Saturday, 11 February 2017

How to deal with *@!#

“Move to the Island,” they said. “Vancouver Island is Canada’s tropics," they said. "Sure, it rains a lot, but at least you don’t have to shovel the rain.”

Oh, really? Fake news. Alternative facts. That’s what those encouraging words were. 

The truth – and this is the best, the very best truth, you can count on it –  almost every winter we get at least one snowstorm that turns us into the wimpy drivers that everyone else in Canada sniggers at, the ones slip-sliding around on the streets, spinning our wheels.
And yes, we do have a little red car, as a matter of fact.
Fortunately, usually the snow disappears after a few days. Not this year, however. As I write, it has been snowing steadily for 6 days; trees are coated, roofs are buried, cars drive down the street with a foot of snow on the roof.

This amount of snow is so unusual, I have come up with a theory about it. The beginning of our very bad – the worst, in fact, you’d better believe it – very bad winter began roughly about the time that a certain man was elected – #45, I believe his name is. This White House Wizard, like the White Queen of Narnia, has cast a spell upon our land; we will have 4 years of winter, with no Christmas, if this keeps up. 

So how do you deal with something you just don’t like at all -- like snow, for instance? And make no mistake: we don’t like it. You too may be struggling with something that makes you feel mad or sad, and may be wondering how to handle it. Well, good news: today I read a post on Bernice King’s Facebook page. She’s the daughter of Martin Luther King, and she has advice for dealing with a difficult situation. In her case, it’s #45. But I think it also applies to the snow situation we are in right now. Perhaps lumping #45 and snow into the same category belittles and insults one of them, but it's good advice, so I wanted to share.

First, she advises us, don’t repeat the name of the thing you dislike over and over again. It only distracts you from the issues that underlie it. (Henceforth, the unwelcome thing will be known as *@!#).  *@!# is a fact, a true fact. No lie. The issue is the crappy situation we find ourselves in, and the bad feelings the situation arouse. If we keep bemoaning  *@!#, we will neglect the work that could make our deplorable conditions better. Thus, the RS and I cleared away as much *@!# as we could – and we feel good about that. We discovered that the energy we put into that is much more enjoyable than the energy we put into whining and complaining.

Also, remember that it’s not just  *@!#  that’s causing our discomfort and distress. There’s a whole complex of issues behind that: climate change (literal and metaphorical), for instance. If there’s something we can do to address those issues, we may change our lives for the better.

Don’t argue with people who love *@!# . Accept that some people get excited by all the ways  *@!# might possibly benefit us. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” they say. “Now it’s our turn.” There is no way you can convince them otherwise. So save your breath to ... shovel.

Sometimes,  *@!#-lovers like to get us all riled up by saying outrageous things that make us mad. Getting all worked up creates a bad atmosphere – clouds up the sky, you could say. And cloudy conditions just lead to more  *@!#. So stay positive – after all  *@!# is not the only thing in your life. Think about sunshine. Family. Love. Create beautiful things – beautiful things are an antidote to  *@!#-sickness. Surround yourself with people who make beautiful things so you’ll be inspired and encouraged.

No more hopeless and helpless talk, either. Give it up.  *@!# won’t last forever. After winter, spring will come. We need to believe that.

Sometimes,  *@!#-lovers will make outrageous claims – “ *@!#, and only  *@!#, will make this world great again. We really need it. ” Sometimes we’re tempted to believe what we hear, and we might even pass it on to others. That’s called fake news. Check it out. Don’t pass it on.

Here's an example of fake news: the original photo, taken at Roger's Pass, didn't have the goats on the train. Nice job of photoshopping. Too bad it isn't true, but it is making its way around FB anyway!
We may be tempted to think that  *@!# has the upper hand – it’s such a powerful force, moving into our streets and towns, creating turmoil and chaos by its unexpected appearances. But  *@!# is powerless against humour. It is powerless against a smile and laughter. It cannot dampen our spirits. So indulge in these often.

When it comes to  *@!#, knuckling under is not an option. Holing up in your house and hiding your head under the blankets won’t, in the long run, solve the problem of *@!#.  It  may seem insurmountable; nevertheless, persist.

You’ll be glad – really, really glad, I guarantee it – that you did.

You can find  Bernice King’s Facebook page, with a compilation of advice re the political situation at:

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Ups and Downs

The other day, I put some things down on the landing of our staircase. It’s a handy holding place if I don’t feel like running up and down the stairs every few minutes. When there’s enough stuff collected, or when I next go up, I fill my arms with the things I’ve left there and put those items in their proper storage space. (True confession: sometimes I step over those piles for a long time until I can no longer ignore them.)

It got me to noodling about stairs.

This lovely staircase leads to the booksellers at Rouen Cathedral in France. Worth a trip there just so I could peek in at the little door at the top of the stairs!

 I’ve lived in a lot of places in my life; some homes had an “upstairs” and some had a “downstairs” –  basement – and some had no stairs at all. One of the things I loved about the home we live in now when I first saw it, was that it had no basement, but it did have a lovely open staircase that led to two rooms and a bathroom above our living space. It’s where my studio is now, and almost every time I go up, I anticipate good things happening. It’s where I sew and write, and where I can get away from everything and everyone to do so.

On the other hand, I have mixed feeling about basement stairs. Perhaps it’s because my first memory of a basement is a scary one.

In the old farmhouse we called home in the 50s, our indoor pit toilet was hidden in the back corner of a dirt-floor cellar behind a curtain. There was another curtain behind the “throne” (a one-holer), obscuring the stairs that led to a little-used trap-door opening  to the outside.  Sure, we didn’t have to traipse out to the outhouse in the cold and dark,  but for a five-year old, it was another kind of cold and dark down there altogether. A cool draft from behind discouraged lingering if we might be so inclined, and I sure wasn’t. How could I be sure there was nobody lurking behind that curtain when I went down there by myself? And what if I fell into the hole? I did not like that shadowy, cobwebby staircase to the cellar at all, even though, obviously, I had to use it regularly.

During my teen years I slept in a basement bedroom. It was my private hideaway, where I did homework while listening to the radio, where I read books till late, late at night without my folks knowing about it, where I journaled and wondered and began my noodling habit, and realized that I needed my alone time. Later, after marriage, when the kids started coming,  we converted a room in the basement to an office, and I had a room of my own, far from the noisome crowd. Although I still didn’t like going down the stairs into the basement, I was willing to think of these steps as a necessary way of getting to a good space.

I’ve been told that stairways serve as symbols in our inner life. If you dream of stairways, pay attention. It means that you are in the middle of change. An ever-narrowing ascending staircase means that the change is hard. A beautiful staircase means you are excited about the change. A dark and gloomy stairs leading down (often, by the way, a great device in movies to build tension) means you’re afraid of what might be down there.  Makes sense to me.

It makes sense because, after all, life is about change. If you are not changing, you are not growing. So, whether we like it or not, up and down those stairways we must go as we travel through life. It’s not much fun going down – down, down to the depths of your inner self to do the work that needs to be done to change – to face hard truths about yourself, to confess faults, to find it in your heart to forgive someone. We go down to the depths when we experience grief, and anger. We may try to push it away, but eventually we have no choice but to go down. It’s a necessity if we want to get to a better place. Either we go down, or we make a mess, just as I sometimes discovered when I resisted going down to my cellar toilet as a child.

Going up is much more exciting – sometimes difficult, but the journey has its own rewards. We learn something, we achieve a goal, we’re on top of the world. Of course it takes energy, and we may linger on the main floor occasionally, just being couch potatoes. But life is so much more interesting if we make the effort to get up off the couch, to do what we need to do to grow.

This stairway has built in rewards all the way up! No reason to stay on the couch when you have something like this!

And sometimes, if we’re tired, or our hearts are hurting, we end up leaving “stuff” on the landing – a resting place –  until we’re ready to pick up that psychic baggage and put it where it belongs, either “upstairs” or “downstairs.” It may accumulate for a while, but we can’t navigate around the junk pile forever.

So, that’s the end result of my noodling. Not profound, but in this time of political uncertainty, fear and anxiety, maybe we’re just tired of heavy talk. I know I am. Maybe we need to turn our eyes away from politics and do a little self-care, a little gentle noodling to understand where we’re at in our personal journeys.

I wonder where you are on your own staircase – going up, or going down, or resting on the landing for a bit. Wherever you are, don't quit.  Via con dios, and may the journey reward you.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Art of Turtling

There was a bit of a cloud hanging over the Valley as 2016 moved on to 2017. Or maybe it was just hanging over me.

The depressing statistics: we had 750 mm. of rain in October and November – 3 times what’s normal for us. And then we fell into a snowy cold which left the roads icy and treacherous. Those conditions are still with us. I am ready to write to my member of parliament to complain that this is not what we signed up for when we moved to Canada’s banana belt.

Then also, 2016 was not one of those years that will go down in my books as being a grand experience. It had more than its share of stresses and anxieties and sadness, much of it coming home to roost during the Christmas season. I hustled the old year out the door and then I locked it. As one friend who had her unfair share of health issues said, “I gathered all our 2016 calendars and placed them by the fireplace to burn up as quick as possible. I don’t want another year like that.”

Then I did what many women of a certain age do after the Christmas season is over and the last dish is washed, the last leftovers put away, the last tree needles swept under the carpet, and the last box of forbidden candy is empty: I weighed myself and cried. Then I sat down in front of the fireplace, had a glass of sherry and some potato chips with a fruitcake chaser, and decided it was time to turtle before I tackled any other crisis.

I don’t think “to turtle” is actually a verb. But it should be. Think about it: turtles have these lovely, protective shells in which they can hide away from the world when the going gets tough. They retract their heads and legs and just hang out in the dark, blissfully and willfully ignorant of what is going on around them. I’m guessing that when they emerge from their shells eventually, they are stronger, more optimistic, and ready to tackle the world again. If it works for turtles, why not for overwhelmed women? And that was me.

So beginning January 1, I turtled. Oh sure, I stuck my head out once in a while to take a breath of fresh air, and exercise my limbs – after all, nobody does the laundry, cooks meals, grocery shops, or answers the doorbell for you while you are in your state of turtlation. You need to do a few rudimentary things to survive, but basically, when you turtle, you put yourself on hold. No meetings. No commitments that take energy. Don’t need to answer the phone or e-mails unless you feel like it. It’s like Lucy of Peanuts fame putting out her sign: The Doctor is NOT in. Be content with what is, and do not resist it.  Make yourself at home within your shell, and grow strong.

There are many ways of turtling: binge reading, for instance, can take you away for a good long time. So can going to bed early and sleeping in late. A holiday on a warm and sunny beach far from the phone and computer might do it for some. (That would have been nice, but it wasn’t in the cards for me.) Slow-stitching – whether it’s knitting, embroidery, crocheting –  is a great meditative turtling activity, especially when a big pot of slow-cooker soup is simmering in the background. Especially pea soup with a smoked pork hock adding its aroma. MMM. Speaking of which,  M&Ms are helpful, too.

Some people pull others into the turtle shell with them; that’s what revives them. But that’s not my way – I turtle mostly alone. I turtled in my favourite place: the studio. Every morning, after going through my wake-up routine of sudoku, spiritual reading, and journalling (with coffee, of course) I kissed the RS goodbye and trundled up the stairs. I had an art project in mind, one that was engrossing enough to take me away from everything else. Inside my cave, my turtle shell, I would conjure up a renewed vision. My inspiration was a painting by Edvard Munch called The Sun.

I’d seen it on the cover of a book and loved it. Looking at it, I could almost hear Cat Stevens singing “Morning has broken, like the first morning.” The sun looked almost like a Celtic cross. How lovely it would be to bathe myself in that light. Could I reproduce it?

As I worked – or rather, played – I found myself detached from the outcome. It might look awful when all was said and done, or, it might be great, but it really didn’t matter. The process gave me time and opportunity to reflect on what was happening in my life, especially the latest pain of losing our precious little grandchild Farrah Hope. I took my time, and it was good.

Sometimes I reached out to others for help and advice on my work, and that interaction also nourished my soul (thanks, Lorraine!). I shed some tears, laughed a little, listened to uplifting podcasts. I tried different things, struggled for a while, and then realized it was my own vision of a morning sun that I needed to portray, not someone else’s. This morning sun, the one that lives within, would be a beacon to me, lighting my way into 2017. The final epiphany came when I realized that the second line of “Morning has Broken”  was, “Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird!” How appropriate! The crow was speaking to me again, and would be included in this piece.

Here is the result. It’s not finished yet, but getting there. The tree, the bird, and the reflection on the water are just practices, and will be refined as it becomes revealed to me.

Once the turtle emerges from her shell, she goes off and does what she has to do. I think that I’m ready for that now, too, with a song in my heart: “Morning has broken...”

Saturday, 7 January 2017


What Would Jesus Craft?

My friend told me she saw this book title on the shelf at our library. “What were they thinking?” she asked me, befuddled by the thought of Jesus surrounded by bottles of glue and glitter, popsicle sticks, and scrapbooking supplies.

I was intrigued. What would Jesus craft? Not ashtrays or beer steins, was my immediate thought. After I quit giggling,  I began noodling about it.

Using the words Jesus and Crafts in the same sentence doesn’t feel all that incongruous to me. If you have any kind of background in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and Bible Camp, the two words probably go together quite well for you, too. In fact, Sunday School and VBS without crafts, in my childhood eyes, was boring.

And I’ve had experience with boring. In a previous blog I wrote about the church that I grew up in having very little in the way of sensory stimulation for children. My only memory of Sunday School is of sitting around the edge of a room  with about 20 other kids, trying not to wiggle or whisper while a gentleman with no concept of child development principles read verbatim from the lesson book – a mini-sermon for us children who had already sat through a long church service. This felt like punishment for wiggling and whispering in the church service, while our fortunate parents, who knew how to sit still and keep their mouths shut, got let out early for good behaviour and  stood outside gossiping and catching up with the news. Every now and then our teacher, a parent probably pressed into service by the pastor,  looked up and told us to stop wiggling or whispering. Sometimes his face got red and he was mad. Sometimes he even threw kids out because they were misbehaving. (This was not a good thing; the poor kids so ejected probably got a double dose of punishment from their parents.) Mercifully, after about 20 minutes we were released. The room emptied faster than you can say Boring. Everyone meant well, but...

But what an eye-opener when we attended Vacation Bible School at a different church. These people didn't seem to mind whispering, wiggling and noisy kids. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, the stories exciting and taught with drama, and there was singing and contests. Best of all, they did crafts! I made a hot pad and embroidered on it an airplane. What the airplane had to do with Jesus remains a mystery to this day (was it an illustration for the lesson about the “flight to Egypt” which Jesus and his parents had to make to escape danger  in his infancy?) At another Bible Club, we made a little pioneer wagon out of a block of wood, some wheels, and a covering stitched together out of birch bark. A light inserted under the covering turned this into a lamp. Wow! I believe the Scripture passage this craft illustrated was from the Psalms: “Your Word is a light unto my path.” When news got out to other kids about the cool craft you could do at this club, the attendance more than doubled.

This is a fancier version of my Wagon lamp, but it sure makes me nostalgic to view it. 

In one of her columns,  writer Erma Bombeck wrote about the legend which says when a gift of love is put on the altar, the Christmas chimes ring. She writes,  “I heard them the year one of my sons gave me a tattered piece of construction paper on which he had crayoned two hands folded in prayer and a moving message, OH COME HOLY SPIT!” She celebrates the years of the lace doilies fashioned into snowflakes,  the hands traced in plaster of paris, the Christmas trees of pipe cleaners, the thread spools that held small candles,  crafted by little hands as the ultimate gifts of love.

Hokey? Well, maybe. Some people frown on crafts in church – after all, what lesson is the child learning except how to make the craft? Isn’t Sunday School about more than that? Isn’t it about learning eternal lessons of good and evil, sin and salvation, about God’s love for his children? Well, yep. Of course.

But the lessons I took away with me from so long ago were these: church could be fun; men and women were concrete examples of loving servants who gave time and energy and patience to us without any certainty of a reward. (And that includes the teachers in the church of my childhood.) I learned that faith formation wasn’t all about head knowledge, it could involve all your senses. You could sing, create, whisper, wiggle, chat with your friends, think outside the box. You could make crafts. You could switch on your Pioneer Wagon night light and remember to read a few verses from the Bible before you went to sleep, and you grew to love that time of quietness, where you took responsibility for your own spiritual growth.

So what would Jesus craft? I have no idea. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he filled in some of his downtime skipping stones on the Sea of Galilee, or building inukshuks on the shore to say that he’d been there. Maybe he strung together beads to wear around his neck as a sort of rosary that helped him say his prayers. Perhaps he turned a hanky into a puppet and played with the children who came to visit him even though his stern disciples frowned on such foolishness.

I’m going out on a limb and saying Jesus never did lose touch with his inner child. Because after all, wasn’t it Jesus who said that if we want to be part of the kingdom of heaven, we should become as children?

What Would Jesus Craft? is a real book written by Ross MacDonald. It's a tongue-in-cheek look at crafts based on Bible themes and verses for the irreverantly devout. They're real crafts complete with instructions. So if you are hankering for Keep the Faith Flip Flops or Time-to-Obey-the-Lord Clock, check to see if your library is carrying it.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Journey

It has been my habit for the last 10 years or more to claim the first Sunday in January as a retreat day which I spend at home in my studio. I use the time to reflect on the past year, think about the future, connect with my Higher Power in a meaningful way. The resident sweetie cooperates by staying out of my way and not being noisy. (He really is a sweetie.)

After all these years of practice, you’d think I’d be good at this. Equipped with a pen and a journal, a comfortable chair, some candles, Celtic music playing softly in the background,  I’d spend several hours meditating, praying, thinking, evaluating. And at the end of my retreat, I would emerge from my studio with a beatific smile on my face, serene and enlightened, loving and patient and kind ... a better person, in other words.

The reality is that I am not a very good retreatant. Restless at heart, I often can’t seem to get into the zone – the quiet, meditative posture that allows you to access your own deeper, truer self, where you are open to new insights and revelations. All these things seem to happen to other people in retreat settings, but not so much to me. I’m usually itching to get out of that chair at the 15 minute mark. Nothing’s happening, I tell myself. Move on, move on, there’s other stuff you can do.

This is what happened a few months ago when I went on retreat.  The setting was gorgeous: a home on the ocean, beauty inside and out.

I was looking forward to three days of bliss. So I packed big time for the journey: all the things I thought I just might need to make this a valuable time. A journal and books, of course, but also my current quilting challenge, the materials I might want to use to create an art piece based on the theme of “Journey.” Making art, after all, is a spiritual practice for me.  I had in my mind what this art piece would look like: a picture of my first home, where I began my life’s journey. I was orchestrating this retreat so that it would yield big results.

But by the end of the second day, I had no serene, beatific smile, just a heart full of frustration. Nothing was going the way it should. I packed away my supplies in disgust.

But then again, maybe everything WAS happening the way it should. Sometimes revelations and insights happen not when you prepare yourself for them in lovely retreat settings,  but when you, in distress, say, “I give up!” This too is a way of retreating: going backwards to gather  strength so you can go forward.

In distress, I abandoned my artistic plans, took a long walk, pondered and listened, and gained access to that deeper, truer self beyond the ego, the self which was truly open. When I got home a few days later, I went into the studio and in a matter of hours created this:

This little person is stepping into an unknown future, as are we all. No backpack of supplies will take care of all the things that might happen. What lies ahead? Will it be good or hard to bear? Where is the trail to follow?

What lies beyond the woods? What storms might pass, and what light is there to give guidance? Are there companions on the way?

So many questions, so few sure answers. And yet, the child steps forward in anticipation, mixed with a little anxiety, perhaps ... as must we all. The journey is a gift we’ve been given, a very precious gift that we are privileged to walk every day that we are here on earth.

As I look back at my journey through 2016, I see times of great happiness. You’ve shared in that journey if you’ve been reading my blogs. When I take the time to count my blessings, they roll out in a never-ending stream, it seems. Counting your blessings puts you in a mood to clap your hands and sing and dance.

But there have been many tough times, too, in the journey that was 2016. I haven’t shared all those times, but some of them. The latest instance happened just the week before Christmas, when a grandchild we were joyfully expecting was stillborn at 6 months. Little Farrah Hope, beautifully formed, 2 pounds: we will never hold her in our arms, watch her grow and rejoice in her gifts. Her parents are bereft, speechless, and we suffer along with them. In times like this, our laughter turns to sackcloth and ashes, our eyes are filled with tears, not joy.

This journey, this gift, that we call life is such a mixture of joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, sobs and smiles. I have leaky eyes and a lump in my throat even as I laugh and play with friends and family. We can’t pack everything we need to prepare for the waves of agony and the waves of bliss that catch us broadside. That’s how the journey was in 2016, and how it will be in 2017, too.

But if there’s anything my retreat this morning has done, it has reminded me to trust that there will be help on the way as we walk this journey. Although I must walk my own journey, I do not walk alone. I am walking into 2017 with my hands stretched out to family, friends, and community, who have been there for me in the past, and I trust will be there for me in the future. I hold out my hands and my heart, as well, to support and encircle family, friends and community in their times of need. We do not walk alone.  

And I open my arms and my heart to my Creator who I trust is walking beside me, laughing and crying with me on the journey. Thank God, we do not walk alone.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Saints of all Sorts

There’s a new little man in my life. Not so new, actually, since I purchased him at a Thrift Store. Take a look at him:

Not so good-looking maybe, but he has character, don’t you think? I’ve named him Antoine. Antoine is a santon, a “little saint”, part of a nativity set, and he was created in Provence, France. I have no idea how old he is, but he makes my heart sing. It doesn’t take a lot to get me excited, does it?

Antoine reminds me of the feeling I had the first time I saw a nativity scene. I was a little girl when my dad took me to a nativity pageant at a big old church downtown. I was enthralled! All those kids, dressed up, enacting the original story of Christmas – it was magic. In our church, Christmas was a fairly somber affair, celebrated with extra (looooong) church services. A concession was made to music: perhaps the choir would sing, or the congregation would get to sing a Christmas carol instead of a dirge-like Psalm. But decorations? A creche? Candles on an advent wreath? Instruments other than an organ? A nativity pageant? Absolutely not. It smacked of idol-worship. No smells and bells and eye-candy in our church. (We did get a book, a bag of candy, and an orange on Christmas Day, so don’t feel too sorry for me. And fortunately, things have changed in that church of my childhood.)

But unfortunately for me, a visual learner, there was little to attract the eye of a child. Perhaps that is why, when our first child was old enough to love stories, we bought a nativity set. It was one crafted from olive wood in Israel – a little wobbly, and it was hard to distinguish the shepherd from Joseph, but oh well! We used it to tell the Christmas story to our children. That was how nativity scenes, or creches, originated: St. Francis of Assisi posed a mother, a child, and a donkey in a cave, then called his people together and used the scene as a sermon illustration.

The RS and I are now in possession of more than 2 dozen nativity sets that we have collected, originating in places as far-flung as Peru and Vietnam. Each of them is special in its own way. They are visual expressions of the way that people understand the Christmas story in a manner that makes sense to their culture. As the song says, “Some people see him [Jesus] lily white” but for sure not all do. From the original story in Bethlehem which has spread around the world, the Nativity story has something for everyone, believer or not, to reflect on.

We like all our nativity scenes for different reasons. There’s the set that our kids brought home from the Ivory Coast after working a stint there. I especially love the woman bringing a bowl of fruit on her head to the Holy Family.  How like a woman to know what a new mother  would appreciate after going through labour and delivery.

This scene, made in Peru, is a recent acquisition, but it’s already one of our favourites. Mary and Joseph, nestled securely in the hands of the Creator, are clad in the garb of the common folk, common folk like you and I. Two thousand years after the fact, we know that the peace experienced in this sweetly sleeping family will be mightily disturbed in the days to come. There’s much to reflect on and think about in that simple image.

There’s one from Mexico made of shiny tin. All the pieces fold flat and fit into a little metal box, perfect for travelers at Christmas. But perfect, as well, perhaps, for migrants working through the Christmas season in fields and factories and packing houses processing foods which will show up on our festive table. This little nativity set brought with them from home will help them to celebrate the birth of a child who came to preach hope to the poor, to set the prisoner free.

And then there are the sets Al has carved: one for each of our children, each different, all from wood so our grandchildren can touch and experience them. Here are three of them:

Al's latest project is a modern nativity: Mary and Joseph as street people. Baby Jesus is nestled in a banana box, and he is being visited and adored by real shepherds – like Desmond Tutu – and wise people – like the Dalai Lama – from around the world. This one sometimes shakes people up when they see it – and so it should. The nativity has turned the world upside down.

(did you notice the crow guarding the baby?! The dog is Sepphie, our daughter's fur baby)
 So my santon Antoine joins the crowd now. In Provence, the nativity scenes feature not only Mary, Joseph and Jesus, but also all the locals who come to adore him – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and a host of others. Antoine the shepherd is hand-crafted by a santonnier, a local artisan (he has the sticker to prove it). A true proven├žal scene is never bought "ready made" but is constructed little by little. Ever since I learned about santons, I’ve been wanting a set of my own. And there stood Antoine, adrift  in a sea of Christmas kitsch at Value Village. He was mine! He’ll need a village around him, and a stable where he can visit the Holy Family. I know a wood-carver who can help me out with that!

If you live in the Comox Valley, you can see a display of nativity sets next weekend at our church, Comox Valley Presbyterian. Check out the schedule at

Here’s where you can hear the song “Some People See Him Lily White” as sung by James Taylor

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.