Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bigger than My Fear

At 2:02 a.m., I suddenly awaken, my body as taut as a stretched elastic band. There is rustling in my room. I hear it again. The fear I feel is primeval, gripping. I can scarcely breathe.

It’s a grey, furry field mouse coming out of hiding in the corner. His family has been proliferating in this building – and as mice often do, he has climbed to the 2nd floor, where it’s warmer in Montreal’s harsh winter climate.

Since the duplex became infested, I have barricaded myself in my bedroom at night, not wanting to run into the little critters. I realize that I’ve locked myself IN with the very creature I want to avoid. Shit! I open the door so he can scamper out. Later I find a dead mouse in one of my traps, hopefully him. Everything being scrupulously clean in my apartment, the dab of peanut butter in the trap must have been enticing.

Here I am dealing with something that strikes terror in my heart. I ask myself what I could be learning – faith? courage? strength? I pray. I take action (fresh mouse traps, carefully baited) as I wait for the exterminator. He praises the efficiency of his poison bait and tells me this isn’t the worst case he’s seen.

I think of others around the globe dealing with scorpions, deadly snakes, giant spiders or destructive forces of nature. How do they do it?

It’s important not to give into our fear, but to see it as a friend that alerts us to danger. To use it as a spur to action. And then to hand our problem over to a Higher Power, with thanks in advance. I believe we are never ever truly alone!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Those Bleak November Skies

November gives me the blahs – continuously overcast skies, the bareness of trees and a foreboding chill that makes me zip up my jacket in anticipation of winter.

Today I treat myself to a few hours in a downtown Montreal greenhouse. Surrounded by a sea of flowers, from furry mums to daisies (bunches of white, purple or violet), I gratefully breathe in the humid air. I listen to the gurgle of water as it flows into two small ponds and watch the carp wind their way beneath the lilies floating on the surface.

It has been a year of losses for me – first my mother’s passing, then the departure of a close friend and I need this visual feast to remind me what I truly love in this world. The colours, the textures and the scents in this tropical place fill my senses.

A woman comes in with her two little girls, who scamper around the room examining all the plants. I envy their excitement and spontaneity.

Will I ever feel joyful again? Like the seasons I expect my melancholy will pass. Experiencing loss is part of the human condition and it is normal to feel sad when important relationships end. I give myself permission to sit with my feelings. For a few moments happy memories flood my mind.

I dreamt of my mother and this friend last night (strange, to have them both in the same dream!). My friend was pulling me back from the edge of a deep man-made lake that suddenly appeared in the center of the city. Perhaps that was my subconscious warning me not to let emotion overwhelm me, especially at this time of year.

I again gaze at the graceful palms and flowers that grow here in such profusion. Life for them, and for me, must go on.

Monday, October 27, 2008

As Leaves Turn Gold

Too soon the brilliant reds of autumn fade away. The landscape along the river is now dominated by the muted oranges and browns of maples and the yellows of poplar trees. In the sunshine everything turns to burnished gold.

How perfectly the seasons parallel our life cycles! Whether or not we cling to youth, it falls behind us as we ramble into middle age. Maybe we don’t run as fast, or turn heads the way we used to, but there is a richness that only comes with age. I find comfort in knowing who I am and what I truly value. I am at peace in solitude and appreciate company when it’s there.

Many people find change unsettling, seeing only the losses pile up as they grow older. Yet this is a natural unfolding. There’s an advantage to cutting back and slowing down. We can more easily pause in our routines to absorb the moment – stopping to watch the pink sky at sunset or to hear children’s laughter as they play.

On my walk there’s a blur of black and white as a kingfisher swoops over the water and then disappears into the trees. These days I am more fully aware of the transience of life. I enjoy who and what is around me, knowing they will not last. I appreciate the opportunity to make a difference and use my gifts while I can.

One day I will be like these dry leaves underfoot – feeding the soil that nourished me for so long.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Where the Grass is Greener

It’s a sunny afternoon in early Fall – with just the right touch of crispness in the air. As I cycle along the river, I skirt around a furry caterpillar making its way to the grass on the other side of the path. A couple of feet later, I come across another rust-coloured caterpillar humping along in the same direction as the first one. The next caterpillar I see isn’t so lucky. It was fatally clipped by a skater or cyclist, halfway to its destination.

Why this obsession about getting to the other side?? The area they are leaving behind has the same green grass and even more trees than the place they are struggling to reach.

Human beings are not so different. When I was unhappily married, many times I longed to be single. Eventually I made the switch – only to realize there are challenges in every lifestyle. Perfection does not exist because there is always something to experience and to learn.

The way to be happy, I have since discovered, is “to want what you have” rather than “have what you want.” This does not mean staying in a bad relationship. Rather it has to do with appreciating the good things in your life. I have my health and mobility, time and freedom to write (my greatest passion) or to travel. I also have meaningful interactions with a number of people. I feel useful and engaged. There is a lot to be thankful for.

As I head home on my bike, I come across another caterpillar – this one going BACK to the river. It’s tasted the grass on the other side and realizes it was better off where it started from. I gently nudge the furry creature off the path and out of danger.

Soon it will nest in a silky cocoon, safe from winter’s chill. In the end the place it chooses for this cocoon does not matter as much as the act of weaving it.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Laying Down Track

Three blocks from where I live, there’s a high school running track. This summer they tore up the grass in the center and put down a layer of gravel as a foundation for artificial turf. I understand this is for an eagerly-awaited soccer field.

The outside track where I used to do laps with a good neighbour and friend was also ripped apart. In its place I saw tractors and scattered pieces of concrete in heaps everywhere.

The upheaval happened at the same time as the changes in our relationship. For several years we traded recipes (he made the best curry) and meals as well as stories and bits of wisdom. Just before July, he moved back to his home in South America. Suddenly there were thousands of miles and nothing but faulty communications between us – and his absence left a huge gap.

Today I walk past the soccer field and see a brand new track. It’s wider and made of asphalt. The old cinder track is only a memory now, along with our heart-to-heart conversations and shared laughter. My life is filling again with new activities and people.

Recently my former neighbour called to say he’s busy building a house in the tropics. Like me, he’s laying new track. I suspect, though, that we will both pause from time to time and glance back at the path we traveled so well together.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fields of Clover

Voles like to eat. They're also skittish and scamper away from people, so quickly that we rarely see them. Lately I have been seeing a lot more of these small furry creatures (look like mice but with a shorter tail) in a park along the St. Lawrence River.

Today I see the granddaddy of all voles - he's HUGE. Probably because of his size, he does not fear humans. He sits on the strip of lawn next to the walking path, munching on the vegetation. Three people stop and take pictures. He keeps eating. Then the young boy flaps his arms in a threatening gesture and shouts, to see if he can make the creature budge. The disgruntled vole finally heads for the bushes, doubtlessly to return later for his meal.

Montreal, like other cities in North America, has adopted a "green" policy and banned the use of pesticides in its lawns and parks. To curb the spread of weeds, the city now seeds with clover. This plant has overtaken the parks, filling the air with its sweet scent and giving us fields of white and mauve.

I am sure this is why I'm seeing all these fat voles! What I also noticed the other day were two rock snakes with vivid black markings, curled up on the grass next to the river. Wild snakes? I've lived here more than twenty years and this is the first time I see them. I feel like cheering.

Residents are also seeding their lawns with clover and the yellow heads of dandelions have all but disappeared. Others have removed their grass and planted bunches of wildflowers instead. A real visual feast.

I pay more attention these days to chemicals and additives in the products I use or eat. Whatever we put in our environment - or in us - will affect us in ways we cannot fathom. It's time to get back to nature. Let's start with clover.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Remember the Love

On my way to the grocery store, I stop to admire a row of flowering bushes planted around the parking lot. They produce a profusion of pink blossoms with a distinctive scent. These are the same bushes I grew up with – we had a fair-sized hedge of them in the front yard.

It is now one month since my mother passed on and there are regular reminders of her presence in my life. A few weeks ago, all the lilac trees were in bloom and everywhere the breeze carried her favourite fragrance.

My mother was a determined woman with a fierce love for her children and a strong will. What I recall now are not any arguments or misunderstandings in the past but my experience of the last nine years – when she leaned on me more and more as her body and cognitive functioning succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease.

To her credit she never once complained about not being able to walk, dress herself or do any of the countless things which autonomous people take for granted. She was always glad to see me and recognized me until her last dying breath. Even a disease as thoroughly debilitating as Alzheimer’s could not rob her of this. She would not allow it.

Towards the end, most of her words came out garbled or not at all. But five days before she died she turned to me as I was leaving the nursing home and clearly said, “Thank you very much.”

Maybe one day I will forget the many challenges I encountered as I tried to keep her safe and healthy. What I will always remember is the love.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Just before Mother's Day

The day before Mother’s Day, I sit in a hospital emergency ward with a very sick woman. Her lungs are filled with water, she’s all bones at 90 pounds, and she’s coughing helplessly. A saline solution pumps into her veins to keep her hydrated and oxygen is being fed through her nose. The woman’s my mother – 88 years old and now fighting for her life.

She stops eating and the doctor tells me she's dying.

Yet later when I mention my sister coming, she opens her mouth and takes careful bites of extremely tasteless food. Chews and swallows. Like I said, she’s a fighter. She’s struggled with Alzheimer’s disease for years and now she’s battling the odds as her bodily processes break down.

I tell her there’s nothing to fear – her spirit will live on. And the next world is surely a better one. If she remains here she will only suffer more. It’s time to let go.

This isn’t what she wants to hear. Once most of the water is removed from her lungs, and the oxygen mask taken off her face, she breathes a sigh of relief. Then she eats some more, shoring up her strength. She simply isn’t ready to go.

In my heart I am glad she decided to stay, even if it’s for a few more days or even weeks. The world isn’t the same place without her.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Silence can be Golden

Although I do most of my writing in my home office, I like to start off chapters at the library. There’s something very motivating in hearing the tapping of keys all around me. At the Bibliothèque nationale in Montreal, there are 200 work stations for those who want to surf the Net or use a computer. Today a middle-aged man sits down with a young female friend across from me. They are having a conversation.

In this section of the library, every sound is magnified. Users require absolute silence. Many are students working on papers, while others have projects like mine.

The Chinese woman next to me holds a finger to her mouth and says, “Sh-h. No talking!” He nods but then continues the conversation. Now a woman two rows away walks over, glares at him and reminds him that this is a silent area. He nods to her as well but keeps conversing with his friend, who answers in monosyllables.

I, too, am now having trouble focusing on my writing. I watch as a young man goes over to the troublemaker and tells him that he is disturbing everyone here. Perhaps he would like to leave? The offender is muttering now. The young man strides over to the attendant and points him out.

One more word and the man will be kicked out. Mercifully he shuts up. This is the kind of person who will play music so loudly that even the deaf can hear. It’s all about ego.

I am not too fond of rules and regulations but I see how they serve a practical purpose. Some people just won’t behave without them.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Breath of Fresh Air

Our first day of spring is filled with sunshine – the perfect time to get out for a stroll. I see a man wheeling an infant down the street in a baby carriage. Great! Maybe he’s a househusband, or giving his wife a break. So what’s wrong with this picture??

He’s taking puffs from a huge cigar and holding it a few inches from the child as he continues his walk. His baby boy is actually doing more inhaling than he is. The man looks self-satisfied. I am sure he will tell the baby’s mother how refreshing it was to be out on such a warm day and how they both enjoyed it.

As I get older, I become increasingly aware of how interrelated we all are. Almost anything we do affects someone else or maybe even a number of people. It’s important to think before we act and consider the consequences. We’re not as separate as we may feel. Even thoughts have ripples and words have the power to heal or to strike down. Our actions have repercussions that we can’t even see.

The very air we breathe is a product of what we put into it… need I say more?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Four Months of Four Walls

Residents of the nursing home where my mother lives look glum these days. In this season of never-ending snowfalls, most of them are imprisoned here. With their wheelchairs and walkers it’s just too risky to venture out on slippery sidewalks and clogged streets.

As she overhears a conversation about the mountains of snow, Mother says, “I want summer.” Incapacitated as she is, even she needs a change of scene. I wheel her to the other side of the floor to hear the caged budgies sing. Like the people in this place, the birds’ greatest comfort is often each other.

Montrealers are all talking about the weather. We’ve broken snowfall records from 30 to 50 years ago and with more on the way in the coming days, will reach an all-time high. I tell myself, “This too will pass.” By the end of March it will be too warm for anything but rain.

To break the monotony of the indoor world, I head downtown to browse the stores. Tomorrow it will again be impossible to travel – they’re announcing two more feet of snow.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Chocolates, Anyone?

On my way home, I see a Forest Gump quote scrawled in blue marker on the bus seat in front of me: “Life is like a box of chocolates.” The unwritten part is, “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Isn’t that true? To experience anything we need to open the box, choose something in a wrapper and take a bite. It can be soft and chewy… or we can chip a tooth on a hard piece of caramel.

Often the chocolates with all the swirls that look so tempting can disappoint us. Maybe the career we chose did not pan out or the relationship that started out with such high hopes did not last. That doesn’t mean they weren’t worth pursuing – only that we may have to try a few things before we know what we really want.

It’s all about choices. Every decision we make leads us closer to something that works for us.

As I get older, I take more care with the things and people I choose. There’s less time ahead of me, and I want it to count. One day that box of chocolates will be empty (yes, the second layer, too!) and I will finally toss it aside.

Until then, I will try all the pieces that appeal. I will savour each one before going on to the next. I will enjoy every flavour – light or dark, sweet or bitter – and keep in mind that nothing lasts, no matter how much I want it to.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Wicked Wind

I am standing at a downtown street corner, waiting for the light to change. The wind chill reads -28 ° Celsius – giving the kind of bite that bores into your bones. Still, I’m glad to be here after so many days/weeks/months writing the novel. A new hotel has gone up opposite the building where I used to work.

I remember glancing out my office window as I sorted through paperwork and answered phones. And how I envied people who were free to stroll in the sunshine or sit on the terrace, chatting the afternoon away with friends.

Now I am one of those people, living according to my own schedule. It’s great being able to sleep in on winter mornings such as this, but I really do best when I’m focused and have a purpose. These days the writing has that effect on me – bringing new insights and character twists almost daily. I’ve never written fantasy before and the story is spinning in directions I didn’t anticipate.

The wind hurts my face at this temperature. I pull up my hood, snuggle a little deeper into my coat, and walk on. It’s easier to tolerate the cold knowing that spring is one day closer.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sunshine in Winter

In Montreal, we’ve been walloped by three major snowstorms in a four-week period. All told, at least five feet of the white fluffy stuff came to clog our streets and exercise our shovels. Then along came a January thaw and rain. Half the snow drifts disappeared and I could not only see pavement again, I could see grass! Now the bitter cold is back and we’re facing a few more months of what seems like an endless winter.

Life is like that sometimes. You are in a period where every day feels like an effort. You wonder when you will finally emerge from your current financial/ relationship/ career/ health woes.

What helps is keeping a gratitude journal. Whenever I have a few moments, I jot down three things for which I am thankful. These are specifics. For example, today’s entries:

● I am grateful for the glorious sunshine – nourishing all my indoor plants.

● I appreciate the opportunity to work on my novel.

● I am thankful that I am able to get around town without owning a vehicle.

I also consider “3 beautiful things” I saw during the day. This allows me to appreciate the splendour of the world around me. I often include flowers, wild life or other aspects of nature such as a rosy sunset. I also see beauty in someone’s smile or in the posture of a poodle as it prances down the street.

If you are in a slog, I suggest you start your own gratitude journal. Just thinking about what’s working in your life will lift your spirits. An added bonus: looking back and seeing all the good stuff you’ve experienced.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Just Do It!

We all have behaviour we would like to change or adopt – which is how New Year’s resolutions came into being. How many of us start the year with earnest plans to lose weight, get more fit, stop smoking or something similar? Yet resolutions often fail. That’s because our old habits are deeply ingrained and it takes at least 15 days to establish new behaviour.

I’ve been meaning to meditate for a long time now. It seems I’m always too busy or too tired to take twenty minutes to sit and clear my head. This evening I finally did just that – and feel great.

I know all about the benefits of meditation. I need the self-discipline that a focused state of mind can bring; I also need the peace and calmness. Yet for months I put it off.

What helps is saying “I choose” this. I like to meditate. I choose to make it a daily practice. I know if I stick with it long enough, it will become a habit. My resistance will eventually fade.

What about you? Is there something you hold off doing that’s important to you? Make a decision and then start small. Don’t feel bad about needing a little push. The critical thing is to take the first step. You’ll immediately feel better about yourself … and that alone makes it worthwhile.