trying to stay upright as we fight the good fight. And yet, each one of us, with our scars and imperfections, is beautiful. Together we can bring joy to the world and to each other.

And for this, and for so much more, on this weekend when we celebrate Thanksgiving day here in Canada, I give thanks. For all of you, beautiful flowers in my garden, for all the crooked people trying to stand upright, for all the far-from-perfect people who surround us in our communities, who are willing to come together to be more than we are individually, I give thanks. Thanks a lot!

Here's Raffi's simple and yet beautiful song of celebration for all things:

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Crossing the River

We live in a home across the street from the Puntledge River, a river that flows out of glacier-fed Comox Lake and down to the Salish Sea. It’s an important, salmon-bearing stream; we can hear it roaring when the windows are open,  and we walk beside it almost every day. We love that dear old river.

Opa and Solay like to fish at the river. This photo was taken several years ago. They still like to fish there.
In our wills, we have  opted for cremation and let our kids know about our wishes. “It would be nice, however,” we told them, “if you used some of your inheritance money to buy a bench or plant a tree beside the Puntledge River in our memory.” They agreed. All in the future, which, we hope, is still long, long away. But one never knows. We all have to cross that river sometime.  What if the future arrives sooner than we think?

Our kids are wiser than we are. This summer, in celebration of our 45th anniversary, most of them came home for a hangout with Mom and Dad. They planned  the day and the meals for us – it was lovely. On the schedule was a walk at Nymph Falls Regional Park, a lovely rambling forested space criss-crossed with walking, biking, and horse trails, and fronting on the Puntledge River. A walk by our favourite  river, what could be better?

The little ones ran on ahead, followed closely by their parents, and the RS and I strolled behind, counting our blessings. We rounded a corner, and saw a strange sight: the grandies and a couple of their parents had created a human bench for us to sit on. A little presentation had been planned.

“We’ve been thinking about your bench by the river, the one you want after you’re gone,  and we thought you might want to choose the wording for a plaque now, before we pick it out for you,” said the oldest son. Knowing my family’s sense of humour, this was not a bad idea.  “Sit down and we’ll show you some possible wordings.”

He held out possible signs:

Wet Paint. 
Not exactly inviting.

Come unto me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.
True, but  sacreligious.. This bench is not Jesus.

(a rude Dutch expression, which cannot be reprinted. Absolutely not.

From here, you can watch the river’s downfall. 
Thumbs down: This bench is not meant to be a tourist guide.

For instructions on sitting, please see Comox Valley Manual 3.674
Yeah, right. I don’t think so.

In loving memory of  Al and Jessie Schut.
Aww, sweet! But perhaps a trifle boring?

And finally:

Feels so good to have a snuggle with a person that you love.
Ah, that’s more like it. This is a line in a song I have sung to my grandkids since they were very small. I told my kids I wanted it sung at my funeral, but maybe a plaque on a bench would do just as well.

I believe in snuggling. It’s a very healthy thing to do. The resident sweetie and I, in fact, both love it. Google tells me there is a saying by Virginia Satir, a respected family therapist, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” We aim to surpass maintenance.

We agreed they could put this wording on our “memorial bench” by the river when the time came. Then they sprung another surprise on us: they’d all pitched in, got additional contributions from Al and my siblings, and our bench would be built NOW. The future had arrived sooner than we expected. Delightful!

The other day, the RS and my sister Sue with her husband Bob, went down for a walk to visit “our” newly installed bench. We sat and had a snuggle. We are thrilled.

It’s waiting for a visit from you, dear readers, too. Come sit and have a snuggle while you still  can. The future is now.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Unravelling Words

Warning: this is another “wordy” blog – exploring word meanings. If this sounds to you about as exciting as watching paint dry, you can stop reading now. Just tell yourself the crow has flown off into the wild blue yonder and you aren’t in any mood to follow.

The other day, in conversation with friend, I used the word “revelatory” (rev-e-la-tor-y) twice within a very short time, as in, “My summer was actually quite revelatory.”  Whoa! How pretentious of me! (Fortunately, my friend did not wince, roll her eyes, or turn away to find a more compatible conversation partner. Pretty revelatory of her character, I’d say.)

I wondered if  revelatory was even a word. When I got home, I looked it up. Yes, it’s a word. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, revelatory means  “making something known : revealing something in usually a surprising way.” Apparently, it was first used, but not often, in the late 1880s; now its use is increasing.  Maybe we’re living in a society where there are more mind-blowing, revelatory occurrences? Or maybe we just like using big words more. According to my friend Google, in the list of 86,800 most commonly used words in the English language, revelatory clocks in at 51,931, right after Nescafe and just before waterbus. Most popularly used word? The. Least common of the 86,800 words: Conquistador. (

Sorry, I’m running down rabbit trails, misleading you. Bad habit. Pretty revelatory of my character, I’d say. I’m like the dog that walks faithfully beside you until a squirrel runs past her.

Actually, thinking about creating a blog about the word revelatory has come around and bitten me in the derriere. I’m the person who was ranting a number of blogs ago about people using the word “utilize” when when the simple word “use” will do. Flashing the word revelatory around is pretty pretentious and pedantic – or pompous, in plain English. Oh, dear, I am like the crow who collects shiny things and caches them in a safe place, only I am collecting fancy words. Those shiny things are not very helpful to the crow, and big fancy words are often not useful if simple words will do. What is wrong with the word “revealing”, I ask myself? Revealing is a good serviceable word and will get the idea across without raising eyebrows.

Except ...  there’s that use of the word “surprise” in the definition.

Surprise – that little shift in the way you look at things that suddenly lets you see them in a new way. It’s a change in perception. For instance, I’m sure the RS looks in the mirror at least a few times a day, but earlier this week, he walked out of the bathroom and told me, with surprise in his voice, “I’m realizing that we are really getting old.” The mirror that usually revealed the common, everyday version of himself, suddenly became revelatory.

And revelatory was the only word that would do when I was looking at a photo that someone posted of me on Facebook.  Do people really see that when they look at me? Aghg. I thought after I lost those 30 pounds a few years ago I was well on the way to being svelte. Apparently not.

Revelatory is a good word when someone comes out with a Freudian slip. A Freudian slip is when you mean to say one thing, but something different comes out: you want to say another but out comes your mother. These slip-ups are revelatory of what’s living in your deep sub-conscious. Since this term was first described by Freud, you can guess that often Freudian slips pertain to sex: you say ‘brightest and breast’ rather than brightest and best; wish someone a sexcessful adventure instead of successful; ... well, I’m not telling you about my Freudian slips, they are way too revelatory.

On the other hand, “revealing” is perfectly adequate in many other situations.

Speedo swimsuits on overweight – well, actually, any weight – men are revealing. No surprise there.

Ditto for low cut blouses, skin-tight short-shorts, curtainless windows at night, and an interview with Donald Trump: revealing.

The dress I bought on impulse because it looked so good on someone else? When I tried it on at home in a better light, in front of a full-length mirror, oops. Way to revealing of my varicose veins and not-so-lovely knees. Not good. I keep it as a reminder of the dangers of impulse shopping.

Revealing and revelatory: both good words, depending on what you want to say. Personally, however, I enjoy a good revelatory experience once in a while to shake me up a bit, and I realize that I actually did have a revelatory summer. I got shook up a bit, and that’s a subject for another blog.

Conclusion: writing about revelatory was a revealing experience. In the future, I should be using “revealing” and “revelatory” in their correct contexts. No use complexifying things.