Connecting Moments

As I drove up the mountain to my friend’s house, to edit the final chapter, the CBC reporter on the radio announced, “Grief councillors are recommending people reach out to talk to each other for support.”

This post is a guest submission from my friend Sarah who is an incredible young mom of two beautiful children and wife of a lovely man.  At one time she was headed to be an astronaut!  Life took a turn, as it is known to do, and now she helps students as a Councillor at Acadia University.  Sarah is also an incredibly gifted yoga teacher who has studied under a Guru in India.  She is one of those friends who is so good, you hope it will rub off on you.  As you can tell, I cherish her.  Once I was speaking to her Dad who was in yoga class and I pointed out that he was visiting again from Ottawa, how nice.  He told me he needed to get his fix of his Sarah.  He missed her so much.  I think a tear rolled down my cheek when I returned to my mat, I was so touched by that.  A good Dad.

A couple of years ago, Sarah took up a pen and began to write.  Here is a submission which includes, in part, a tragedy that has just rocked this sea bound coastal province of Nova Scotia.

Almost a decade ago, when I had a horrible set-back with psychosis, after yoga class one evening I asked Sarah, whom I barely knew then, if she would come to my house and sit with me because I was feeling very badly.  She came and sat quietly by me while I tried desperately to quiet my mind.  I remember thinking that she was an angel.

Here is Sarah’s story:

            I actually just tasted my coffee. Like, tasted the taste of it. Since beginning my new job counselling in September, I have been drinking coffee routinely as I start my work day; I’m not sure I’ve even been tasting it. Now, its delicious: hot, smooth, with a slightly heavy and bitter finish. Can I really taste the rose that’s described on the tasting notes on the bag under the fist being pumped into the air: Viva La Resistencia! coffeebag.pngMy partner visits these grower co-ops and walks the steep mountain sides to pick the berries after being awoken at 4 a.m. when the women rise to begin making the tortillas to fuel the next day’s harvest. How does that raised fist live in them? Do they ever taste their coffee?

And no, I can’t taste the rose…but I can taste berries.

Plus, I got the amount of milk perfect: it’s the exact shade of my mother’s and grandmother’s tea.

“Shall we put the kettle on?” was always their way of coming together, of making time, of soothing the fatigue of so much caring; a moment to offer something back to themselves, together. I wonder how often they tasted it?

             Before making my coffee, I was meditating on my purple kidney-shaped cushion, my grey tea-cosy-shaped toque on my head, my grandmother’s light blue knit afghan on my lap.  The fire crackled. I felt my breath—short, ragged—and I couldn’t get my head into the right position. Translate: I felt a lot of unpleasant sensations in my neck and where the back of my skull meets my spine. I experimented with small adjustments: it didn’t really change. I lifted the eyebrows above my eye and ears (if there were ones there too), and the muscles on the top of my head lifted off like a helmet: relief! Then they immediately returned, as though they needed to protect my head, in case I randomly tripped and fell.

            And yet, it felt so good to be sitting, early in the day, quiet. And it felt good because of what preceded it: three snow days in a row, a busy weekend, my partner leaving for a conference, and my parents-in-law taking my son, so that I woke up in bed with my daughter curled up tightly behind me, almost pushing me off of the bed this morning, got her on her bus, and then on a Monday, I find myself alone at home with a day to myself.

teacup

            With my perfect cup of coffee beside me, I sit down to write, and a bird lands outside my window, just out of sight, and when it ruffles its feathers one of its wings appears in the window. I stand up and lean over my desk to press the side of my face to the window trying to see it. It’s gone. When I look down, I see a little dead army of lady-bug-look-a-likes that appear on the window sills in the top floor of our house this time of year– smaller, more spots than their famous counterparts — some of which have curled up in a ball, some rolled over, some with their wings spread as they colonize the sill.  Why are there so many dead insects in my writing space? Because writing time is too precious to spending vacuuming them up.

            I sit back down. Outside, a chickadee hops, flutters, from frozen broccoli plant to frozen broccoli plant, then onto the bare kale stalks in the next bed that look like mini palm trees, but in the snow. I ate one of the frozen baby heads of broccoli that were still left on the plant yesterday: soft and sweet. Beside the broccoli are three frozen heads of cauliflower, bowing down towards the snow with their frozen weight. How could I have missed them?! Not to mention the garlic, which is still sitting in a silver bowl in our back hall, waiting, waiting, more patiently than I, as I raked the snow off of the bed yesterday hoping it might melt more quickly. I may have to use precious greenhouse space if it doesn’t melt.      

            I have just finished co-writing a chapter of a about succulent sustainability: how does making use of precious greenhouse space for garlic make any sense? As I drove up the mountain to my friend’s house, to edit the final chapter, the CBC reporter on the radio announced, “Grief councillors are recommending people reach out to talk to each other for support.”

            “Mom, can you turn the radio off?” my nearly-seven year old daughter asked from the back seat.

            “Of course,” I said, looking back in my rearview mirror to see her serious face beneath a grey slouchy toque that’s standing straight up. I suddenly remembered that she also absorbs the news, only the holes in her sieve are bigger.

            “It’s just so sad all the time,” she says.

            “I know,” I say, looking back at her again. Our eyes meet.

            “Did you hear the part about the little girl?” I asked.

            She nods, “What happened?”

            “Well, she was at the Santa Claus parade and she was running beside one of the floats, and she must have slipped and fell and got hit.” I paused. “Like hit by a car, and she died.”

            She nodded very seriously.

            “What also feels really sad to me,” I said, “Is that there were so many people who saw it. They were right there, but it happened so fast that no one could do anything about it.”

            The weight of the non-reversal of time, of finality, hovered between us. In a little over 24 hours later, when she found herself stuck in the washing machine, while I pulled on one of her legs, trying to birth her from it, she might feel it again.

            “Who was it?” she asks.

            “I don’t know yet. They often don’t release the name until the family has been able to tell others on their own time. Once we know, do you think we should send the family something?” I asked.

            “Do you know them?” she asked.

            “No, but it would be nice to send them a card just the same.”

             Two weeks ago, I sat down with five students in our weekly mindfulness group at Acadia in the basement of the chapel.  We are facing each other in a circle, sitting on bolsters, cushions. I am sitting on a block, hard under my sitting bones. We have sat for 20 minutes, walked for 5, and sat again. My instructions are body-focused: how do we come into direct contact with the body? Can we feel particular sensations without constructing a narrative; can we feel directly rather than through an image?

            My students have asked me to speak about positive body image in relation to what we’ve been practicing.

            I’m not sure I’m the one to do this. The person I think of as being qualified stands in the mirror, praising themselves with how they look, satisfied, content, untouchable by self-doubt, self-consciousness, social pressures. I laugh. I did feel like that once, but that version of myself was perhaps the most confused, and could never speak to this or imagine the place that I am at now.

            This has been a major area of practice for me. And, for the first time, it feels like an invitation I can meet. The night before I had an initiation dream: metal pikes pierced through my toes.

            Fifteen year before, I rolled out my orange yoga mat on the tatami floor of our Shikoku apartment, four patches of my mat worn thin where my hands and feet landed in downward dog. Part of my practice was driven towards maintaining my body at a particular size (in a determination, I see now, to avoid painful feelings of shame, which I also now appreciate as a measure of how deeply we care), and simultaneously I was seeing, really seeing, painfully seeing, and experimenting to figure out how to work with the way controlling my body in this way was impacting me. The practice was simultaneously co-opted by my patterns, while also letting me see them….actually, I think that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work: entangled and healing, at the same time. This practice was it for me: learning to see what was happening, feeling it directly, so that I could attend to what was happening.

            Sitting with the group, my chest is fluttering, and my mind is trying to take the reins, but I keep coming back to my breath, to the firmness of the block..

            In these moments, my own struggles are a gift. The same way that my perfect cup of coffee came together this morning, so did these struggles. All of these conditions make it impossible to control, and hard to find somewhere to place blame; all of these conditions are so helpful because there are so many entry points to healing.

            Two weeks ago a dear friend wrote on her facebook post, on her 22nd birthday, about her struggles with eating as a teen. When I wrote her a message about how I deeply admired her courage, she wrote back thanking me for being a support towards healing. At that time, it took the form of coming over to snuggle with a baby and drink chamomile tea while wrestling through pre-calculus problems at our kitchen table.

            Now, it’s a group waiting for me to begin.

            “So,” I began, “I was asked to talk about positive body image and how it relates to what we’ve been practicing. And, what I might suggest, what if we’re to leave the image altogether? What if, instead,we use this practice to help us cultivate a relationship that’s curious, caring, mutual, attuned? What if we notice and make space for pleasure?”    

             Thomas Merton said, “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them”.

                As I sat this morning, a faint squeaking of metal and scuttle of little feet arose. There was a mouse inside the bottom of the stove, shitting and storing food in the metal runners of the bottom drawer. I opened my eyes and banged on the floor three times: “I’m here!” my banging proclaimed, asserting my presence.

            It was silent for a few minutes. I realized how loud and terrifying the sound must have been to the mouse. I settled back on my breath feeling annoyed about the mess under the stove and ashamed for my reaction. A few minutes later, I heard it again, but without the metal clinking. I opened my eyes and saw its tail hanging out of a little crack beside the dishwasher. The tail bobbed up and down once, and then disappeared. I smiled. I closed my eyes, settled again. When I got up a few minutes later and put on the kettle for coffee, I got down on my hands and knees to look for the hole. It’s only about 3 or 4 mm wide. How did it do that? I looked around at the floor under the overhang of the cupboards. Ugh. I’d have to clean the floors, but for now, I stuck with making my coffee.       

By Sarah Smolkin

penny beach (2)

 

 

(Photos by moi, except for the fist on the coffee bag which is from JustUs Coffee Roasters in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia and the coffee cup is from google images. Thank you!)

 

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Across Canada in Betsy 🇨🇦

In 1992 we spent four months traveling Canada and Alaska in our 1976 VW Van…

When Dean and I were honourably released from the military in 1992, (see post A Posting to Germany and a Lifelong Romance 🥂) we brought back a 1976 VW Van with us from Germany and called her “Betsy’.  Like the one in the picture above (from google images) but our Betsy was dark green.  We knew that travelling would be part of our lives, having already seen a lot of Europe and enjoying the experience of embracing other cultures and locals but, before seeing the rest of the wide world, we wanted to experience our huge, beautiful country first.  We would travel every Province and each Territory with the mandate of seeing at least one National Park in each of them.

dory on dock

We spent the spring with Dean’s parents in Newfoundland, which was sweet, as it gave us some quality time with truly wonderful and good people.

To be in the vicinity of my father-in-law when he laughed was magical.  He was like an elf with a sweet spirit and kind nature.  When he would laugh, his shoulders would come up and his body would shake while his laughing smile took over his whole face.  One couldn’t help but be drawn in.

Dean’s mom was an incredibly strong, kind and thoughtful matriarch. She worked tirelessly and subtly for her family (which was ever expanding with more and more grand and great grand-children), supporting them with Sunday Jigg’s dinners, knitted and crocheted sweaters, table cloths, toques, mitts, socks, home-made pies, jams, chow and beets, baby-sitting and advice.

Neither of them was given to showy acts of affection like hugs or spoken I love yous, but their love was obvious and ever present and seen in the way they looked at you, asked if you had had enough to eat or in the manner they would engage in conversation or try to help with a concern. Dean’s parents were the best kind of folks and it was my absolute pleasure to meet and live with them that spring.  I could see why my Dean was such a wonderful young man.

We had spent hours getting Betsy ready for the trip.  We wanted to be completely self-sufficient.  We had tons of storage space in her.  Under the seat in the back we neatly stored many containers of dried foods: a variety of beans, rice, lentils, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, dehydrated vegetables, coffee, hot chocolate and sauces.  In the front top area we stored two dozen gallon jugs of water.  There was also a coleman stove, fuel, pots, plates, utensils, knives and a cutting board.  We packed her with our clothes, laundry soap, wash basin, books, candle lantern, down duvet, pillows, maps, hiking gear and more.  We were kitted out AND we had several bottles of preserves as well as home-made wine and Bailey’s thanks to our sister-in-law’s suggestion. (We would have never thought of that. Ever.)

gros morne 2
Gros Morne National Park table lands (google images)
gros-morne-pond
Western Brook Pond in Gros Morne National Park (google images)

We had already seen lots of Newfoundland and had hiked several hikes at Gros Morne and Blow Me Down so off we went to the ferry and arrived in Cape Breton and pointed Betsy up the Cabot Trail.  Its a highway trail that travels the edge of cliff for a few hundred kms with breath-taking scenery of the big blue below.

Nova Scotia Cabot Trail
Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands.  Photo courtesy of Taylor Marie Brown https://renaissanceaxewoman.wordpress.com/

I have to say, the drive was terrifying.  I would lean way over toward Dean as he was driving, away from the certain death of driving off that cliff.

 

PEI1Next was P.E.I. where we camped on a red sand beach and, in the pouring rain went to a pub in Charlottetown to celebrate our anniversary.  A big indulgence, since we were on a very tight budget but which was quite lovely due to the rain and our special occasion.

On to New Brunswick where we stayed at Fundy National Park and walked on the ocean floor, marveling at the huge high tides, not knowing that a decade and a bit later we would be living in a tidal town just across the water (see post: A Simple East-Coast Life ) Next was Quebec where we visited La Maurice National Park and where we had picked up an old friend and her two pre-school boys to travel and camp with us for a couple of days.  That was eye-opening.  The boys never stopped and consequentially, nor did their Mom.  We had been enjoying such decadence, doing whatever we pleased.  Now learning that, as a parent, it’s not all about you.  Who knew? It was a valuable lesson to behold.

At another park in Quebec we did an overnight canoe trip which was very scenic and physically challenging during the portages but, horrible in the torrential rain for hours.

CANOE BOW

In Ontario, of course there were many visits to make to family members and friends residing there.  It was lovely to be greeted, questioned and welcomed and to bathe and launder our clothes was nice too.  In Ontario we visited Point Pelee National Park with it’s long boardwalk that traverses some wet lands on the way to the sandy beach of Lake Erie.  It is the southern most tip of Canada.

Point Pelee
Point Pelee National Park

From there we heading North and wow, Ontario is a big province.  We headed up to muskeg country and then across the top of Lake Superior.  We stopped in an unmanned provincial campground and met a couple of wonderful travelers.  A Dutch guy biking across Canada and a 65 year old Retired US Naval Captain who was traveling and sleeping in his station wagon: John Shaughnessy.  We cooked up a simple pasta meal and invited them to join us at our picnic table.  It was a lovely evening of travel talk.  When we offered more food to the Dutch guy, he accepted.  John Shaughnessy would say: ‘No, no. You go right ahead.’ Good answer, right?  Another thing we liked about John Shaughnessy is how he would greet new people.  It could be Joe Gas Pump Man, he would stick out his hand and say: ‘Hello.  John Shaughnessy. How are you?’  It was fascinating comparing military stories with him.  We had just gotten out of the Army and this was a retired US Naval Captain. That is four gold stripes to our two.  To us, that was something. He was bright, adventurous, charming and intelligent.  We would see him several more times over the next few months, partly because we encouraged him to travel our way. We all got along famously.

In Manitoba we visited Riding Mountain National Park and in Saskatchewan – Grasslands National Park.  One night, in Saskatchewan, we pulled over at the edge of a vast farmer’s field. There wasn’t a soul or a vehicle around. We could see for hours, so we knew that for sure.  We decided to camp there for the night and so, popped up the top of Betsy.  We used to call the top of Betsy upstairs, as in, I’m going upstairs to bed.  Watching the sun set in the West, we thought we had it all: each other; a wonderful adventure; good health; good humour (most of the time); and just when we thought that list was complete, we looked over to the other horizon to see the moon rising in the East.  Such a big beautiful sky in the prairies.  That was the first time I had ever seen both orbs in the sky.

bisonIn Alberta we
visited Elk Island National Park and it was here that we encountered a very large bison in the woods.  We had been simply hiking along quietly, on a hot, twisty trail through woods of young saplings.  Suddenly, looking up, we saw a huge snorting shape quietly staring at us and a bit beyond him, his harem lying on the ground. We retreated, rather hastily and then breathed a sigh of relief.

From there we headed north into to the bottom of North West Territories, stopping at Fort Simpson where, with John Shaughnessy, flew into Nahanni National Park in a tiny Cessna aircraft, puking all the way. No kidding.  The updrafts of warm air batted us around crazily.  Thank goodness for the airsick bag.  The scenery was gorgeous but I, for one, was way too nauseous to enjoy it. Once on the ground we hiked into the falls. Spectacular and quite noisy.  I immediately dunked my head in the freezing cold water, aiding the departure of the nausea. I should say here that John Shaughnessy sure as heck did not get sick.

virginia falls
Virginia Falls, Nahanni National Park (google images)

Next we meandered our way to Alaska and decided upon a truly physically challenging adventure: hiking the the Chilkoot Trail at Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park starting in Skagway, Alaska and ending three to five days later in the ghost town of Bennett, BC.  It is the trail that had been used in the 1890s by the Goldrush crowd heading over White Pass to find their fortunes in gold.  John Shaughnessy bid us farewell, as it was not paprospectorsrt of his plan to do such a hike.  We would miss him.  The hike was challenging for sure.  The photo is of the prospectors in the late 1800s who were risking life and limb in the hopes of finding gold.  When I look at that angle they are hiking at, carrying huge loads, in ancient gear, I think: hopeful desperation.  Many died horrible deaths due to harsh conditions, starvation, tooth decay, frostbite and many other unpleasant issues. The line formed by the ant-sized black dots in the photo are heading up over the pass after having gone through The Scales.  At The Scales their amount of supplies were weighed and assessed. They had to have one ton of goods per person!! They had to have certain survival items, like a tent, frying pan and so many pounds of flour, sugar etc before being allowed over the pass.  Dean and I had a back pack each.  We were good. Three days later, Dean and I walked into the final camp ground of the hike.  It had been a physical test but it also had been eye candy and interesting to traverse the same path as those old fortune seekers.  We also met Michelle and Mike from Oz, whom we visited a couple of years later. (See post: We’re Not in Canada Anymore…this is Oz (age 28)).

From British Columbia to Kluane National Park in the Yukon and then to Banff, Alberta where we enjoyed the hub-bub of that city. It was in Banff that we were pulled over by the police which was puzzling because we had done nothing wrong.  The Mountie leaned into Betsy and asked: ‘Are you Dean Joyce?’  Dean’s face fell.  If a cop in Alberta knew your name, that couldn’t be good.  ‘You need to call home as soon as possible.’  

Finding a pay phone and making the call, we were informed of the sad and tragic news that Dean’s father had suffered a massive heart attack.  We flew to Newfoundland the next day. After quite a battle, Dean’s father rallied and lived another ten wonderful years.