Today is the first of February, the loneliest month on the calendar. There are no holidays to look forward to as we shiver through another 28 days of winter. Of course Valentine’s Day brings its own particular warmth mid-month, but if you don’t have a Valentine, you are left out in the cold.
And there are a lot of lonely people out there. Sometimes you notice them, people who seem impossibly needy, or so brittle and afraid of being hurt that they’ve grown dragon scales. Other people seem quite ordinary, just like the neighbour across the street who you’ve always thought has got it all together, then in a chance conversation you discover she’s lonely, too. I’ve had a chance to talk with a lot of strangers lately, and in conversation — past complaint or concern — I’ve discovered that what many people really need is a friend.
This is in no way an attempt to belittle people’s legitimate complaints or concerns, worries and anxieties. I just feel compelled to point out how a little warmth and an understanding smile can really make someone’s day. I think February should be a month for friendship, not just romantic love, a time that we share some of our warmth and make this cold month a little less lonely.
Photo taken on February 21, 2009
Change is in the air. A new year has dawned, we have turned our backs on regret and missed opportunity, and now we step forward into the future. At least, that’s our intention.
The future, of course, is always here in front of us, but sometimes it turns out to be just the past again, recycled and wearing new clothes. We think we are open to new possibility, but we don’t notice how our blinders of habit and prejudice show us only what we expect or want to see.
I have been reading Stuart McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks, which I received for Christmas, and I was caught by an observation he makes about change. He describes how as a boy, for no particular reason, he stopped eating eggs, and “as is the way with these things, behaviour became belief, and eventually I came to believe I hated eggs.” Then someone he admired mentioned how much they liked fried eggs, and Stuart discovered he liked them too. He started eating eggs again, just like that. He concludes: “We have the desire to change hardwired into our systems. And maybe our capacity is greater than we think. All it takes is a little courage…”
If we think of change as something small, something simple and everyday like that egg, then it doesn’t seem so difficult. Old habits die hard, but they might just melt away when we are inspired to do something new or different. May we all have that little bit of courage we need as we step into the brave new year.
Photo taken on December 7, 2009
Can you feel it? When you first opened your eyes this morning, did you have that “day before Christmas feeling”? No, not the stressed “I have too much to do” feeling. The other one, the feeling that’s been part of you since childhood, that catches at your heart with the magic of twinkling lights and shortbreads and singing.
I get that feeling when I’m wrapping presents and humming along with carols. I get that feeling when I come downstairs in the dark of the morning and find the living room awash with soft glowing colour from the Christmas lights. I get that feeling when I hang each special memory on the tree: the stack of gifts ornament my mom helped me make when I was young, the felt rabbit that I sewed years ago, the cat with angel wings to remind me of my special Tobey, and all the treasures given by friends and family.
Wishing you much magic amid the madness, however you celebrate the season. Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!
Photo taken on December 23, 2010
Although Christmas is called a “festive season”, today is when the fun really begins. Everyone I know is now focused on one intense 24-hour period: Christmas Eve to Christmas dinner.
We’re almost ready. We’ve baked cookies (gingerbreads, walnut snowballs and chocolate-dipped florentines), chosen and wrapped gifts for family and friends (everyone will be getting at least one thing that’s homemade), and put up the Christmas lights. Today we’ll be getting the tree and tomorrow will be dedicated to tidying and trimming, accompanied by a feast of Christmas music.
But I will admit that — as much as I enjoy the activities, the parties, the service, the carolling, the family gathering, the food — what I am really looking forward to is the week after Christmas. That’s when I will have time to review everything, replay my memory of the best moments, look at whatever gifts I may have received, and savour a few leftover treats. Our visits with extended family and friends will feel more relaxing because “the big day” will be behind us. And the shining new year, full of the potential to challenge and astound us, is just around the corner.
Photo taken on December 16, 2010
When I woke up this morning, I could tell it had snowed overnight even before I opened the curtains. I could hear it. Or, more accurately, it was what I couldn’t hear — the traffic. The strange thing is that I don’t usually hear the traffic at all, or at least I don’t think I hear it. The noise of the street and the quiet hum of the city is so constant that it recedes into the background and I usually just tune it out. A layer of fresh snow muffles the sound of cars and coats everything with a white blanket of soundlessness. While thick flakes were still floating through the air, before the snowplows spread salt and sand and noisiness back onto the roads, I bundled up and went outside. I walked to a nearby field, leaving tracks that were soon swallowed up by the softly falling snow, and listened to the silence.
Photo taken on December 16, 2010
Last night was the Carleton Choristers’ Christmas concert. The day after a concert feels wonderful, particularly if the concert went well — and it did! I was extra nervous because my partner and I were on the program: I played the harp and she sang and played recorder, performing an arrangement we had created from an obscure minor key version of the Sussex Carol combined with a fiddle tune called Casey’s Hornpipe.
[We both love minor keys and early music, and were inspired in part by the exquisite and entertaining performances of The Toronto Consort, which we enjoyed for several years when we lived in Toronto. But that's another story.]
We joined this choir when we moved to Saint John, partly because my parents can no longer drive at night. This is a community choir, and for us, a family choir as well: my parents have been with the choir since it started about 12 years ago, and at one time, two aunts, an uncle and a cousin were also singing in this choir. Currently there are about 40 members, and when the choir is in full voice, like it was last night, oh what a glorious wave of sound!
So I woke up this morning with music on my mind, listening to one of my favourites from the concert, a hauntingly beautiful song called “When the Snow Begins to Fall”. Here is the chorus, to carry you through the day:
see it floating through the air, gently falling everywhere
all the world’s asleep tonight as the ground turns white
see it drifting from above, ’tis a time of peace and love
as the snow begins to fall.
- Andy Beck
Photo taken on November 24, 2010
You never know what might happen. A storm, a stock market crash, a scammer stealing your life savings. Oh sure, it’s sunny now, but watch out — you don’t know what kind of trouble will appear on your horizon.
Yesterday I picked up the phone to hear that my computer had supposedly been sending error reports indicating serious performance issues that needed to be addressed right away. The caller from some outfit called “computer maintenance services” obviously thought I didn’t seem concerned enough and kept repeating himself, trying to impress on me the need for urgency. I asked a few questions, and found out that they were claiming to work for Microsoft. The caller started asking me for information about my computer operating system. I said goodbye and hung up. Then I looked up information about this scam on this internet.
Apparently people from England to Australia have been getting these same phone calls, where the scammers are trying to get people to go to their “support website” and give them permission to fix their computer by remote access. They end up with a hefty service charge as well as the high probability of someone stealing their personal information.
But if I was not so computer literate, if I was older or more trustworthy, would I have let these strangers talk me into giving them access to my computer? Would my father or my elderly aunt have believed them when they claimed to work for Microsoft?
What really riles me is that these criminals can roam the internet and the telephone lines with no fear of being caught. And yes, there is a whole industry built up to protect you, but no firewall or anti-virus program can help if you open that email attachment or give away information or open the door to strangers. The only thing you can do is say no.
Photo taken on November 11, 2010
Memory works in mysterious ways. We can’t remember what we ate for breakfast yesterday, but we can remember who hit the final home run for the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1992 World Series*. I occasionally forget my phone number, but I have never forgotten the phone number sung by Stompin’ Tom Connors in the radio ad for PEI++. Childhood memories are the strongest of all.
I’ve been thinking about memory lately because I’m helping my dad with his memoirs, which he would like to have published in some form. The most interesting part of his life story (in my opinion) is the period between school and marriage, when he had many adventures and met the love of his life. But in order to get to this story, a good third of what he has written is about his childhood — home and family, boats and cows, fishing and stamp collecting, school teachers and neighbours. The sights and smells of those early days are still so fresh to him, but more recent years run into each other, their details blurred.
And it’s not just the debilitation that comes with age, because I’ve begun to realize my memories are the same. The memory of hurts and high points from my youngest years are stronger than those in more recent times. I can walk around my parents’ back yard and say with absolute certainty: here is where I fell and cut my hand on the broken bottles; here is where I found Trixie; here is where my dad hung the swing; here is where I hid and cried for my mother to find me. Whatever happens between age 6 and 16 is written in stone; anything after that is malleable, edited or erased by the passage of time.
++ “eight-double-zero, five six five, seven four two one…”
Photo taken on November 1, 2010
New England has sent us a storm today; the forecasters predict upwards of 50mm of rain. I heard it beating in waves against the windows last night, along with a wind that howls up from the valley and thrums under the eaves. The city is dark, and the black-paved streets and deep puddles swallow light and create bizarre reflections; down the street I see a bright yellow school bus leading a parade of cautious cars. Drivers hunch over their steering wheels, their windshield wipers just out-of-sync with those of the car behind.
I am heading uptown in an hour, knowing the rain will drive sideways as I scurry around tall buildings, knowing the water will pour in rivers down the steep alleys and my feet will get wet. I will wear my yellow rain jacket and walk quickly. When I come home again, I will run inside, dripping, rain-tossed and bedraggled. My glasses will steam up from the warm house and there will be fresh homemade bread and baked beans. And I will be grateful that it is not yet winter.
Photo taken on October 24, 2009
Our attitude toward weather is clearly biased. Despite the fact that we need precipitation to survive, wet weather is always bad weather, and sunny weather is fair and fine and good. Popular culture mostly reflects this. Think of the classic Harold Arlen song, Stormy Weather: “Life is bare, gloom and misery everywhere/Stormy weather, just can’t get my poor old self together…” Compare Rainy Days and Mondays (always get me down) and Sunshine on My Shoulders (makes me happy). Oh sure, you might hear Laughter in the Rain but you’re much more likely to be Walking in Sunshine.
I don’t know the origin of the term “liquid sunshine”, but I know when applied to rain it sounds much more pleasant. It’s a perfect illustration of the power of language to change how you feel about something. I’d rather drink from a glass which is half-full rather than one which is half-empty. Sure, I feel just as gloomy as the next person when the skies are dark and the rain is coming down in buckets, but maybe I need an attitude-ectomy. Maybe next time it rains, I’ll get out my jungle umbrella and go for a walk (instead of just standing on the front porch, like I did to take this photo). I don’t need more excuses to stay inside, I need more motivation to get out of the house. Would you like to join me? Come on, let’s go “walkin’ in liquid sunshine, oh yeah!”
Photo taken on October 27, 2010
Storms are like operas. At the start, you can sense the dark clouds building on the horizon, the impending doom. In the midst of the storm, there is a lot of wind and wild movement, small creatures run away and copious tears are shed. The German term sturm und drang (storm and stress) describes well the extremes of emotion expressed during the height of an operatic storm.
Then there is a lull, a deceptively peaceful period when the eye of the storm passes over and it seems that love will prevail, after all. You have a moment to lean back and take a sip of wine, but — watch out — the 2nd act is more dramatic than the first, so hold on to your seat! Again the wind comes howling through, tossing limbs and bending strong trees to the ground. Again the chorus of sirens, as lightning strikes and fire rages. Again the shedding of copious tears, the heartbreak, the tragedy of untimely loss.
At last — yes, once the well-endowed soprano has sung her final dying note — it ends. The world has been scoured and refreshed, the storm has passed on and life will continue. Catharsis, and peace. Tension, and release. Storm, and silence.
Taken on October 15, 2010
Already it’s the end of September, and winter is suddenly close at hand. The days seem to be rushing headlong toward the end of the year. Resist the urge to get carried along with the rush. Take a few moments to breathe; stroll for a moment through the garden before leaping into your day. Feel the cool-fingered breeze at your neck. Listen as geese fly overhead, calling to each other. Look around you; see how the leaves are changing, see how they gather in drifts at your feet.
All too soon, this burst of colour will be gone. In a few weeks, you will see the cold stars looking down through the bare fingers of trees. Look well, and drink in the season. Autumn is here, and it is already passing.
Taken on September 23, 2010
There are a few memories I’d like to take into winter with me. I’d like to remember the hot breeze on my forehead, the warm sun against my back. I’d like to remember the whispering of the pines and the tinkling of the poplar leaves as they dance in the wind. I’d like to remember the hot sand beneath the soles of my feet, and the soft grass tickling my bare toes. I’d like to remember this: standing (carefully) in the dappled shade of a thorn tree, hearing the buzz of flies circling lazily in the noonday sun, gazing at the wide open field under blue blue skies.
Taken on August 11, 2010
The sun is up, and the air feels fresh. Light is streaming between buildings, casting bright reflections from one side of the street to the other. Walking through the cool shade, you suddenly emerge into blinding light. There is a fluttering of wings as pigeons scatter through the park. Looking down King Street, you can see the sun sparkle on the open water at the bottom of the hill. A seagull calls as it soars high above the bridge. You might stop for a coffee, or maybe meet a friend along the way. The thing is, to get moving. The rest of the day beckons.
Taken on September 14, 2010
Sometimes it helps to start with the bones. When the light is wrong or the colour distracting, look for the bones. Reduce the image to light and shadow, line and form, and you will see the essential structure appear, the bones which give shape and rhythm to the whole. This solitary building at the side of the road has strong bones. Whenever I go by I look up at it and wonder about its origins. I think it was once a coachhouse; I imagine prancing horses and proud carriages passing by. And now it is a place of memories, a place with strong bones.
Taken on June 15, 2010
In the city’s core, many houses have no room for gardens. They line the streets, sturdy brick buildings standing shoulder to shoulder, a few steps leading up to a front door. They may have started out as single family dwellings, with kitchens in the basement and servants in the attic, but now most have been divided into apartments. The main floor is often more luxurious, featuring larger windows and decorative plasterwork. I wonder what it would have been like to live here 100 years ago when the houses were new and so much of the city was still a dream to be discovered.
Taken on June 27, 2009
Imagine a city without trees, where concrete and tar turn apartment blocks into ovens. Imagine a city without sky, where you can’t tell the weather without watching TV. Imagine a city where parking lots are the only parks, where pigeons are the only birds, where everyone spends their whole lives indoors. Now stop. Look out your closest window: do you see a tree? Do you see sky or something green and alive? Good. Now turn off your computer, go outside and play.
Taken on June 21, 2009
Bigger is not better. More stuff does not equal more happiness. Life is a process of trying new experiences and sorting, always sorting. Our responsibility is simple: we must separate the good from the bad, to cherish that which enriches our lives, and let the rest fall away. We must open our hands to receive, and to let go, and repeat until our hearts burst, until we can say: this tree, this view through the window, this sky, this is enough.
Taken on April 25, 2010
I heard the fog horn sounding last night, and woke to fog blanketing the city. I like the way fog muffles the sound of the construction crew down the street, and softens the edge of buildings. In the summer, when it is hot and sunny upriver, it is often cool and foggy in town. I don’t mind.
Taken on May 31, 2009.