A Sunday Afternoon Essay of Sorts…

My daughter and I stopped at the gas station yesterday for some Sunday afternoon treats. As she ran in, I sat in the car idly considering the strip of shaded yard behind the white concrete building. What else do you do waiting in a gas station parking lot but look around? It was a ‘nothing’ sort of space, a narrow fenced grassy stretch spiked with dandelions, stretching their heads toward the April sun. It seemed out of place beside the  industrial asphalt, gas and air pumps; a space used only by relieved station attendants, escaping for a quick, mid shift smoke.

As I continued to stare and wonder about the oddly placed yard, it suddenly transformed, in that strange way where two realities merge into one.  I was transported to my parent’s home on Lanark street in the early 60’s, to about four years old. From the wooden steps of our back door, past the blue rigid sided pool, stretching to the wildest edges of the back fence, my brother and I were monarchs of our childhood kingdom.  The grass there was also spiked with sunny yellow faces and fluffy heads of spent dandelions, poised to send their magic seeds into the wind.  We’d pluck them by their milky stalks, gathering them into bright bouquets, presenting them to our mom. She’d accept each bouquet as a treasured gift, displaying them in kitchen glasses until we’d forgotten about them. Even then, I somehow knew that dandelions were not roses.

I don’t often consider dandelions, except to bemoan their rapid reappearance on my own freshly cut lawn. Why is a dandelion considered a weed, anyways?  Is it a lesser flower than a rose?  A dandelion is magnificent in botanical analysis. Each spiky ‘petal’ of a dandelion is a flower in and of itself, collected into a composite flower head. Upon maturity, each floret transforms into a seed pod becoming part of a blowball. Anchored by wispy filament, the seed pod is able to parachute from the blowball, ensuring colonization of itself.

The milky substance found in the stem of a dandelion is natural latex. In Germany, Continental Tires is currently cultivating dandelion latex, piloting a line a dandelion tires, set to be tested on highways.  And let’s also remember dandelion wine, and that dandelion is an ingredient in root beer (‘root’ beer as in a beverage derived from roots, who knew?) and the dandelion’s edible, medicinal and pharmacological properties.  And that’s only the beginning.  You can deepen this magic via a quick wiki search of  Taraxacum.

***

I’ve been reading220px-Pilgrim-at-Tinker-Creek Annie Dillard’s  ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’  for months.  I’ve been equally absorbed and unable to bear any more ‘beauty tangled in rapture with violence‘ as Dillard recollects her year spent living in Virginia’s Roanocke Valley.  I can only describe Dillard’s writing  as reminiscent of a 1970’s acid trip, the kind where you stare in wonder at the previously undiscovered complexity, beauty and grisly dirtiness of the lines on the your palm of your hand. Tinker Creek explores pond slime and discarded snake skin, the luminescent segments of the back of a grasshopper, the roar of water off the slated mountains, the layers of life hidden in one square foot of soil beneath a sycamore tree,  the rush of time that comes toward us as waves and passes by us as particles. I’m boggled, enraptured then overcome. I read a chapter or so, then hide the book away in a box, attempting to contain the unleashed power of its narrative, wishing I could write  with half the drama and astonishment. But I’m not sure I could even bear to look so deeply at the world, for fear of falling forever down the rabbit hole.

***

I’ve been taking a course in academic writing this semester.  I thought at the beginning, that my general writing experience would translate easily into academic writing. I was woefully wrong. Academic writing is as different from blogging or creative writing as geometry is from free handing simple shapes. I’m out of my element, frustrated by the imposition of form, tradition, genre, lens and protocol. But I’ve been reminded as a result, of the lens from which we approach a question or topic. And how it shapes our investigations and conclusions.

My mother in law visited this weekend. At 84, she’s a still a gale force. Her lens is education, engagement and achievement; values she’s impressed upon  generations of family.  Others I’m close to view life through the evangelical lens, one they believe, encompasses all others.  As for my lens, it’s kaleidoscopic.  Arbitrary bits of inspiration and information collide into each other daily.  I can quite effortlessly weave together gas stations, childhood memories, latex tires, root beer, great books and academic writing courses in eight short paragraphs with no introduction, thesis, supporting evidence or conclusion. This is a rather under appreciated skill, especially in my writing class. 

Let me leave you with a link to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I suppose is the point of this ramble anyways.  If you find something noteworthy in the text, let me know. Perhaps we can discover some dandelions together.

Well hello again,

It’s been a while.  Been busy with a paper on the Goddess Venus, a bit of Spring sprucing and looking ahead to summer.  I have a full summer planned with a Creative Non-fiction Writing class, (travel! memoirs! personal essays!) a Children’s Literature class (Peter Pan! Anne of Green Gables! The Railway Children!) and either an Anthro or Community Arts project class.  Maybe take a real or imaginary journey or two once Spring really settles in. Isn’t Spring just lovely?

…Came the Spring with all its splendor,
All its birds and all its blossoms,
All its flowers and leaves and grasses…

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Pop over and read all of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.  It’s lovely too.

came the spring

Photo Credits:  eiramis.tumblr.com

Oh January,

…with your wan light and heavy skies.  I’m thinking of making some potato salad and grilled hot dogs today just to mock you.  I’m done with the broken eave outside my bedroom window spilling its contents onto the cold concrete below like a westernized version of Chinese water torture. And with trying to warm my soul on hearty root vegetables and chai tea.  My pink and black hooded leopard print rain coat, the one that seemed so cheerfully suited to west coast winters, now hits me like a visual assault. Where are my flip flops?  Where is the sun? Where are the robins? Whence cometh Spring?! Continue reading “Oh January,”

Remembering Mayne…

We’ve had a flash rainstorm in the Fraser Valley after weeks of blazing sun and uncommonly hot 30 plus degree days.  The grass in my front yard is an unearthly shade of burnt umber.  It looks like an African Savannah, I half expect to see wild boars and hyenas chasing prey across the cul de sac. My four a/c’s and five fans have helped in abating the apocalyptic heat, but most days I’ve melted into the couch, dreaming of the bright, cool air of Spring.

m7I was looking back through some Spring pics this morning; a trip my brother, sister in law, daughter and I took to Mayne Island earlier this year.  We stayed for a couple of days with my cousin in his tree house overlooking the ocean, collecting clams on the beach, eating fresh, beer battered cod and catching up on the twenty years it’s been since we all last got together. Someone might even have pulled out a pipe with a little homegrown to go along with the view and conversation.

My side of the family are oddballs.  Hippies, seekers, escapists, artists and fishermen who find, or perhaps lose themselves in remote places.  We pick up after decades as if no time has passed and joke about how it has.  The only thing that seems different is how much older we look to each other.  We have such a good time together, we enthusiastically plan future reunions that most likely will never happen.  More probably, we will retreat back into our own worlds, revisiting memories with affection; hiding away like hermit crabs.

Mayne Island is breathtaking in its wild, remote beauty. It’s home to a small community of 1,100 full-time residents, a refuge for introverts, organic gardeners, glass blowers and writers.  Even the summer months see only a small percentage of visitors to the island. We left the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal on a stormy March morning, and arrived to sunshine on the other side.  The Gulf Islands enjoy 30% less rain than the mainland, which makes it seem much further away than it really is.

The Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal is surprisingly welcoming.  Lined with gourmet bakeries, coffee, jewelry and art shops, it’s a pleasant prelude to the short 45 minute ferry ride. We stopped for vanilla & chai tea lattes, seated on tall stools across long pine tables.  I ran into an old friend and her daughter on their way to a Salt Spring Island retreat. Little indulgences and surprises all become part of the unexpected magic of a trip.

On the other side, we met up with my cousin.  I’m pretty sure our last get together was at a wake, so it was good to connect on a happier note.  After much bear hugging, back slapping and unsuccessful flat tire fixing at the town’s only gas station, we headed out into the bush.  The winding paved roads gave way to gravel before approaching my cousin’s tree house.  I suppose it isn’t really a tree house, but rather a sprawling bungalow with a top floor addition.  The bachelor suite addition where my cousin lives, sits high amongst the cedars and eagle nests overlooking the ocean and the Gulf Islands.  It’s one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen. I would surely live upstairs also if I owned such a place.  An artist or writer’s loft above the treetops is such a romantic notion.

They say you can see everything there is to see on Mayne Island in a day, and that may be true.  But you certainly can’t experience it without a few days to ease into island time.  The tapestry of island life is different.  The days are marked by the growing foliage, whether the clams are stuck to the rocks (and thus not ready to be harvested) and the deer droppings on the front lawn.  Neighboring dogs are welcomed like visiting emissaries. The daily itinerary is set around delivering some of last night’s fish and chip dinner to 90 year old Mabel, who lives next door.  Even though Mabel’s sort of out of it, it makes her day and that’s what matters. Maybe even share a noon time corona with her family while you’re at it.

It’s important living on an island that’s only serviced by ferry twice daily, to own the tools of self-sufficiency. My cousin’s hydraulic pump came in handy fixing the flat tire on my car and his espresso machine pumped us up with the necessary fuel for a day’s jaunt into town. “Town” is a library, a hardware outlet, a gas station (whose air pump doesn’t work) a grocery store and a coffee shop where the locals gather to catch up with each other. The very effusive grocery boy, who’s also the town mechanic will fix your car for a case of Blue.  “But”, we were forewarned, “Don’t make eye contact or we’ll be here all day.”

A trip to the island wouldn’t be complete without some beach combing, light house gazing and a seafood lunch at the local golf course.  I can’t even remember what we did afterwards, but it likely included socializing with the neighbor’s dog, potting some strange island plants – which are now growing as a mini ecosystem complete with weeds in pots on my back deck – and maybe a bit of afternoon napping.  Followed with more food, tales of India, Osho and lots of gut splitting laughter.

All too soon, the weekend was over and we headed back to the drizzle of the mainland.  But these kind of trips, the ones where you kick back with people you love and don’t do much of anything, leave you with a sense of family history, renewal and connected-ness. There’s much to be said for short getaways and simple pleasures.

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Summer…

So this has been a harder summer as far as summers go.  I suppose it’s because I was expecting the expected, and instead the unexpected happened.   The brilliant days have been clouded with loss – a broken engagement, plans for kids leaving home.  I read somewhere about a woman whose  ‘womb was singing, it was evening, the baby was bathed and settled, and all was well in her house’.  I’ve known that feeling too, I suspect it’s kind of universal among moms.   And the longing for it doesn’t end, even when the babies have long left the womb or home.   Wanting things to be right and well for our children is the unending essence of motherhood.

So is letting go.  From watching beloved little legs walk away alone for the first time to kindergarten, to watching with mixed pride and tears as they pack belongings to begin their lives away, oh my tethered heart.  Their joy is my joy, their pain is my pain, their gain or loss mine also.   I have a friend with good intentions who likes to suggest this is co-dependence.  I think rather though, this is attachment and parental love, perhaps at it’s most essential.

You really never expect the paths you’ll walk along with your children.   Or the depth of what you may feel for them.  I doubt the desire to comfort them ever fades.  When they’re threatened with pain or loss,  something unexpectedly primal, fiercely protective and ready to die or kill on their behalf takes over.   I’ve known it many times over.

Being a mom is an exquisite journey.  They warn you at the beginning you may lose yourself on it, and you might.  But you may also find yourself.  And enroute, discover yourself stronger, wiser and more resilient than you ever imagined.  Because there is magnificent reason to be so.

I have five magnificent reasons.  I am one lucky mother.

A rose by any other name…

I was driving up the hill the other day when my cell phone rang.  I almost never leave home without it, though it rarely rings or buzzes with a text.   I was sold on the free bbm messaging while my daughter was away in Mexico and the turquoise blue, berry scented case it came with for free.  But since she’s returned, my kids ask why I bother with the fifty bucks it costs every month.  I can’t part with it though.  It makes me feel relevant, connected and I’m a sucker for things that smell good.

I didn’t recognize the number that came up on the screen of my berry scented blackberry that afternoon.  In a split second, a myriad of scenarios rushed through my mind about picking up the call.  Should I risk getting caught and ticketed while taking a crappy ‘congratulations, you’ve won a — ‘  sucker call?   But what if it was one of my kids, calling from an unknown friend’s number, in a potential crisis?  I grabbed the phone as I cornered at the light, hoping no cops were around.

‘This is the Office of  the Registrar’, an official sounding voice told me from the other end.  My heart lurched in  giddy, sick anticipation.   After turning in my portfolio last week – the portfolio I’d bled and freaked out over – I discovered, I’d accidentally applied into the General Arts, rather than Visual Arts program.  My advisor had put in a request for transfer and wasn’t anticipating an issue.  I’d barely thought of it since. I was pretty sure this was the do or die call of acceptance or not into the Visual Arts program based on my portfolio.

‘About your application transfer request – you missed the application deadline into the Visual Arts program and we’re unable to process your program transfer request’ she began.  Her words sounded blunter, colder and more uncaring than perhaps they were.   I pulled over to the side of the road,  those words making their way in with sweeping disappointment.  ‘You can reapply for admission and resubmit your portfolio for the 2014 session,’ she continued, handing me the consolation prize.

We ended the call and I sat for a few moments at the side of the road.   My brain is pretty much the jerk described in this article.   It didn’t comfort me with logical words of reason, it belted me in the face with scorching emotion, ‘you idiot – you’ve built your entire self view on being accepted into art school!  In fact, dummy – you even named a blog after it – and look at you now!’  I slunk down in my seat, literal pain coursing through my chest.  Damn that voice, anyways…

It’s been a few days now since the call.  I’ve more or less reorganized my thoughts, and the disappointment has more or less subsided.  I can still continue my degree path, transferring courses later but there’s no  actual title of ‘visual arts program student’ until next year.  I know in the scheme of things,  this is a minor glitch but I would have loved the validation of  being accepted into the program, and my gosh, all that work and worry for nothing.

Oh, how I wanted that  ‘art student’ title…  Is a rose by any other name as sweet?

—–

buddha's brainI’ve been reading an awesome book lately by Rick Hanson called Buddha’s Brain – The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness.    Hanson is neuropsychologist, author, speaker and meditation teacher.   His book isn’t about Buddhism as much as the intersection of psychology, brain science and contemplative practices.   I discovered him on my friend Scott’s blog in the article I referred to above.

I’m massively interested in brain science, because it gives bill brysonconcrete evidence and  thus strategies for dealing with  the nebulous emotional things of life.   This has added to the foundation of CBT techniques I’ve been learning and practicing.   Coming to understand the science of the brain and the inner universe has had as large an impact on my thinking as coming to understand the science of the physical world and the larger universe.  Bill Bryson has a great book called, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, if that’s something you’re interested in exploring.

I’ve spent over half of my life exploring christianity.  I ‘found god’ at 24,  married in to it, and it continues to impact me, though not always in positive ways.  Although there are parts of it I love,  there are also other parts that have stripped me of my ability to appreciate it overall.

These past years, I’ve deconstructed my belief system and in doing so, have become a dissenter within the circle I once belonged.  Sadly, in such circles, alternate views have little place.  If you’ve ever stepped outside or challenged the belief system or code of conduct of a religious community, you’ll know what I mean.  It usually involves at least a questioning of your character and faith, and often far more.

As I’ve dissembled the thinking I once accepted, some big issues have come up.  This is my philosophical shortlist, ignoring the other practical and relational impacts.

– If there’s a benevolent god,  interested and acting on my behalf in the minutiae of my daily life – why then is that god seemingly absent in the daily lives of people in far more extreme circumstance?

– Would an all-knowing benevolent god insist we belong to an exclusive ‘club’ of understanding or  would that god take in consideration our differing cultural and religious upbringings and sexual preferences?

–  Is truth really a narrow path or is it an encompassing one with room for the many positive contributions from other avenues of thought?

– How, given the vast scientific evidence for the evolution of the world and it’s species, can religion blind itself to such findings?

But perhaps most notably for me, is the question of how religion can claim to understand the complexities and mysteries of eternal life, when we can’t even comprehend the complexities and mysteries of this physical life. At least not yet.

eat pray loveA few years ago, I was taken with the book, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ which was  later made into a movie.  The movie was dismissed as a chick flick, a romantic comedy.   At the best of times, I can barely endure chick flicks, but Elizabeth Gilbert’s story is more than that.  It’s a memoir, a personal recount of her journey in, an awakening of sorts.

Gilbert  traveled a path of personal healing. faith and self discovery that began in Italy, progressed to India and concluded in Bali.  Each of those parts of her life contributed to her evolving, broadening spiritual mosaic.  I imagine her journey in continues still.

The idea of a spiritual mosaic is new to me and in some ways makes me a little uneasy.  It’s not the well-traveled road I’m familiar with, but I’m liking what I’m learning.   I’m incorporating into my daily routine meditation, mindfulness and visualization – because they literally change the physiology and landscape of the brain toward peace, love and self-mastery.  Whether they answer the existential question of what lies beyond, is still, well, a question.

I have no idea what lies beyond this life.  Is it jeweled streets?  Is it the music of string theory? Is it one-ness with the universe?  Is it nothing ? I don’t know.  And neither does anyone else, no matter what authority they claim it upon.  But I do know it’s within my power to live and love well.

My youngest son asked me anxiously the other day, ‘Mom are you still a Christian?’ And honestly, I’m not sure I am, except by my own definition.   Just as I’m an art student, a student of  philosophy, religious studies,  psychology, literature and science – by my own definition.

Is that enough?  Is a rose by any other name still as sweet?

I’m beginning to think so.

Fall down seven times, get up eight…

So I’m sitting here, post panic attack, snacking on a big bag of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.  This isn’t something I normally do on a Tuesday afternoon,  but since I’ve spent the past couple hours frantically seeking and finding cancerous lumps to attach my run away anxiety to, I need a good comforting distraction.  And nothing says comforting distraction like eating crispy, sugary nutrition-less kid’s cereal straight out of the bag, without milk.

I’ve been, I don’t quite know how to describe it, humbled I suppose, by some of the blogs I’ve been reading lately.  People talking openly, insightfully, humanly, about the things that have messed them up and how they’re making their way through them.   It takes a great deal of courage to stand  symbolically naked, telling your story.  I know that, because I don’t do it very often.  But when I chance upon someone brave enough to tell theirs and who braver still, is trying to make life better in spite of it – it, well, gives me hope.

Because sometimes in life, really shitty things happen.  And most of the time, we’re unprepared, or at least ill-prepared to deal with them.  No one teaches us important stuff like how to deal with grief, or trauma or death or loss or abuse before it happens.   Or how to tell when it’s messing us up afterwards.    And because of that, those shitty things make their way in and cause a whole bunch more trouble.

I know this, because back when I was pregnant with my first son,  people in my family started dying – dropping off like flies.   Within ten years, we had 17 funerals for family members, including both my parents.  It got to the point where we joked at funerals about who’d be next to go and when our next family ‘celebration‘ would be.   We  pushed away our pain and fear and questions with morbid jocularity, not knowing how to deal with the seeming unending loss. It wasn’t Rwanda or the Holocaust, I know,  but loss and death are loss and death no matter how it happens.

After those funerals,  we went back to our ordinary lives, where at least to me,  nothing seemed very ordinary anymore.  I think once we’ve been traumatized by something, it’s like we stand outside looking in at everyone else,  who just don’t seem to get what a dangerous and painful world this is.  Our experience no longer reflects our expectations of the world being good or at least as it should have been.  Suddenly death, specifically cancer, which I’d paid little attention to before,  stalked me with the relentlessness of a predator after vulnerable prey.

So for the next 20 years I tried to outmaneuver death.    Monitoring every lump, bump or potential health threat,  learning to expertly work the medical system for the fastest results,  in search of peace of mind.  If you ever need a seasoned medical system jumper, I’m your girl.   What began as responsible health care quickly escalated into hyper vigilant health care.  I had a large family, which spread the fearful possibility of loss beyond myself to my five small kids, who I loved, and still love with everything in me.

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circa 1997

I visited doctor after doctor at the first sign of anything wrong,  seeking assurance that things were ok.  I suspected as I regularly walked in, 5 kids in tow, the  doctor’s office would collectively sigh, ‘oh great, here comes cancer check woman again’.  However that embarrassment was worth the tentative relief.   Tentative, because as soon as one concern was resolved, another would follow immediately after.   It was as exhausting and terrifying as it was useless.

What I didn’t realize with all my medical maneuvering, was that I was literally hard wiring a dysfunctional coping system into my brain.   One that demanded a specific set of actions to manage anxiety and ambiguity; one that became more demanding and deeply ingrained over time.  Prozac couldn’t touch it.  Neither could Ativan,  religion, self-help, community or Growers Berry Cider.  And god knows I tried.

What eventually helped was a combination of  cognitive behavioral  therapy and simply talking out the difficult things that had happened in life.  For me, it was unwinding the impact of religion, relationships and loss. They say that by 40, most of us have been traumatized by one thing or another. And for some of us unfortunately, it happens a lot earlier and is far worse.   It leaves us looking about at a seemingly functioning population,  feeling like we’re the  only anomaly struggling with life, separated from the norm, because of our experience and difficulty coping.  The reality is that we all struggle, though some more than others. Struggle is an inevitable part of life.  But there are better, more functional ways to struggle that still leave room for hope, happiness and growth.

Real change takes a long time and a lot of practice.  Changing a dysfunctional coping mechanism is almost as hard as enduring one.  I envision it like learning to walk again after a stroke.  It takes way more effort and concentration to relearn a skill after damage.  However, the brain has amazing adaptive capability and with enough commitment, effort, time and support – it literally is possible to rewire and alter the physiology of the brain.  And that’s science, not opinion.

A good thing about looking at change as brain rewiring is that when inevitable ‘fall downs’ happen, I view them as a technological glitches, not a personal failures.  Of course there are always things to improve upon, but I can nearly always trace returning to old coping mechanisms back to their roots now.  Or to stress, lack of self-care, distortions or triggers.  Which makes returning to equilibrium faster and less painful.  I don’t feel as weak, stupid or dysfunctional and I can forgive myself for stumbling when I understand my personal whys and know how change direction.

But it still happens, often when I’m not expecting it.  Like this afternoon – when I didn’t consciously realize it was the anniversary of both my dad’s death and birth until I  found myself wrestling with unnamed dread and anxiety and checking for cancer.   My dad was a measured and meticulous  man, an accountant, so the beginning and ending of his life falling on the same day of year almost seemed like a cosmic joke.  I have yet to have an April 9th pass without an emotional glitch.  Or a July 1st, which marks the birthday of my first son and the death of my mom.  But it’s still a cognitive distortion to attach fear or anxiety to certain dates – one I’m determined to manage better next round.  It’s also a distortion to fear every health concern is cancer, or that death is bigger than life.

I like the Japanese proverb ‘fall down seven times, get up eight.’  Or more, if necessary.  It’s not the falling that’s important, it’s the getting up afterwards.

So here’s to everyone fighting their way back up.  I applaud you.

fall down seven