Archive for the ‘by Sue Dvorak’ Category

Moving

Monday, June 19th, 2017

Story by Sue Dvorak.

 
Moving is found on ‘most stressful life events’ scales but needs to be moved up. From start to finish, moving is an extremely exhausting and generally overwhelming endeavor.

Oh sure, some moving appears carefree, almost entertaining. Visit a university campus in spring to see a very relaxed looking young person “moving out” of residence, wandering by carrying a popcorn maker in one hand and a laundry basket overflowing with shoes, a dragging towel, one music speaker and some binders tucked under the other arm. This person is not stressed, though his look-alike parent packing the car nearby usually appears a bit more intense. I was at UBC recently when a compact car drove by with two young men each perched in a fully opened back window, clutching a large sofa balanced along the top of the vehicle, a furniture-moving technique not endorsed by ICBC. Or anyone.

Even these haphazard moves gradually develop a system, becoming more streamlined and efficient. People get some large reusable bins, develop packing patterns and invent a few techniques of their own. Our son uses large black garbage bags to move almost anything. Garbage bags have the advantage of being very stackable, from floor to ceiling in the back of a car and the disadvantage of being mistaken for garbage. Attentiveness is crucial during a move: last year two baskets of clean family laundry were almost driven to another province after being packed into the back of our vehicle by a hard-working but inattentive helper.

Moves continue over the coming years: to shared apartments, a downtown high rise, a condo, a townhouse. Eventually “It Happens.”

‘It’ is very traumatic and a sure sign of becoming established. ‘It’ is when you can no longer move yourself using just a vehicle, when friends are no longer willing to help you move in exchange for a case of beer. ‘It’ occurs when you actually need to hire a real moving truck and, gasp, movers!

Years back my husband found this a most distressing situation, one he had great difficulty coming to terms with. Never mind that we had a toddler and a baby in tow; the babies we could adapt to, but professional movers we were not ready for.

We keep living our lives and at some point, many people move into a house. If purchased there is the hefty financial consideration much discussed in Vancouver. Yet beyond that, beyond the finances and finishings and appliances of the purchase or rental, there remains the matter of a home. Home, where our lives happen, where weekend mornings unfold, where children grow up, parties are hosted and ordinary suppers take place, chores repeated, “stuff” accumulated and people come and go.

The ultimate “moving” then is that which my parents are in the midst of doing: moving out of their family home of the past 49 years. My father just marked the occasion perfectly by writing a poem about a tiny fir seedling they planted years back, now towering over their house, and how their family life grew up there along with the tree. They are doing an amazing job of staying focused and on-task while all around memories beckon and heartstrings tug. The “stuff” surrounding them marks time and tells a story but still needs sorting. The memories need sorting too. Well, that and the four extra mattresses, full dining set, crazy number of pillowcases and the casserole dishes. Good thing older people are mature, tough and wise.

Moving through a lifetime of living will get you that.

Puppies and Toddlers

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

Puppies-Dunbar-LifeMany Dunbar families have dogs, which means most of those have had the Puppy Experience. Our now four month old puppy reminds me daily of how remarkably similar the experience of having a puppy is to the Toddler Experience. Sorry kids.

Both toddlers and puppies involve a general disruption of routine and constantly require surveillance and intervention. When puppy finally exhausts herself and konks out on the floor, we scurry about, having showers or putting things away while puppy sleeps. Try bringing in groceries or sweeping the floor or emptying the dishwasher with a puppy or a toddler ‘helping you.’ The ordinary can become a personal challenge: the other day I got crazy and decided to sneak the door mats back to their usual positions at the front and back doors. After 24 hours of their remaining in place I thought I had clinched a victory, until I entered the room to see our puppy whipping the mat in circles above her head like a cowboy swinging a lasso. The mats were collected once again.

Both puppies and toddlers regularly walk off with car keys and mail and shoes if not secured away. All possessions are at risk. A toddler in our family once hid a turned off pager inside a bread-maker, an extremely clever move given the frequency of that appliance’s use. Our counters and tables are strewn with a bizarre collection of random items retrieved from the puppy. Last month I was driving off almost late for a meeting when, with a sinking feeling, I noticed in my rear view mirror a Fed Ex truck pulling up to our house. Imagining perfectly the Christmas on-line shopping delivery scenario, I looped around and returned home again to find our puppy in the front hall, pleased to have her very own hand-delivered personal chew toy package in her mouth. Rescuing the home delivered “toy” and replacing it with an approved dog toy, pretty much identical to a baby toy, all ensured that I was definitely late for my meeting.

Toddlers and puppies both cause an inordinate amount of energy and conversation to be focussed on bodily functions. Those not involved in this world are surprisingly less enthusiastic about tales of successful potty use or, in the case of dogs, back yard visits. For proud participants in this endeavour, detailed reports provided at work or at dinner parties never quite bring about the thrilled response we are looking for.

Both puppies and toddlers provide constant reminders of the wonders of the world around us. We are amazed by a toddler crouched in that full-squat position young children rest in, staring intently at a beetle on the ground, tapping it gently with a tiny index finger. On a recent walk our puppy caught sight of someone vaping at a bus stop. She pulled over, sat directly in front of him and stared at the vision before her, glancing at me a few times to check whether this situation was alarming or not.

Nobody can deny that both are beyond adorable when asleep. How many times a parent finally has a toddler asleep on their chest, and, rather than carrying the child to bed, lingers there with the delicious weight and warmth of this small person upon them. Or having a puppy literally curled up upon one’s feet and not getting up, though needing to, for the sheer delight of the moment. We linger because the moment is beautiful and because we know all too well that the whirling dervish will soon return.

Gift Giving

Monday, December 5th, 2016

dunbar-life-gift-givingGift giving is a particular kind of art. The gift of “the gift” is a combination of thoughtful-ness, artsiness, sleuth, timing and delivery. The price of a gift does not ensure its meaning, however, if one must receive a meaningless gift, then expensive is nice.

I know people with this talent who are total pros. Gift shopping is a state of being for them, constantly on duty in search of perfect gifts. The women among them could be in labour, en route to the hospital and still zip into a shop to pick up the perfect house-warming gift for their co-worker’s renovated kitchen.

Not possessing this gift, I have been known to approach Christmas shopping like immunization: as painful but necessary. When our kids were little I would book a babysitter for the entire day and be standing outside some immense mall at door opening, in runners and light athletic gear, hydrated, well fed and wearing a backpack. I did not know if the gifts people wanted were in that mall: I just knew that the gifts they were getting from me were in there. Back and forth I’d go to the car all day, like some retail triathlon participant, “getting the job done.” There was not a lot of art or beauty involved. I do miss the easy shopping days of visiting a giant toy store where a lot of primary coloured plastic was purchased, though none emitting terrible sounds or requiring batteries.

Getting someone ‘the perfect gift’ is such a joy. That jumpy, magic moment while you await someone dear unwrapping a gift you know he or she is going to LOVE truly does make it better to give than receive. I hit that home run once, with my whole family and parents all at the same time, having created by some miraculous aligning of the universe, a photo memory book for a special period of time we all shared. The tears streaming down my daughter’s face as she looked through the book was my gift.

Occasionally the setting of the gift delivery becomes the part of the gift itself. Think of the smitten lover who sends a flower bouquet up the elevator to greet his waiting beloved. Or the gift held out at the back porch door of an elderly couple by an unexpected visitor who travelled from afar.

A favourite gift setting for me was our messy kitchen at home early one morning last April. The day prior had been a particularly bad day and also our 25th wedding anniversary. That day was not a Hollywood romance movie but rather a grainy black and white documentary: a normal work day, followed by kids sports, building a crescendo with an evening computer meltdown and loss of a group EMBA project, two teenagers needing to pack for two separate school / team outings and peaking with an all-night emergency visit to Vancouver General Hospital. Discovering the next day, a gold gift bag containing a wooden box with a gorgeous long strand of pearls in our disheveled kitchen, unnoticed amid the chaos of the day before, struck me as the perfectly poetic, fitting way to receive a gift celebrating 25 years of marriage. Pearls among the mess.

Such are gifts in our ordinary lives.

September Shoes

Monday, October 17th, 2016

september-shoes-dunbar-life-palla-media
When I think of September I think of shoe shopping. Of course, I also think of melancholy goodbyes, rustling colourful leaves and cool sunny afternoons but certainly of shoe shopping.

I guess that is because for years, almost two decades now, I have taken small feet, and then larger feet, in worn out flip-flops curled up at the ends or tattered sneakers with toes poking through holes, off to the store to buy school shoes in early September. The new shoes had to be comfortable and sturdy, with velcro and later real laces ready to take those feet back and forth to school, to run around at recess playtime, ready for rainy days and the busyness of school life.

The kids would try on shoes as if that were a sport itself, jumping up and down in them, walking on their heels and, my favourite, sprinting back and forth in the store “to see if they are fast.”

Once children are older and reach the teenage years, shoe-shopping is not so much reserved for “back to school” in September … because you just went in June, and then again back in February. This is one time that shoes don’t really wear out: they never get the chance. Having adult size 12s lying about is like having a few sets of trick skiis stacked by your front door. Even then your child with those big feet might make eye contact with you while putting them on one morning and say “You are really going to hate hearing this but…” And off to the shoe store again.

At this age, “new shoes” can involve all or some combination of school shoes, PE runners, basketball shoes, soccer cleats, kick-abouts, maybe even slippers. Forget about winter boots or dress shoes: those will have to wait for the growing to stop or be borrowed when needed.

For adults, new shoes purchased in September often hold a certain fresh promise too. New runners speak of a refreshed beginning to a regular workout fitness plan or to a beloved sport. Sometimes new shoes are purpose-specific: hiking boots in preparation for a long-awaited hiking trip, court shoes for taking up squash or walking shoes for travelling abroad. And nothing jazzes up the look of any outfit like new shoes, the “dress for success” piece that sparks up a work wardrobe.

September feels like new beginnings, for students of all ages starting a new year and for adults moving past the lazier days of summer back to the structures of work and routine. In some ways new shoes purchased in the fall represent a sampler of things to come over the next months or year: days in a child’s life, outings for an adult’s fitness or recreation, work days that hold many plans.

Maybe you don’t need new shoes this September. But if you do, have fun choosing your “sampler” of things to come. Happy autumn.

Sue Dvorak is a physiotherapist, mother of 6 children and lives in Dunbar with her husband Marcel. She has been a regular writer for Dunbar Life magazine since 2011.

Coffee?

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Want to Go for Coffee?

Young woman drinking coffee in urban cafeThis invitation, welcomed worldwide, appears to be especially welcome in this coffee-loving city of Vancouver. I share this addiction, finding those sips of hot coffee first thing in the morning, while the house is still quiet and the day is just a plan, some of the loveliest moments of each day.

Coffee is often social though, with people gathered at kitchens, coffee shops, cafes, outdoor benches and lunchrooms for coffee and some conversation.

My husband remembers with a laugh his university roommates, appearing suddenly by his side in silent parts of remote libraries, red pressure-welts appearing on their foreheads where they recently lay asleep on a desk, quietly bleating out that invitation in a fatigue-sickened state. This is a feeling we all know, of being so incredibly tired but hopeful that a strong coffee and some commiseration will refresh and help set us out anew.

The strength and style of the coffee itself is a personal, cultural thing. While in Switzerland our host mentioned dryly that if North Americans would drink “proper coffee” then perhaps they would not need to drive around with a litre of it attached to their dashboards. To him proper coffee was of course thick, strong espresso sipped from tiny ceramic cups while sitting civilly. And there’s the thing: so much of what makes “going for coffee” valued is the company, the time, the socialization. Ponder the cafes worldwide where crowds sit visiting, reading, sipping, people watching, even just thinking.

Most of us now just sit looking at our phones. Heck, we look at our phones even to get our coffee! Consider the new coffee ritual that has us ordering that latte via a mobile phone so we can race to the shop in our cars and not have to wait the few minutes required to pick it up. Why are we always hurrying?

A friend of mine is traveling in Africa and one afternoon during a hike in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia they came through a small village. They were invited to take coffee by a woman who brought them to her thatched roof hut where she lives with her husband and four young children.

“Going for coffee” at this woman’s home involved her doing the following: chop wood to make fire to boil water. Wash coffee beans through several waters (brought by mules in casks) then roast coffee over the open fire. Pour roasted beans into wooden pestle and grind finely. Add beans to water in a kettle to boil. Wash all the cups and set them on a tray. Light incense. Shoo chickens out. Invite two neighbours as well. Ceremoniously pour the coffee. Serve each guest.

Maybe we can have our coffee experience fall somewhere between “order online-sprint into shop-drive off in car” and the labour intensive Ethiopian village experience. Go ahead and order the coffee via an app but meet a friend to drink it.

Mother’s Day

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Mothers DayMuch has been said, and should be, about motherhood, one of the primary, most epic of human relationships. Motherhood is the stuff of great literature, of famous works of art, of life itself. And soon we celebrate the role of mothers with little ol’ Mother’s Day.

Funny that many of the greeting card depictions concerning motherhood bear little resemblance to the role itself. When I think of mothers I do not think flower bouquets, velvet ribbons and sweet rhymes found on greeting cards. I think chapped hands, an iron will and management of vast amounts of children’s bodily fluids over the course of many years, which admittedly is difficult material to combine into something Hallmark can make use of. Even ‘speeches’ delivered for mothers often strike me as if written for an entirely different group of people. They all seem to describe someone much gentler and sweeter than myself and many mothers I know.

Motherhood is not a sweet romantic role, but an earthy, practical, sticky one. We get our hands dirty, we carry a lot of things, we feel the life lived by another and we make a lot of sandwiches. A woman who becomes a mother is never completely autonomous again, never really alone in her thoughts or actions.
Mother’s Day is celebrated in sweet little ways at home that can never match the occasion. But weirdly gold spray-painted and glued macaroni can go a surprisingly long way, as can a “surprise breakfast” made of ingredients never before combined on one plate. Practical gifts, such a babysitting or a prepared meal, are most appreciated especially by mothers of young children. For any adult looking to provide for a special mother they know, sleep is the gift of choice. Young mothers are so desperate for sleep they would happily curl up in an aisle of Costco if that meant for some uninterrupted sleep while you shopped with their kids. Funny enough, the person most likely to provide these kinds of practical, “hands-on” services is usually none other than the woman’s mother herself.

The trick to understanding Mother’s Day, or being a mother in general, is the awareness that moments arranged, even contrived, to be lovely and sentimental often are not.

During spring break I witnessed a potentially gorgeous, but ill-fated beach photo shoot of a woman and her two daughters go horribly wrong as the four year old girl melted down big time. The photographer looked exasperated and the beautiful mom crestfallen. I thought they should have taken the photos anyway; they might have become favourites in years to come.

Our family often refers to my famously deflated Mother’s Day moment when one of our daughters in preschool was asked to finish the sentence “I love my mother because…”, the answer to which was then scribed in a large cheerily decorated preschool card and read aloud at a presentation for mothers. Her experienced, older preschool teacher, a mother of grown children, smiled as she read my daughter’s response of

“…because she gave me gum once.”

Maybe it is that simple. Or maybe I really did need to step up my game a bit.

Another Mother’s Day sentimental-moment-gone-wrong occurred with our 12 year old son after his long suffering teacher had done her best to have students produce a beautifully painted trinket box symbolic of their love for their devoted mothers. My tiny wooden box was unveiled having been painted an edgy but not exactly detailed solid matte black because “it was fastest that way.” I inspected it, paint smeared and blobbed on unevenly, and exclaimed “Wow, this is really terrible.” My son looked at me accusingly and said, “Most mothers would never say that to their kid, you know.” And I responded, “Most kids don’t paint their mother’s box completely black to save time.” He held the stare, but then broke down laughing. As we laughed and teased each other I felt as though I could just squish him with love. We still understand each other in this way and that is such a joy.

No, beautiful “Mother’s Day moments” come at unexpected times, as if to reward moms to keep going, because within any random or even horrible moment might be found a gift, an unexpected joy. These moments cannot be orchestrated by the mother. They are provided by life: your child running through the house and stopping to kiss you for no reason, being comforted by your grown child, seeing your children laughing with your parents, watching your child do something you know he is afraid to do.

Heart-wrenching and frightening moments are also impossible to avoid in the mothering experience. Our children’s path to adulthood is often perilous, physically and otherwise, and that can feel worse than if these struggles were our own. The richness a mother feels after weathering her child’s recovery from a serious illness or from difficult events is incomparable. For days after finally receiving a diagnosis and treatment for the aggressive skin infection that was burning, blistering, and bubbling our 3 year old’s entire body, I felt, between my random bursting into tears, waves of utter relief such that nothing else could possibly matter.

Yes, these children stretch our bodies, and then they stretch our hearts, our ability to adapt, our tolerance, our capacity to feel. Thank goodness love is not a material thing and that with the addition of these people and events and the passage of years love multiplies not divides. And so we push on, mothers everywhere, scolding, washing, cuddling, and loving fiercely in a way we never knew possible.

Enjoy the macaroni crafts and the crepe-paper flowers and the unevenly buttered toast handed to you by someone with eyes like your mother’s. Then go telephone your mother, if you are still blessed to have her, and tell her one of your favourite childhood memories of her, even the ridiculously unsentimental ones. Perhaps she gave you gum once.

Let the beautiful moments roll on between bandaids and loads of laundry.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Sue Dvorak, a physiotherapist, her husband Marcel and their six children, aged 12-22, have lived in Dunbar area for over the past 21 years.

Graduation

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Graduation, Dunbar LifeThe season of graduations is soon upon us. Bright young faces lean together, caps askew, while parents stand beaming nearby. Pomp and ceremony ensues, some fitting, some not. Speeches delivered, processions marched, and tears shed.

School graduations mark the end of one stage, the beginning of another.

At elementary schools now, even the completion of grade 7 brings some form of grad celebration. Though “grade 7 grad” is not really about achievement (I mean, ‘getting grade 7’ was always part of the plan), the occasion does mark the end of a childhood era and the significant passage onto high school. So wearing a pretty dress for the girls and maybe a shirt with buttons for the boys to reminisce over a cute slide show and be applauded at a special school assembly is fitting for the occasion. Beyond that though we run the risk of taking things a bit too far. Limousine rentals to commemorate the lofty achievement of finishing grammar school beg the question what then will suffice in grade 12? Grade 7 parents should skip planning gala affairs and set the kids free for a water-fight at Dunbar or Chaldecott Park or organize a beach gathering for everyone with pizza delivered. The age-old parent tactic of keeping the bar low now will only make high school graduation five years later all the sweeter.

And high school graduation comes soon enough. Throughout grade 12, senior students are constantly reminded “what an exciting year it is” for them, which is true but they can also be overwhelmed by how stressful it is at the same time. The grade 12 school year becomes consumed with keeping up both studies and a social life, completing applications to and meeting deadlines for chosen schools, colleges, or universities, grad activities, possibly wrestling over “gap year” pros and cons, updating resumes, looking for a summer job and of course repeatedly answering the question “so what are you going to do next, like, with the rest of your life?” The panorama looms large before them, as it is meant to at 18 years old, posing both excitement and apprehension.

Female grads alleviate this real stress with the created drama of the search for the ever-elusive perfect grad dress. Nowadays the search is made more painfully public with the posting of grad dress photos on-line, of the shopping and the purchase, on grad Facebook pages. This whole process makes one understand how the toga came to be. The young men have fewer concerns in the clothing regard except for knowing that the cardboard in the collar of a new dress shirt is meant to be removed (true story) and that the tacking stitches holding down the flaps of a new jacket are meant to be snipped (true story). But even the boys have to deal with some perplexing cultural norms along the way, like my son’s friend who asked why on earth his grad date kept reminding him of the colour of her dress. “Like, is that supposed to mean something to me?” he asked with honest curiosity. Enlightened about the persistent old-world expectation that he give her a matching corsage or that maybe his tie might coordinate, he looked as if he’d just been informed about mating rituals of iguanas.

My friend’s husband asked if his graduating daughter and her friends looked pretty, answered with a glazed expression, “I’m not sure. They all looked the same.” Often the dresses do appear too elaborate, faces too made up and hair too stiff. If being noticed is the goal, then plain and natural might capture the most attention. Still, youth is wasted on the young and they all look beautiful and happy on their graduation day.

Actually, the only real risk for the evening is that of the kids’ safety, which schools, parents and most students are very aware of. Many a school administrator and parent breathes a sigh of relief when the morning after grad festivities dawns with everyone safe and sound. What devastation when a tragedy occurs. The “Dry Grad” fun nights planned by many schools may not be as ‘cool’ to some but they offer a huge advantage of, besides not harming oneself in a drunken stupor, providing members of the grad class from all the different cliques, walks of life, and distinct groups one night to celebrate all together, to experience some sharing in the event as a mixed group, somewhat similar to real life itself.

But even the formal graduation ceremony can be fraught with complications of ongoing “grade 12 activities.” One of our grad’s had his specific course registration time for first-year university assigned at exactly 45 minutes before he was meant to process, cap and gown, with his graduating classmates. There he was, frantically entering a series of prepared trial course selection timetables into the on-line registration system not many moments before shaking hands on stage with the school principal, an apt preparation for the real pressures of university life.

University graduation is another thing altogether. The pomp and ceremony is much less important to the student finishing an undergraduate degree. After successfully grinding their way through four years of endless reading, days-long labs, essay writing and rewriting, late-night study sessions, and countless midterm and final exams, the prize is the completion of the degree, not the ceremony. If you ask a university grad about his or her upcoming graduation ceremony date you will get “I think it’s in May” tossed over a backpack-slung shoulder. Our soon-to-be undergraduate graduate saw the offered portrait sitting as a fabulous opportunity to get a portrait of herself, cap and gown, along with the family dog, posed together in front of a very regal fake library backdrop, signifying I’m not sure what. Though excited and satisfied to be done, university grads are less starry-eyed about graduation and what it represents; they are more tempered by the reality of entering the work force, competing for spots and carving a way.

Whatever kind of graduation you find yourself a part of, enjoy the sweet “people part” of it all: the marking of the passage of time, the achievement, the beauty and promise of youth. Give your grad a kiss and a gentle push.

Go Graduates.

Getting It All Done

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

New Year's ResolutionsThe mechanic furrowed his brow and asked when I last changed the air filter in my car. I furrowed mine pretending to be recalling the date, while really I was wondering if I knew that cars have air filters. But I had the distinct feeling of being remiss, of not getting the job done. I remember this because l had the exact same feeling later that day when the veterinarian asked with grave concern whether I brush our dog’s teeth every day. Umm.

There seems to be no end of tasks that are “essential” that one should be doing regularly but the list is so long, impossibly long. And the importance of each task depends upon a person’s point of view. A yoga instructor friend is definitely going to be appalled if you don’t stretch every day. Your home insurance brother-in-law certainly expects that you test all smoke detectors monthly. Your doctor will naturally want you to check your cholesterol over 45 and have regular mammograms. The bike shop will be stunned that you did not oil your chain all winter.

In the new year, when people re-focus on getting organized and “getting things done”, the array of tasks before them is so vast as to render them inert or spinning in circles. The results can be less than effective.

When we bought our first home we received the perfect gift: a home maintenance manual. However reviewing the manual’s contents made me break out in a cold sweat. Unless we were to give up sleep, the number of recommended and mandatory tasks per week/month/year were just not going to happen. The home manual made moving to a tent appear a very reasonable alternative. With all the cleaning faucet aerators, lubricating rollers on windows and latches, changing various filters, and draining the hot water tank there would be no time left to even celebrate birthdays. We were uneasy though with “the plan” becoming to leave everything unattended and stamp out crises as they arose. This planned neglect approach is not ideal either so the trick then, with this and everything else, is to decide upon The Most Important.

Physical exercise is important for all of us and there are many ways to incorporate that into one’s life. Joining a team, walking the dog or jogging three times a week are all reasonable options. But then what about core strength? Or flexibility? I attend an exercise class with a funny friend who rightfully points out that we could do all that exercise stuff at home. There is nothing stopping us from keeping weights in the car to do bicep curls at stoplights or from hitting the kitchen floor to do abdominal crunches while the pasta water boils. But we don’t. And so we go to class.

Besides, while doing crunches on the kitchen floor I would see the debris under the fridge and be reminded of the rotational home cleaning suggestion to move the fridge out monthly to clean under it. My Mom takes it a step further and vacuums the coolant coils at the back of her fridge. I am just sort of hoping we don’t have those coil things behind ours. Some people vacuum inside and under furniture regularly but that can safely be left off The Most Important list and transferred to the Non-Dangerous Things to Occasionally Be Embarrassed By list.

Sometimes high priorities are made clear by events around us. The devastation and suffering seen in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010 motivated me to get a survival kit for our family. The earthquake preparedness tactic of obtaining “an item-a-week until complete” is a fantastic plan but not for the impatient or those coping poorly in other areas of their life. So I splurged and bought a huge ready-made kit for our family plus one, to include the kid who will probably be over when the big one strikes. But now the clever company that supplied this kit contacts me regularly about updates and replacements! I have since made the executive decision not to update. So if, God forbid, your child is with us while we are stranded without assistance after a large natural disaster I am just saying straight up that his nutrition bars will probably be stale.

There are routine jobs that exist in a number of categories of life that just need to be randomly scheduled regardless of everything else. Pick a date, put it on your schedule and force yourself to get it done. Book an oil change. Get the dog vaccinated. Change the furnace filters so they do not look like felt pads when the furnace man comes. Book the furnace man.

Planning day/collecting ideas

Beauty care is murky territory where time and priority overlaps. No time at all spent on beauty can lead to an urgent new Most Important priority to “try not to look so terrible.” Some time spent is reasonable, the amount of which is up to you. Upon receiving my first facial and revealing my lack of a skin care regime, the esthetician scolded me saying “what do you expect of your face?!” I did not have the heart to tell her that, until that very moment, I did not even know a person could have expectations of her face.

Sometime you can cheat and take drastic action to prevent reprimands before they happen. For example, if you are meeting a financial planner about retirement savings, actually open and look at all your various statements, find out what your mortgage balance is and whether you have RRSP contribution room left. People who say I don’t know repeatedly throughout these meetings look like they will never be able to retire. Or if you have a hair appointment, deep condition your hair several times in the days prior to prevent the stylist frowning as he touches your hair. However, regarding dental care, do not floss your teeth aggressively seven times the day before your check-up: this will not usually provide helpful results. Flossing needs to happen regularly, along with backing up your computer hard drive.

Cull paper. Print favourite digital photos. Update your will. Plant spring flower bulbs… in the fall….pointy end up…in groups or they will look silly. Review insurance policies. Mediate daily. Clean the wretched blinds. Stretch. Eat more vegetables.

Just do your best. The next time you feel that you have dropped the ball on something you should be doing I dare you to say “Actually I have not ranked that as a personal priority lately. But I might reconsider.” Good luck.

Christmas Cards?

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

If you ask anyone who celebrates Christmas whether they plan on sending cards to friends and family this year, you will likely get a response that does not speak “peace on earth” to you. The exasperated, possibly even violent, reaction will rapidly outline with great irritation all the ways in which sending Christmas cards or, horrors, Christmas letters, is an outrageously archaic task from the past.

“Really?! Are you kidding me!?! Do you know how many things I have to do this time of year? Do you really think I have time to do Christmas cards!?? Puh-leeze.”

Between the shopping, decorating, wrapping, party planning, baking, cooking, drinking and complaining, there is little time for anything else. Just like after giving birth is a terrible time to look after a newborn, the average Christmas celebrator feels that the Christmas season is a completely unreasonable time to try to send Christmas cards.

And still.

Each year in mid-December arrives in our mail a coloured envelope neatly addressed in the classic though flourished handwriting of one of my Aunties now in her late 80’s. Within the Christmas card is folded a small note paper handwritten with a smattering of news, of thoughts and of well wishes. Anyone who thinks that only old people have the time for this has no idea how difficult growing old can be: as the saying goes “old age is not for wimps.” These season’s greetings and well wishes have been sent annually for more than half a century to about a hundred people from a woman who has lived a life much more labour-intensive than ours. And somehow this activity has been, and still is, important enough to her to bother.

With our present rushed lives and jammed schedules, the sending of Christmas cards strikes as a throwback to days gone by, of horse-drawn carriages and home telephones.

Maybe greeting cards and annual family news update letters are less necessary now that we have many easier ways to keep in touch, with cheaper long-distance telephone minutes, email, texting and now even social media to keep track of each other’s comings and goings. Regular use of much media technology renders the annual Christmas letter rather obsolete. If you are tweeting everyone daily as to what you ate for lunch and snap-chatting all your friends photos of your new “do”, you hardly need to send a written summary of the whole thing at year end. Since we can now see every single photo of our friend’s vacation on Facebook, complete with captions, a Christmas letter describing the vacation is not really necessary.

Besides, the annual Christmas letter can be quite annoying if it contains altogether too much good news. The thinly-veiled jealousy we all carry with us has a bit of trouble sharing fully in the compounded joy of the Ivy League school admission, the wildly successful business start up, the summer garden party featured in a popular home magazine AND the attached photo of the washboard abs. Something strange within me wants to report back jauntily about my recently being granted day parole, the fact our kids set a local public health record for total number of flus in one household this year, and that we are thinking of getting rid of the broken chair. We need to celebrate our ordinary lives: they are usually the only ones we are going to get.

Clearly the trick for avoiding the schmaltzy overdone letter is to just keep it real. A chance exchange of Christmas cards with a woman I worked with 25 years ago has led to my annual receipt of a tiny piece of her news scribbled in a Christmas card. I’ve felt such a wave of affection for this lady I think I barely knew as I read her simple, honest notes each year, about “busting with pride” at her young daughter’s theatre play, or about her son’s ridiculously large feet, her struggling marriage, her daughter’s work overseas, her interesting rural job. The year that I sent a Christmas letter describing how we were visiting with my husband’s father in Palliative Care, enjoying his company and pondering his beautiful life well lived was a year we got many heartfelt responses to our Christmas greetings.

Do what suits you. One year I left a bag of cards in the car all through November and December and just wrote cards whenever time presented itself. (Fair warning: if texting in traffic is illegal, so is writing Christmas cards.) Some people have the photo greeting cards made; mail them out in February if December is too busy. Personalized e-Christmas cards including real news, the ordinary stuff, along with a couple photos can be emailed out to family and friends. Or make a list of people you have been “meaning to call” and just phone them all early in the New Year. Maybe you don’t feel the need to send anything at all.

But if you really do want to send Christmas cards to a few people, make it as important as anything else. Book an evening “off” and don’t go to the mall yet again but instead to a coffee shop or a lounge and spend the evening ‘catching up’ in cards with the cherished friends and relatives you have in mind.

Maybe the mailing of Christmas cards does represents something from an era past, something we don’t feel we have time for any more but are maybe still in need of. We need to stay connected to those who have grounded us at various times, to share our ordinary lives with family and friends we don’t see often, and to wish each other blessings and peace. When considering the themes we hold dear for Christmas and then all the things that keep us busy preparing for the season, sending a Christmas card to an 87 year old Aunty should probably come way ahead of putting out some new decorations.

Blessings and peace to you, card or no card.

September

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Is there any month as wistful and promising, as melancholy and fresh as September? We mourn the end of summer and yet are enticed by the new beginnings that September brings, by starting fresh.

There is such a sadness to summer slipping away, with its barefoot unrushed moments, days spent by water, relaxed pace and simple joys. Time spent recalibrating can bring about surprising new goals or plans for adults given time to think about what could be. More lasting and meaningful resolutions are set during early morning discussions on a dock in August than in the days surrounding New Year’s. The lingering warm days turn to cooler evenings. Flip-flops are traded for squeaky new school shoes…and the return of routine looms.

And yet within that looming is the promise of something new. We have the feeling of starting fresh in September. Families with children certainly feel it: the passage of time marked by the freshness of beginning a new school year.

Every September kindergarteners with sweet open faces and backpacks as big as their bodies begin school and their parents know that the long era of school years has begun, no going back. Sometimes there are tears on the first day and sometimes the child cries too. Kids in intermediate grades meet in their school yard, one kicks a ball and suddenly they all pick up where they left off, on to a new grade, stage, and dynamic. Elementary school years seem to stretch on forever with gradual progression and subtle changes, often in spurts, such that parents are shocked as their child leaves grade seven that childhood passed so “suddenly”by. Still sweet but complicated new highschoolers, with lock combination numbers written in pen on their forearms, enter a whole new high school world of much commotion, change, intensity. Remaining high school years whip by quickly, tumultuous and demanding for all parties involved.

Septembers are layered with memories of our own school years past and all that was then, of shortcuts to school, of hometown
friends, of teachers who made a difference, of growing up.

And some September comes the ultimate collision of past and present when taking that former ‘new highschooler’, now finished grade twelve, off to university. No adult who ever had the privilege of attending university in Canada can walk across a leafy campus in September without a visceral rush of memories of that time in their own life so distinct, so new. Move-in day at university student residences now resembles orientation day at a most cheerful oversized camp. A huge number of disarmingly helpful young people are assembled to welcome and assist new residents. Parents help out, with wonderfully ordinary looking, worn out dads carrying boxes overflowing with haphazard contents and mother-daughter lookalikes sharing the exact same look of quiet trepidation. As those parents leave their excited young adult, who looks a lot like a kindergartener they once knew, the whole thing seems implausible, a kaleidoscope of past memories swirling with present joy and an ache of loss, and September is the setting.

At home in the crispness of September we try to snap to it: new agendas, new lunch bags and a couple new ideas of what to put in them, plans for a new exercise routine. September is a great time to say to your spouse, or your family, or a friend, “I have an idea.” As things gear up we reevaluate routines and see clearly what we would like to change or to start. A better time to practice piano. Walking with a co-worker at lunch. Insisting on protected, mandatory Sunday night dinner together. Starting a carpool or maybe abandoning one.

New school year, new plans, new routines.

Stop and feel September: the beauty of the city, the exact expressions and height of your child, the coolness of the air and the long shadows on a sunny day, the ideas you have for your year. Let September mark time for you; it is such a beautiful marker.