Friday, December 28, 2012

The Year Everything Broke But My Heart

The Year Everything Broke But My Heart:

Many things break our hearts in life and if we're wise, we'll heed Leonard Cohen's lyrics from his song Anthem, “There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.” So when things in my life started to break throughout the summer of 2012, I tried to appreciate that these were all just broken things. It began with the dishwasher. Well, no big deal, my husband and I said to each other, we'll just wash dishes by hand. Then the taps on the main floor began spouting water everywhere. They needed to be replaced. Then the taps on the tub. Same thing. When my husband cut the pipe and brought it into the plumbing shop, the guy said “I myself have never seen a pipe like this, but my boss has.” Apparently, the pipe was as old as the house, which is 105 years old, and it was no simple task to match it up. To make a long story short, we had to order in special parts and for two weeks, we weren't able to shower or bathe in our home. I found an old wash basin in the basement, hauled it upstairs and began sponge bathing.

When my kids called, I proudly bragged about the sponge-bathing and how we used to sponge bath when I grew up and how we were only allowed to take a bath once a week and even then, we were only allowed four inches of water in the tub. Oh yes, wasn't I proud of myself for adapting and simplifying and not complaining about the fact that we had to wait for the plumbing parts to arrive. However, on about day seven, I noticed that I was phoning the plumbing shop daily to see if the parts had arrived yet. By day ten, I was now visiting my mother's house on a regular basis in order to shower as I had come to despise sponge bathing. By day fourteen, the parts had arrived. Out came the blow torch, out came the tools and my husband went to work on that miserable job. Twelve hours later, we had a functioning bath and shower.

I thought my streak of breakage was winding down. I was sadly mistaken. Next went the vacuum cleaner. Then the car broke down.... to the tune of $750. When we brought the car in to be fixed, we left it overnight at the shop and during the night, it got “keyed”. Before this incident, I did not know what it meant to be “keyed”. Now I know. Someone takes a key and scratches a deep groove into the car, from front to back. The car repairman felt badly for us and spray painted the groove with a colour that sort of matches the car. Okay, so now surely we've reached our quota for broken things, I thought. There can't be more, can there?

The next thing to go was the oven. Now you have to know that I love my 20-inch wide gas stove. It's cooked thousands of meals since my firstborn child was a toddler. It's got us through good winters and bad. It's filled the house with the rich smells of rice puddings and baked chickens and roasted vegetables. I wasn't ready to give up on my stove, so we bought a small confection oven and I continued to use the top of the stove, which was still functioning. Then one day the stove began to leak gas. I called in the gasman and he broke it to me as gently as possible but the sad truth was he had to condemn the stove. Yes, it's true, stoves can be condemned, even stoves that have served their masters faithfully for close to thirty years without complaint.

But I'm still not through my list. One week, it rained and rained and rained. We have an old back porch and the wooden posts of that old back porch, we discovered, weren't driven deep into the ground. After all that rain, stepping out onto that back porch was a bit like land surfing. The porch had literally moved ten inches away from the back door. This is not exactly a safe thing when you have a 90-year-old aunt and an 88-year old uncle who both visit on a regular basis. So guess what? We needed to dismantle our porch and down went the clothesline along with the porch. Being that we don't have a dryer, this added another annoying inconvenience to our lives.

So how many broken things am I up to now? The dishwasher, the upstairs taps, the downstairs taps, the car, the stove, the vacuum cleaner, the back porch, the clothesline and did I mention the cassette player? (I know it's pathetic that we still play cassettes but all of our best music is on cassettes.) There were a few other things that may or may not quite classify as broken, such as the birds living in our attic, happily flying in and out from the holes in the old wooden boards under the eaves. That was lots of fun but I think I'll save that story for my next episode.

For months, I've wanted to write about these broken things as a kind of cathartic experience for myself, but I couldn't and guess why I couldn't.... because I had broken my wrist and couldn't write! But I'm proud to report that my cast is off and I'm cresting a new year. Let me complete my little story by saying that my mantra throughout all these annoyances has been, “Things may be breaking around me but I am grateful that it's not my heart that's broken.” Hence, the title of my little story!

Happy 2013. I wish for you all happy hearts with just enough cracking for the light to find its way in!  

Friday, September 14, 2012

It's a Wrap!

Just before our film shoot of 'Under the Pearl Moon' began, a friend of mine said, “Enjoy the shoot. There's nothing like it in the whole world”. And now, a week after the fact, I couldn't agree more. We lived in each others pockets, twelve to fourteen creative people all focused on one story; one goal; one imagining. Not to say there weren't stumbling blocks along the way: the power suddenly shutting down, a thunder storm that came upon us out of the blue; the injury on the last day and though it wasn't serious, our fearless Sonja still needed to be brought to emergency, just to be absolutely sure.

And now that things have returned to normal, I marvel at all the things that could have gone wrong, but didn't. Our two eleven-year-old children had amazing stamina. And though we were shooting in the bush of Northern Ontario for most of the week, not once did a bear appear (though there was a bear on the site, the week previous), the bugs were minimal and the weather was good to us. We worked from dawn to dusk and the generosity of the cast and crew was amazing. We were stuck in a rustic cabin with no running water and yet in the entire week, I don't think there was one complaint from any of us about the setting. It was all embraced with true northern spirit!

Here are some pictures to be enjoyed. These were taken by artist/set dresser Marianne Brown.  I also intend to add additional photos by photographer Paula Thiessen.... coming soon!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Night of Sleep in a Sewing Room

I know I've mused on this theme before but allow me to visit it again; the theme of being swept into the idea that comfort (and all of the things associated with that word 'comfort'), somehow equals happiness.  Here's the thing; we all need comfort; both emotional and physical.  We need a warm home to shield us from our bitter cold winters and we need loving arms to embrace us each and every day.  But do we really and truly need pillows on our beds with three times the puffiness of when I grew up?  Or sheets with a minimum of 600 thread count (whatever that means)?  I remember once baking with my grandmother and I accidentally dropped an egg on the floor.  She calmly opened a cupboard where hundreds of 6-inch cotton squares were neatly piled. She had cut them up from threadbare cotton sheets.  I don't think paper towel ever darkened her door because she used and reused rags until they simply disintegrated into thin air. 

I would say that I am fortunate and that I have very little to complain about and yet still I get swept into wanting the finest tea or the softest cotton.  And then something comes along to throw me into a short stint of discomfort.  And suddenly I see the world differently. Not at first of course.  At first, I'm annoyed.  But once I relax, the gifts of the situation begin to unravel.

The other week, I was visiting my daughter and two of her friends arrived also on the same night.  She lives in a small apartment so I offered to find a hotel.  She suggested that instead, I sleep in her tiny sewing room (which is actually a sun porch). So we got it all set up with a camping roll-out mattress and a blanket and there I slept.  Initially when I curled up under the coveres, I had trouble sleeping. The floor underneath felt hard and because the room is full of windows, the sounds of traffic were heavy in my ears.  I turned on the light and read a chapter of Nicholas Nickelby and suddenly my thoughts shifted.  I began to look around the room and see all of my daughter's treasures and sewing projects.

It hearkened me back to when she was a little girl and she dressed herself in the most ecclectic and inspired ways. And then I began to think of my own mother and how she could let in or take out any pair of jeans; she could sew the neatest zipper I've ever seen; she once made all her own clothes (prior to the birth of her seven children) and to this day, I take my mending over to her.  As I muse on all of this, each item in the sewing room become like tiny treasures. 
And then, in the morning, I wake up feeling as if I had slept inside a huge, lusciously green tree. All this because I didn't take a hotel room.  All this because I had experienced an hour or two of discomfort, which quickly reverted to a delightful night in a sewing room.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Full Moon Lessons

The moon was incredibly bright last week, the brightest it's been in years, or so they said on the weather channel.  Whether it's true or not, the full moon always manages to entrance me. Perhaps because it is our closest celestial neighbour.  Or perhaps because it shines in the darkness, always seeming to guide my way when I'm not so sure where my path is leading me. For a few moments the other night, while I stood watching that brilliant moon, all my disappointments melted away and I only felt gratitude; what an incredible gift life is.  What a gift that the natural world, even with all our technology, still provides us with a sense of magic and wonder.  What a gift that my life has brought me into so many diverse circles of people from all walks of life.  This week I attended a gathering of Aboriginal artists and something one of the presenters said really stuck a chord with me. He was speaking on the role of art and he spoke of art as a "magic moment maker." He went on to say that "If I want to be a magic moment maker, I have to move any barriers that prevent me; anything that stands in the way of transforming".  As I heard him speak, I thought "yes".  And often those barriers are internal as well as external.  Sometimes those internal barriers are less obvious to the eye and so more dangerous.  Disappointment, if left to fester, leads to discouragement and discouragement, if left unattended, leads to depression, and so on.  After hearing this artist's talk, I am reminded that I need to recognize and root out my own internal (and external) barriers.  Life is too short.  We all need to shine. And the moon certainly set a fine example for us last week.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lessons From a 92-year-old Neighbour

He gave up riding his bicycle a few years ago and now he walks everywhere. Seeing him from a distance, he looks like a fit 70-year old. But he's not 70. He's 92 and going strong. He exudes all the elements a person needs to live a fulfilled life; and apparently also a long life. He, like many Italian immigrants, makes a great neighbour; always on the lookout for what someone may need. (And he is as opinionated as he is generous). My mother and I live only a block from each other, so Satimio is a neighbour to us both. Last summer, while my husband and I were away on holidays, he noticed the wild rose bushes encroaching onto my mother's walkway. Rather than drastically snip back the bushes, he drove three mental stakes into the ground and pulled the rose stems away from the walkway. I must say, it gives me great piece of mind that my 82-year old mother has a 92-year old neighbour who keeps an eye on her.

The other night, I called Satimio on the phone to tell him that I was planning to drop off a jar of soup in his porch. The next morning, I received a call from him, inviting myself, my husband and my mother over for lunch. When we arrived, my soup was certainly not needed as he has made us home made spaghetti. Also on the table, he had set out salami, cheese, bread, wine and ginger ale. Wonderful. Simply wonderful... not just the food but also the conversation. We covered everything from war to politics to the gap between the rich and the poor. Satimio is a passionate pacifist. He takes great pride in the fact that, while fighting as an Italian solder against the Russians, he harmed no one. While he was there, he thought it an insane task that he should be asked to take the life of a young man, a man as young as himself.

Though we talk about serious issues, Satimio sometimes has a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He tells us that he had planned to live to a hundred. But his friend informed him that at one hundred, he would receive a letter from the Queen and the Pope. Well that settled it. Now he's decided he'd rather die at 99. When I return home from lunch, I begin to think of the life lessons Satimio has taught me over the years.

1. Be engaged and active about world issues
2. Cook for your friends.
3. Keep a garden. (He has already begun to sprout seeds in his front porch.)
4. Speak your mind.
5. Keep walking. Never stop walking, if you are fortunate enough to be able to walk.
6. Keep a sense of humour.
7. Be generous.
8. Consume only what you need.
9. Give sincere hugs and affection.
10. Fill a corner of your house with pictures of family.

Before I left Satimio's he pressed a small piece of amethyst into the palm of my hand. I've placed it beside my work station to remind myself of what's important in life. I hope Satimio is right and that he will live to 99. But whatever age he lives to, I know he will always have his seeds sprouting in his window, ready to plant his next garden.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Empty Nest and Tea Blends

All winter, I was thinking about making home made tea blends to give as gifts, but it took me until spring to actually complete the task. They were meant to be my cozy winter gifts but now they are, I suppose, my welcome spring gifts. And since I've been packaging them up, it seems I've become all the more aware of the gifts of spring itself.

No matter what mood I may be in, I do hope to be enchanted by one thing on this planet, each and every day. This doesn't necessarily happen naturally. You'd think that daily practice would eventually make this habit. But no, each day when I wake up, I need to remind myself to open my eyes; to open my heart; to expect a surprise. If I don't remind myself quickly enough and the day of obligation unfolds, worry or anxiety or both tend to work their way into a tangled mess. And then it becomes all the more challenging to unravel my thoughts.

I have a little story. Earlier this week, while out walking with a friend, I took note of two tell tale signs of spring. We have a wonderful custom in our city that if you discover a lost hat or mitt or glove on the ground, you put it up high in a tree branch where it can be easily spotted by the person who has lost it. In spring, people tend to lose their hats and mitts more often, probably because the weather is so changeable and we're constantly putting on or taking off our wintry layers.

First I spotted a blue mitt in a tree. Moments later, we came across a tiny little nest, at eye level, in a hedge. The hedge, of course, had no leaves and so the two-inch round nest was quite exposed. There were no eggs in it, so we supposed that the mother bird had moved on to build a new nest in hopefully a safer, less visible location.

The next day I found myself thinking about the nest and so entranced was I that I decided on my way to work, to pop by and see if the nest was still there. And this time, I brought my camera. First, I took a picture of the mitt in the tree, but when I went to snap a picture of the nest, my batteries died. Not having time to rush home to get new batteries, I instead headed off to work. That was on Wednesday. All day I thought about the nest and that evening, I went back to take a picture of it. But by then, the nest had disappeared. Gone. Nowhere to be found nearby. Today, which just happens to be a Saturday, I once again headed down the same street, only this time with a different friend. As we walked, we occasionally kept our eyes to the ground to avoid puddles of melting snow. I suddenly found myself pointing to the ground, saying “There's my nest!” It was, unquestionably, the same nest. Without a moment's hesitation my friend picked it up and offered it to me. I opened my purse and pulled out a little cloth bag and we placed the nest in the bag. All this fuss over an abandoned nest!

Of course later on in the day, it all became clear to me. This is, after all, the first spring without any of my children home. They've all flown away. I continue to make little nests here and there in the form of tea blends and hand-written letters. They're not practical nests and they never really amount to much. But it makes me feel good to make them all the same. And I was able to photograph the little nest, after all!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Arctic shadows, snow and sky

Arctic Snow, Shadow and Sky

As I take my evening walks in the mild winter snows of Thunder Bay, it’s hard to believe that only a few weeks ago, I was up in the Arctic. When I was little, I would close my eyes and try to imagine myself flying over the lake, across the waters, meeting up with the horizon and continuing on until I was flying over the snows of the Arctic. I don’t know why in my imagination I never flew south; always north. Now, as an adult, I still experience some of the thrill of flying to the edge of the world; that world of shadows and light.

While I was in Iqaluit, I attended the Pilriqatigiinniq Teachers Conference. It was an exciting week that included a talk from David Suzuki one night and a craft show on the following night. I was absolutely stunned at the level of excitement and energy that went into the craft show (and, of course, David Suzuki's talk). There was no shortage of vendors displaying everything from seal skin mitts to spices for Arctic char to beautifully embroidered and beaded wool hangings. It was the first time in my life that I’d seen people arrive an hour early to an arts and crafts fair. People were literally packed into the hall like sardines. I asked some of the city residents about this later and was informed that crowds always come out in droves for arts & crafts shows. So I can only conclude that hand-crafts are highly valued in this part of the world.

I love to make things with my hands. It always brings me relief from a technologically obsessed world to be able to pick up a needle and thread and hand stitch a quilt or sew on a button. To be in a space where the general community also celebrates handiwork, this was marvelous to me.

In our workshop, my co-presenter and I gave a workshop where we also created something with our hands and our imaginations; making shadow puppets one day and masks the next. We had brought in stories to adapt into simple tableau and shadow plays, but in the end, we invited the participants to share their own stories; in their own language. I felt truly honoured to hear the stories shared in Inuktitut. Even without the translations, I had a sense of what the storytellers were sharing, through their gestures and through their voices.

When I visited one of the shops later in the evening to look at the regional books, I wasn't surprised to see that many of the stories were illustrated in shadow or near-shadow images. Without trees to impede the view of the sky, there really are only a few noticeable elements to the landscape; shadow, shades of the many colours of snow, and sky.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The 'Places' of Creativity

My grandmother 'Fortunata' standing by her home.

Though most people think of place as a geographical location (and certainly geography has a huge impact on our lives), for me the definition is much broader. Recently, I have undertaken a project to make sense of dozens of little notes I wrote to myself following visits with my grandmother. (She passed away a number of years ago, at the age of 101.) How is it, that while patching together her stories, I feel an intense sense of ownership, as though I myself have lived through her realities? How is it that when I am reminded of her stories the custom-made wooden yoke her father made for her to haul water; and how at fourteen years of age, she was sent to work full time at Woolworth's for ten cents an hour following her father's serious work accident; and how she resourcefully unpicked sugar bags to make shirts and collected the worn woolen rollers from the mill to make blankets how is it that these stories resonate for me? And how I feel a powerful surge of belonging to those places she describes, when in actual fact, I have never known such places? I can only answer that place is not only an external reality, but also includes the internal geography of the mind and heart. And for every human being, that composite is something very unique.

For me, 'place' is where internal geography meets external geography. And I experience the external geography (my home; Northern Ontario and all its wonders), through the visceral experiences of ordinary day-to-day life. Today, 'place' is the frozen blanket I pull from the clothesline on a crisp January day; it is a cake recipe I follow that has been nibbled at the corners by mice; it is the sound of our 100-year old piano as I stumble through a new song. For me, 'place' is the combination of every place I have ever lived, every experience I have ever had, and every meaningful connection that I have ever shared. As a practicing artist, 'place' influences every work that is conceived and created. Without it, I would be left working in a vacuum. It is, I believe, what gives shape and meaning to all creative endeavors.

I would like to close this reflection on 'place' with one of my grandmother's stories I found on a scrap of paper. There is a tenuous moment here where a child is caught between one person's sense of place and another person's sense of place. In Fortunata's wordsI'll always remember Sister Gevita. Us girls liked her, but one day she shocked me. You see, my mother got a call from a neighbour whose baby was sick. 'Can you send your daughter over to interpret when the doctor gets here?' The neighbours were always calling on me to translate for them because I was fluent in Italian and English. Well, my mother would never turn anyone down so she kept me out of school for the day. The next day, Sister Gevita called me out into the hall and asked me where I'd been. After I told her, she said 'Your mother was wrong to keep you from school.' That shocked me, her saying that about my mother. I never did tell my mother about it. She probably would've pulled me from school permanently. I mean, doing charity, that was my education, as far as my mother was concerned.”