Monday, April 25, 2011

No Woman’s Land

When I go to the city with my kids to do errands I try to allot some time for them to play outside in a park somewhere. We aren’t faithful to any one park and, therefore, get to check out many neighbourhoods and gaggles of children gathering in their play spaces. In these places we can be flies on the wall to see how other families live.

My favourite is when we go to the park that I went to as a child. I recall being a nine year old running barefoot down the hill on hot pavement to the very same park that I now watch my kids play at. I remember coming home in the summers just as darkness fell, sometimes near 10pm. The trees there are no longer saplings, they are 30 some year old giants that shade the areas where sun once beamed. Co-incidentally, I have work friends that moved to this area now too. Some of the parents are my childhood friends. Or their parents who own the same homes and bring their grandkids there. They don’t remember me. I’ve tried the conversation but I suppose I’m not that dirty, unkept nine year old anymore.

Watching these parents and children playing is like looking through a window into my childhood. And in many ways a window into a parallel life. Is it perhaps the life I would have lived if I too had stayed in the neighbourhood that I had grown up in? I don’t recognize these women/mothers at all, however. They are not my mother 30 years ago. They are not me now. Their children are not me then. The women are tidy and thin. They look like they spend a lot of money on their clothes, bags and strollers, make appointments for their hair and efforts on the shape of their body. They look happy. As happy as I feel, I suppose. I’m not quite sure if I fit in here though. My kids don’t look a whole lot different than theirs do.

As I sit awkwardly on the park bench watching the mothers interact with their friends and neighbours, I chat politely and engage in appropriate ways. But I don’t belong here. I keep wondering how many of these women have milked a cow before. Yet I come home to my farm and I am the ‘city girl’. The one that, no matter how much hands-on experience I gain, will never know as much as the one who grew up here. Although I feel at home in my space, I don’t quite belong here either. So I am left stranded between these two worlds. In No Woman’s Land. Forever, likely. As I won’t go back and in the eyes of many I can’t move forward.

A generation or two ago women fought and fought hard to put value on “women’s work”. We deserved recognition for the things we did in the home and we deserved equal opportunity and treatment in the out-of-home workplaces. Yet, as we climbed higher and higher into our niches as directors, doctors, lawyers, managers, supervisors and leaders, we had less and less time to manage the home front. Thank goodness for gadgets that could be put on a timer and laundry machines that worked for us in the wee hours of the morning.

As I am on the front end of my middle-aged years I realize I am also stranded in time. I don’t belong to my generation of women holding ground in their careers. I am most like my grandmother, wanting to build my life around my home, kids and the food we grow. Yet I have an incredibly different life than my grandmother, the farmer’s wife - I am educated, I need to travel, I have choices. When I was at work I would get really funny looks from my fellow career women. You make what???!? Cheese, I would say. They gave me the same smirk every time, leaving me confused as to whether they found it interesting or appalling.

I believe we have thrown out a little bit of baby with the bath water. We won the battle to give women opportunities with education and jobs – at least in my little corner of the planet. But we lost the basic skills that go along with ‘making a home’ and have come to rely on outside labour, factories or processors to do it all for us. Though I believe one can create a loving home and family life without being a stereotypical homemaker, with these changes came the unintentional devaluing of what women used to be known for. Weaving, preserving, tending, mending…essentially homemaking. Because doing these things felt like we were regressing. Yet the women (and men) I know love to cook or decorate, plant, grow, fix, rearrange or build. The desire is still there but many don't know where to start. The time to do it might be more limited and the urgency of the tasks less crucial (e.g. buy new pants instead of mending the old ones).

What I predict is that I won’t stay stranded in my generational abyss for long. Certain external factors will facilitate that. I'm not quite my grandmother and not yet a woman building the future. With the increase in prices of oil and the inability to continue moving food and materials frivolously around the globe will come the need to make do with what we have and what we can do with our own two hands. This is where we can turn skills into something as valuable as cash.

I’m ready for these changes. I value what I and other women do (and have done) on the home front. Most of those women in the park probably would too. Some wouldn’t. But many of these women simply provide a look at the life I would have had if I had taken a different road. And they are also probably trying to find their own ground.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

From Centre, Looking Out

I once organized a concert where all proceeds went to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation to be held at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. I was to play an hour-long set of my own material and Michaela Foster Marsh, a local singer/songwriter heroine to me, was going to do the same. Most of the tickets had sold in advance but there were still seats remaining and I was hoping for a full house. I had spent the month prior putting up posters and distributing press releases as I wanted to raise as much money as possible for the cause.

The television crews showed up to cover the event also helping to raise awareness. I had done a few radio interviews and tv performances earlier in the week and more interviews just prior to going on. The merchandise table was laid out, the sound checks were done, the audience was filing in and I was getting myself ready in the green room. It was the first time I was going to play with accompaniment. I also have a nasty habit of forgetting my lyrics when I’m performing. Time would tell whether I would keep this tradition up tonight. I wanted to play my part well.

Needless to say, I was feeling pressure.

The first number was to be an acapella song – a two-part harmony. But here was the glitch. The other voice had called me a few days before to say that she was unable to do the show. After weeks and months of practicing with four of us, trying various arrangements with vocal harmonies, mandolin, banjo, tin whistle, flute, percussion, guitar and violin, we had come to depend on each other. The three of us remaining gathered to pick up the pieces and figure out how we would change the set four days before the show.

There was something about this final twist in the plot that made me realize that I had done everything I could up until that point and now my job was to let it all go. As I was about to go on stage, I made a promise to myself. I would stand before that crowd in my long, shiny blue dress and bare feet and take as many deep breaths in silence as I needed to until I was calm, centered and ready. This was very different for me. Usually I would wind myself up until I was surrounded by panic and oblivion and let the Tasmanian devil run the show.

If you’ve ever been on a stage with bright lights, looking out on a sea of faces anticipating something from you, you know that ten seconds in silence feels a whole lot like ten hours. I have no idea how long I stood there. I took a deep breath, let my lungs fill up, breathed out, did it again, and again, until I knew I was squarely perched at the very centre of me, looking out.

These were stolen moments. Instead of doing what was expected of me I truly, madly, deeply held ground. I didn’t worry about what others were thinking. I took the time I needed to breathe.

Expectation. The killer of creativity. The artist’s worst nightmare. The suffocator of all things free. The beast that ruins magic. Destroys dreams. Makes the child grow up. Firmly plants you on the outside looking back at yourself.

Your breath. The thing that you and you alone own. The thing that can save you when you’re freaking out. When the world is crumbling down around you. When the tides are crashing in on you. It is the simple reminder that we are still whole and strong. That we move from our middle, whether we notice it or not. With breath we live firmly in the present. There is no way to cling to the past or worry about the future when we are concentrating on our breathing.

In every moment, with everything we do, we have the choice to orient ourselves from our inside looking out. The default is without a doubt to spend our energies critiquing ourselves from the outside. At least that is certainly true for me. There are never-ending demands, things that are misconstrued, troubles waiting to complicate our days, long lists of expectations we put on ourselves. As a woman and a keeper of many living things including my own organic self, the expectations are limitless.

We can focus entirely on those external things. Or we can borrow a ride on the Deep Breath Express right down to our very own core. There the world is constant. There the chaos circles you, rather than the other way around. And when we do that, we can finally see all the beauty, wonder and life that surrounds us, just outside of our own self-absorbed, miserable day. Mine anyway.

I managed to use my breath for those few precious moments on that night, under those lights, with what seemed like the whole world waiting. When I finally started singing, it was just me there. Tiny, quiet me with no instruments, along with the reasons why I had put together the show in the first place: to raise money and awareness for an important cause that was dear to me.

And everything went just fine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Anchor

Making a major change in one’s life usually involves taking up anchor and aimlessly floating around until you find your next stop or set a new course towards a new destination. I was always the drifter. Rooted to nothing and clinging to every passing thing that surfed on by in hopes of finding home base. These temporary life rafts included men, jobs, school, friends, pets, trips, movies, books, music, hobbies, physical goals…you name it.

Since I took a leave from my job almost exactly a year ago, I have felt like a girl without an anchor again. At least as far as ‘purpose’ and ‘direction’ goes. When you belong to a group of people who are jostling their way through the same career, it is easy to know where you are headed, where you have come from and where you are now. Cut that cord and the reference points are gone.

Home I came to find a farm with just as much to do as ever before (though now I actually had the time to do it properly without work clothes on and babies riding my hips in the evenings). There were children that sought their mother out for all things related to logistics and no things related to comfort, support, play and love. I was their Director at best as that was all I had time to do.

I had ideas of things I wanted to write, things that needed organization, new things to build but none of these represented an anchor for me. Financially I was reluctantly now dependant solely on my husband’s anchor. I would be the one taking money out of the account, never putting money in. There was something so oddly satisfying about getting a pay cheque every two weeks with my name on it. So few characters on a cheque with so much significance but eventually it came at too great a cost to my family and my sanity

Somewhere out there is another shore where I will take refuge and plant my flag again. I honestly can’t say where it is. Will it be here on the farm? Will it have to do with my community? My church? My children? All of the above?

When I was younger I used to leap so mindlessly into the water never caring where I would end up next. Somehow now the islands seem so far away, everything I am doing is so weightless without the structure I once knew. I look around and see everything beautiful that I have ever wanted in my life. Yet this ship has no name. And its freaking me out.

This time I don’t want to spend my energy shoving square pegs into round holes.
This time I will not cling to the first thing that floats on by no matter how enticing a distraction it is. Oh, do I know what a luxury I have in this choice? I bow to the strength in the women I know who have no choice but to continue to work, they keep their nose to the grindstone and don’t look down, up or ahead so as to not get overwhelmed. I’m a fortunate boat, this I do realize.

Now I am waiting for my new anchor to find me. Let the tides make the effort to get to me for once. I can be a patient girl, I can. But can you please show your face soon because I’m getting tired of treading water and waiting for the unknown?

Just what exactly am I meant to be doing here?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Blog Not

In mathematics you can express all that something isn’t by stating the thing and including a ‘not’ symbol after it. It is basically an apostrophe like the same one you would find in ‘don’t’. I suppose that’s where the Saturday Night Live skit called Wayne’s World got the infamous expression of the word. For example, “I’m going to get up at 5am tomorrow and go for a long run. Not!”

Being someone who spouts off some pretty personal and exposed stuff about myself in my blog, one might assume that the whole story is present in the writing. To this I must say: I write everything I’m thinking, feeling and doing. Not!

I recently posted a thing about being selfish. At the time I wrote it I never intended to share it. Then a late hour of the night came and I decided to do an experiment and share what was not meant to be shared. My husband is kind enough to give me superficial feedback on my posts after they are up and running and he has read them. Most of the time he is kind, neutral and/or positive. This time he paused and said: ‘I’m not sure what I think about that one.’ He found it too self-deprecating. Ah! There! Finally I had found the line I was looking for. The one where we know we’ve gone too far. I knew how I had said too much at the time, but sometimes we have to fall off the edge to know where it is.

My defense to him was that I didn’t think it was fair to go on about positive, life-changing stuff all the time. A blog should add to the world, not take away from it, I believe. Yet if all you have to say are a series of rantings and experiences about what you CAN do and think, how is it possible to reference these without the things you CAN’T do or get your head around. I’m not one for thinking that whining is very productive and noble but I think it is a necessary dark to compliment the light in small doses.

A painter friend recently posted on her blog about the colour purple with this in mind. As a writer (definition: she who writes things down), I needed to explore something dark to get to the light. But the whole story, this will never be.

Here are some things I will never write about. The blog ‘not’, if you will:

1. Things that I am doing that might get me or someone else into trouble somehow.
2. Things that I think would be hurtful to other people.
3. Self-absorbed ideas that are spawned solely from ego (good luck getting this one right, hey?)
4. The private business of others.
5. The negative thoughts I have about wanting out of parts of my life sometimes.
6. My weight, dress size or waist circumference.
7. Personal stories that do not find a way to resolve themselves or inspire change in me (and potentially others).
8. Opinions about the world that do not find a way to resolve themselves or inspire change in me (and potentially others).
9. Communications that do not intend to reach out to others and find ways to bridge differences.
10. A bunch of other stuff that I just won’t say right now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Mama Duck

I had an idea for a blog post about the kinds of mothers we can be. Some like to carry their children. Some like to walk on ahead and let them follow behind. Some like to sleep next to their children. Some like their kids in their own rooms in a separate space. I played a little bit from all sides looking for a good fit but still haven’t quite found it.

I can’t say I’ve been a confidant mother. Like most of us I often ask where the manual is for raising my kids. But I have tried very hard to listen to their needs and respond to their every whim. Until I realized that the only thing worse than letting a 2 year old be in charge of your world is letting that same 2 year old grow up to be 14. Not gonna happen.

So on the wise advice of a speaker I saw recently, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, who discusses the need to have children attach to their parents rather than their peers, I am making attempts to reestablish some kind of power in my household. According to Neufeld, attachment requires dependence and dependence requires one person to be the alpha in the relationship. I am stepping up for the role of leader so that my children have the comfort of a confidant parent. I aim to expect that my kids will follow. I will not turn back to go get them and carry them the rest of the way if they do not respond. I have started to have faith that they will follow, if I believe myself their keepers, if I trust in my own ability to guide them. In my short-lived experience, the bond with my children is growing stronger already. Who knew?

When you see a mother duck waddling along with her 8 little ducklings scooting along after her, you note that she doesn’t look back. She sets the order of things and her little ducklings feel safe and secure in that knowledge. Mama Duck is in charge and that’s a good thing. Should one of those ducklings take a tantrum because the colour of something isn’t right or the timing of a meal is off, she just keeps on walking. The survival of that duckling depends on following. And Mama knows that her little ones have the instinct to accept her as their compass point.

Within minutes of telling my husband this idea for my next post (and the new style of parenting I was going to try out), the phone rang. The cows had done their usual spring routine and barged off to visit the cattle one kilometer up the road. So we piled the kids in the van and headed over to bring our herd of three feisty females home. I suited up in my rubber boots, grabbed a bag of grain and once we got there I jumped out of the van to find the critters grazing happily on the newly growing lawn. One sniff of the bag of grain and they started towards home after me.

After a few minutes I realized my wish had come true. Here I was leading a pack of three cows and one van filled with two kids and one husband back up the road. I didn’t look back. I headed on as if it was the only place to go. Home. There were a few mishaps along the way – one girl decided to take the lane inside the fence while the others kept on the road but for the most part they did what herd animals do and followed the pack.

The running vehicle trolling along behind us was no hindrance, I realize. But for the purpose of this writing, I will assume that I was the leader for those 12 minutes it took to trot them back to the barn.

I never imagined in a million years that I would get to know beasts quite like these ones, in quite this way where I could wave some food and have them all willingly come along with me.

It was heaven really. As the sun went down, all of my little critters were back safely in their pens. All of my ducks in a row. I’m just glad I’ve got a few more years to practise before any one of them turns 14.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

In Praise of the Red Onion

As spring approaches and we begin the cycle of seeding and transplanting, I note that besides the frozen, blanched, canned or dried vegetables and fruits, we are down to the last two men standing in terms of what came straight out of the ground as is. This is the funny thing about early spring. The farmer’s markets begin with such hope (we start in 4 weeks – Ack!) yet there isn’t much growing in April around here. There are greens, greens, and more greens, fiddleheads for the resourceful forest dweller, sprouts or shoots, and anything a well-run heated greenhouse has mastered. But March and April can be sparse months where we are still using up the last of our stores from the year before.

This year we ate the last of our sweet peppers in January (they had grown through November in a heated greenhouse and kept in the fridge for well over a month). The carrots left us in February. Brussel sprouts from the field lingered in my crisper until Christmas.

Although the potatoes are sprouting or softening now, many are still crisp. But the stars of the show right now (actually any time of year for me) are the red onions that remain. They usually spend the winter in a cool, dry place and then sneak inside to our fridge crisper for its final days in early spring before they sprout. I fill the crisper drawer to the brim with small red flavour bombs and bask in the great pleasure of having unlimited red onions at my disposal.

Now, I know you all know the difference between a field tomato freshly picked, kept at room temperature and one you find in January that traveled green in a fridge and tastes of wood. I also suspect you’ve known a real carrot, the one that may have even endured a few frosts and sweetened themselves into oblivion. But can you honestly say that you appreciate red onion? Harvested in late summer or early fall, these delicious little nubbins (and I’ve yet to find a variety that I don’t swoon over), can be eaten raw, caramelized, grilled, sautéed, minced in a salad dressing, tossed into scrambled eggs or salad, thrown as rings on a salmon dish with maple syrup, mustard and capers, fried and then mixed with cheddar and cream cheese and walnuts for an outstanding warm dip. There was also that time that a friend bestowed some red onion jam on me. Shall I go on?

I am here to shout out the extreme wonderfulness of the red onion! There is something about these that make me love my husband even more for introducing them to me.

It also just so happens that the homeopathic medicine that I grab for the most is Allium cepa. You guessed it. Red onion. It is commonly used to treat the sneezy, stuffed up nose that comes from allergies, including hay fever. It works well for me. Red onion and I are best friends.

So don’t underestimate the power of an onion. It can heal you. It can even make you cry (although I don’t find these ones do). Bless ‘em.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bridge Angel

When I was in elementary school I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. A ‘Bridge Angel’ I said. No I didn’t really say that. But I thought it. I had this idea of being someone that could take two extremes and find a way to bridge the gap. I wrote a poem about it with my 10-year-old mind, but even then I did not fully understand what it meant. Now I see it as a process of reaching back to a way I once thought the world worked and linking that to the things I see now. I might not be right, but I do know that I see things differently and that gives me hope. Hope that I will keep changing my views until they sit right and hope that we can all learn to be more flexible in our thinking.

Being an organic farmer in a traditional agricultural community (whatever that means), we get a lot of curious looks when we talk about what we do. On the flip side, when we are surrounded by folks who have immersed themselves in local-organic-food speak, we are superheroes. Both sides probably need their story tweaked a bit. Many people understand something about what ‘organic’ means, but are afraid to ask questions because they think they should already know. Others go ahead and falsely assume what it means without consulting the right sources.

The most common perception of organic food seems to begin and end with ‘expensive’. My husband used to travel to the United States to do farm inspections for an organic certification company, which he once explained to a border patrol upon questioning. ‘Oh, those organic farmers are so smart, they basically just slap on a label and charge more’, the border guard mused. Um, not really. One thing I can say is that the 'conventional' food is not always a whole lot cheaper. Further, the return on organic is not always as high as folks believe. It takes a lot more time, labour and often space to produce organic food and most organic farmers I know are not driving fancy cars. There are other factors worth weighing as well. Like getting a certain amount of nutrition for your dollar - these days it is so easy to spend on empty foods that have little or no health value.

In Canada, there is a national standard document that outlines what is expected of an organic farmer in terms of practices. A farmer can only be certified organic if they have gone through an inspection process with a certification body that ensures that they have followed the standard. Organic standards vary from country to country though they are based on the same principles. Canada holds a reputation for a robust and comprehensive system.

The standard includes the expected prohibitions of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, there are several animal welfare concerns worked in, including the requirement to treat sick animals with all necessary measures, even if it means they cannot be organic anymore. Any animal treated with antibiotics in their lifetime cannot be sold as organic meat. Milking cows must be 30 days from antibiotic treatment before milk can be sold as organic again. Animals must have access to the outdoors and a certain percentage of the cattle diet needs to be from pasture during the grazing season.

We were described once as ‘people who recycle’ by a neighbour. This was in 2003 when I believe recycling programs had been well in place for 20 years. Yet, here we were, defending our desire to protect the planet on this one little bit of green ground, one soup can at a time. All of this because we want to grow vegetables in a manner that is compatible with the way the earth does her business. I made it my work to build a bridge from the perception people have of us as ‘those people that recycle’ to conscientious farmers. I’ve got my work cut out for me.

The very same application could be true when trying to leap from Feminist to Farmer’s Wife. Isn’t a feminist she who does not shave her armpits or legs, but shaves her head? I’ve known all three states for reasons other than my social beliefs, but I don’t identify with any one of them. Isn’t a Farmer’s Wife a dowdy, fuddy-duddy with an apron that doesn’t own a tube of mascara? I use mascara, and I can even sometimes find my lipstick for the right occasion.

I recently wrote a post about Alternatives and recited off a number of ways of being in the world that are often considered extreme. I have dabbled, and often taken up permanent residence in many of these ways. The purpose of the post was to illustrate how what may seem radical to some (like recycling) might just be a sensible way of approaching something. The trick is to find the bridge from one person’s truth to another’s.

When it comes to religion, there seems to be great distaste for picking and choosing the bits and pieces that you like best. I understand this now. Not because I think that each religion does not have its own blind spots, but because a belief system can be imperfect and still be effective. It seems to me that the truth is a fixed thing whether or not I believe it or have a label for it. What holds real power is sharing ideas with other people. And belonging to a faith gives one this opportunity for good or for bad. The ideas that pass the test for me are the ones that stand the hair up on my arms. And they hold true no matter what label I give them. That is the stuff that bridges are made of.

I once thought myself a Pagan. I have also called myself a Buddhist. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about Muslim women, Jewish women and Christian women and I see myself in all of them.

Dear 10-year-old self. I don’t know if you’re an angel. But you’ve become very good at building things. And this bridge idea seems to be a good one. We could use a lot more of those in this world.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

I Appreciate Farming

Yesterday when I told a professional woman that I was leaving my career partly because there was too much to do around the farm she said: ‘So, you appreciate farming?’ ‘Yes!’, I said emphatically. If the setting had been appropriate I would have asked her what she meant by that. Instead, I had to go away with my own interpretations of her question.

In the dictionary, ‘to appreciate’ means:

1. To recognize the quality, significance, or magnitude of:
2. To be fully aware of or sensitive to; realize:
3. To be thankful or show gratitude for:
4. To admire greatly; value.
5. To raise in value or price, especially over time.

What does it mean to appreciate farming? Well, my answer to her was to the question ‘do you like working on a farm’. Yes, oh yes I do. Here are a few other spins on the question with my answers:

1. Do you know what you are giving up your stability and security for? Because you need to realize what farming involves since there isn’t much monetary return for your efforts. Coming from a government job with a decent salary, I have set myself up for a lot of hard work at a fraction of the pay but the benefits have been greater than I could have imagined. The pay can be reasonable too on a good day but that’s a whole other story.
2. So you know what it takes to be a farmer and have accepted the lifestyle with its hardships and gains? I would say I know what it takes as much as anyone could – at least as far as our operation is concerned. I’ve yet to meet someone who finds farming predictable. I do realize the magnitude of our choices.
3. Do you accept that you won’t be traveling to Italy every winter – instead you’ll be driving the backroads in a beat up truck? We’ll probably find a way to get to Italy again somehow. But we also like to explore around here. The experience can often be just as memorable.
4. So you get the importance of what farmers do and you want to be part of that? I do know the significance of growing food. Its central to everything I say, I hope. There is much to be grateful for.

I have always imagined the word ‘appreciate’ to refer to a work of art. I have never applied it to a career or a lifestyle choice. I might appreciate something someone has done for me – held a door when my arms were full. I can appreciate the extent of effort or talent that went into something. But how I pass my time? How I make my living? Never thought of that.

How wonderful to be given the opportunity to see my life as a work of art! In the end it doesn’t much matter what the woman meant with her question because the process of looking at that word in this context was delicious. My life affects me in a way that I want to be affected. The things I do in a day move me in a direction I want to go. The full spectrum of feelings that arise as my day unfolds makes me feel awake and alive. Hopefully some of the things we do make others happy too.

I appreciate my life. Man, could it get any better than that?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Escaping from the Prison for the Selfish

I have lived my whole life trying not to be a burden. I so fear being in the way or that I will be trouble to someone else that I want my tombstone to read: ‘She was not a burden.’ So far, I’ve failed miserably at this goal. Mostly because someone who is trying to stay out of the way ends up being a huge pain in the ass! Why do I say this? Because she ends up overcompensating, bringing too much to the potluck, triple checking whether she has offended someone, worrying that she will step on toes, arriving early, opening the forbidden cupboard or nervously saying the wrong thing.

The irony is that any attempt to avoid being a burden has made me selfish. Selfish because I am too sensitive and neurotic and think that everything is about me. Selfish because I think about the impact I am having ALL THE TIME. It leaves very little space to extend to others in a natural way. It actually impedes the ability to listen to others when they ask for what they really need.

One of my favourite things that I have learned about Jesus is that he showed up where he was needed. As a man who walked on the earth, he did not worry about what others thought of him. He just sussed out what had to be done and did the work. I’m guessing he didn’t obsess over whether folks liked him or not. He went to where he was needed. And he wasn’t necessarily getting his own needs met while he was doing it. I bet he was cold, sick, hungry, tired and in pain but he kept walking. Put simply, he wasn’t selfish.

Now I fear that I am slated for the prison of the selfish. There must be a place somewhere where selfish people go to be punished. People that can’t let go of them selves. That take themselves too seriously. That look to their own needs first.

Here is the thing I have learned about being a mother. It is impossible to be selfish while doing the job well. It is also impossible to do the job well if you don’t take the time you need to recuperate. And so is the conundrum. How does a woman face never-ending demands, minute after minute, to care for other human beings and not lose herself and her sanity entirely? It is simple. She doesn’t.

She has to find a way to build a path of lily pads in the open water of needs that she is responsible for. These lily pads keep her afloat and keep her from drowning. They give her light and remind her to breathe. They help her bloom yellow and bright. Those lily pads keep her alive inside. Yet, in between the lily pads it is essential to swim long and deep. To give up something and sometimes everything, accept discomfort, let go of worldly desires and service the needs of those who depend on us. What I believe we need to do as women is fight for our lily pads. And not necessarily try to find a life without deep sea diving.

I grew up in a time that women learned to speak out. To stop being ashamed about the ways in which we had been abused and belittled, to show that we were equally capable, that we deserved fair treatment. Then it got more extreme and we were Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live, putting up post-it notes on our mirrors and talking to our image saying: ‘I am good enough, smart enough and doggonnit, I like myself!’

When did recognizing that we had needs in the first place turn into a free for all for self-absorbed conduct? How do we know when we’ve said too much, asked for too much? How do we know the difference between taking care of ourselves and being self-centered? Where is the line between helping others and forgetting ourselves?

I do things for others on my own terms, within my own comfort zone and the way that I envision it working (even if it doesn’t work). I suspect that isn’t what Jesus would do. But I try to be kind. I do as much as I can. I make it my business to give back more than I take.

Perhaps this little jumping frog needs to rethink what it means to be selfish or a burden. Thankfully, this is not even my assessment to make.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Owning Garbage

Walking the streets of Manhattan last year I was flabbergasted by the mountains of garbage that spilled across the sidewalks. I don’t know how often the garbage trucks pick up but I’m guessing it is more than once a week. Looking at those piles it seemed impossible to me that people could feel a sense of individual responsibility for what was headed off the island. So many people, such a small space, so much garbage. I hear take out is a common meal plan there…what does that mean for daily container trash alone? I also noticed a huge barge full of garbage leaving the island across the skyline in front of the Statue of Liberty.

When I lived in Victoria, BC in the early nineties there was a one can per week limit for each household before you had to pay for extra garbage pick up (the truck came every other week for two cans). This made people accountable for the amount of garbage that they put out on the curb each week. It seemed to force everyone into making sure they didn’t throw out things that could otherwise be reused, recycled or relocated (preferably not in a ditch somewhere).

In my own municipality of Bristol, Quebec, we bring our own garbage to dump. By handling and transporting every bit of waste that we throw away, it is easy to know the burden we bear on the landfill. We have recently undergone changes with how our garbage is handled. A law was passed that no longer allowed the local dumps to burn or bury garbage. We started to get a limited number of bags to use in a year and our taxes were raised to support a system of carrying the garbage off to another place. We had to pay for any additional large item refuse. As a result the amount of recyclables in the recycling bins increased. Composting became something worth trying. People found ways to reduce what they threw in the trash. Similar to the increase in the use of cloth grocery bags when stores started charging for bags, people changed when there was a direct cost associated with their choices.

At the same time, Ottawa, the nearest city to us started a compost collection program. More and more, our litter is being separated so that less and less ends up in a landfill somewhere. In addition to reusable cloth bags, stainless steel water bottles or coffee cups are not ‘alternative’ anymore. Finally I’m no longer a freak. At least in these small ways.

Around here we try to make our operations exist in a closed system wherever possible. This basically means that we minimize the amount of byproducts that come of our efforts. We try to reuse whatever we can and throw away as little as possible. The trick is to not fill the barns and sheds, and the spaces in between as dumping grounds for things that we might possibly use one day. But one great example of this is compost. It is so incredibly rewarding to watch the vegetable and fruit scraps that were piled in wind rows with the straw and manure from our barns and wintering yards turn to dark, rich soil that we can spread onto our fields.

When it comes to the food we grow, we use as much of what we harvest as we can. Some scraps get fed back to the animals who then poop on our pastures in summer. The fields are then improved and fed back to our animals as grass or hay. Around and around it goes.

We buy second hand things because we simply believe there is enough stuff in the world already. If all the perfectly good stuff headed into landfills was lined up and distributed among us we would still find we had far more stuff than we needed. Yet it is so common to seek out brand new lovely things to fill our spaces. Sometimes this is necessary. Sometimes it is not.

I personally have decided that I need to take responsibility for the footprint that I leave on this earth. Not because I think there is a right and wrong way to be. It is because I feel compelled to leave things better than they were when I arrived. I am tired of being so dependent on so many things that give back so little. I have forgotten what is real and what is superficial.

It will be a long way to creating a microcosm that truly offers more than it takes – perhaps I won’t even manage this in my lifetime.

But I wish to try. I wish to own my garbage. Starting at the moment that I buy something and send the message to the manufacturer and distributor and retailer that they should keep making said thing because I contributed to it leaving the shelf. I want to be responsible for the entire life cycle of the things in my life.

I will fail at this. There is so much more to learn. But as always, being aware is the first step.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Traveling in Place

The trouble with traveling the world is that it doubles as a handy way to keep running away from your problems and yourself. As someone who moved every 3 months for my entire twenties, often across a country or to a different town or country altogether, I know this is true. The trouble with going somewhere is that you always have to take yourself with you. I love the title of the mindful meditation guru, Jon-Kabat Zinn’s book called Wherever You Go, There You Are.

With all this moving around I managed to meet new people, get new employment or education opportunities and in time, learn how to turn my life right back into the same debacle I managed to create for myself in the last place. My turn around time was fortunately the length of a school semester or a cooperative work term so the program I took in school helped me out a lot.

One of the criticisms I have heard about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love was that she was not dealing with her issues by traveling the world for a year. She was only distracting herself and being selfish with her journey. Yet others who read her book said that they would also like to take a year off from life to travel, but could not because of their responsibilities. So they read the book to live vicariously through her. Either way, her travels evoked a strong reaction in people. We seem to either be flight or fight types.

The subtitle to one of my favourite blogs is: What you can, where you are, with what you have (Theodore Roosevelt). Read it. She is an inspiration.

More and more I am meeting people who do not have passports, who have never been on an airplane, people that raise their children in the house they grew up in. These people have built their lives centered around their families and/or one community and reaped the benefits of staying in one place. Some will admit that staying in your home town can be limiting or leave you surrounded by a group of people you might rather have ran away from.

But knowing that there is no such thing as running away, that there is no escape as we will just re-create the same storyline wherever we go, we come to realize the futility of believing we can escape by going somewhere else. The only person we can change is ourselves. Happiness does not exist ‘out there’ somewhere. At least this has been my experience. It takes a change from within, regardless of where you go to do it. So you could just as well stay home.

Last spring a beaver would dam a culvert of ours which caused flooding in our lower fields. Every day we made it our business to head down to the culvert (around 500m from our house) and dig out the newly laid debris that the beaver had piled up. If we left it for more than a day, the water would rise and there would be a noticeable difference in the field. The job usually took a half hour. What is that definition of crazy? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Every day I would be surprised that the dam had been made again. Every day I would clear it out hoping for change. In the fall we looked into setting traps.

It was never within my comfort zone to kill that (or those) beaver(s). I much prefer to figure out a way to work together with those around me than try to displace or destroy them. But any landowner will know that it is especially difficult to tolerate a pesky beaver. You’d have to be mighty flexible with your land use needs (canoeing anyone?)

So we have not caught the beaver. But in a fit of resourcefulness we put together a tile-drain hose that runs through the culvert and built a cage around its opening. After checking the dam the day after setting up the new contraption, there was a massive pile of sticks and debris, but also running water whooshing away inside the cage. We had done it! We had outsmarted the beaver (for now anyway).

So here is a picture of our contraption. Send me a note if you want more details on how we did it.

There is no doubt that we will continue to run into problems with Mr. Beaver. Such is being a Canadian I suppose. But for now, I have tried a different way to solve the problem. I have opened my mind to the possibility that the thing I was trying wasn’t working.

This was the same thought I had when I surrendered to buying a piece of land and ‘settling down’ in one place. It was an odd move for me. But like that beaver, I have come to see the benefits in making repeated efforts to better the place that I live. Including the body I live in with all of its complex emotions and processes. What I can with where I am, with what I have.

The challenges are a-plenty. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Trail Snacks

Remember when granola bars used to be a healthy snack? There was a time when they didn’t have marshmallows and caramel fudge in them, they weren’t all dipped in chocolate and their number one ingredient was not high fructose corn syrup. There is a reason why hippies are nicknamed ‘granolas’. Or that being earthy makes you a little crunchy (like granola). Yet, I would venture to say that granola bought from the store stands as one of the sugariest cereals on the shelf today. I like the stuff. Of course I do. I like eating cookie batter too before the eggs, flour and milk is added and it is just sugar and butter creamed together. But it is what it is.

When I was eating for two, I found it very difficult to find enough calories in a day to keep my blood sugar at a reasonable level. Being a fluttering type I burn a lot of calories in a day and the extra demand of pregnancy and breast-feeding found me constantly reaching for whatever was easy, handy and ready to eat. It took a while to realize how many individually wrapped ‘healthy’ granola bars I was consuming. And a longer while to read the labels on these things. They are not healthy.

So an alternative was born. I learned of a recipe of dates and seeds, nuts and raisins mixed with corn syrup that knocked my socks off. In an attempt to push a little further towards using natural, healthy ingredients, I attempted the same recipe with only dates and peanut butter to hold it all together. And guess what? It worked!

I am sorry to say that I forgot to bring these little gems up hiking with me last week but I have made a batch to keep handy for the days ahead as we seem to all be getting caught up in the jobs of spring and I for one, am forgetting to eat. It is never great to open the fridge in a foggy hunger haze at 2pm hoping that a grilled chicken salad will leap out at you. Instead I start to eat cream cheese carved right off the block and peanut butter out of the jar. I’m looking for high calories quickly so I can get back to my tasks. Now I have these:

Dried Fruit and Nut Energy Bars
1. Take a dry package of dates (2 cups?) and soak them a few hours in less than ¼ cup of hot water (just enough to cover the dates). Attempt to stir them as often as possible to get the water soaking through. I do this in a glass measuring cup so that I can use the microwave at the end if needed to get to a soft but firm date paste. This paste should be more firm than what you find in a date square.
2. Now I mix in a few tablespoons of peanut butter – hazelnut or cashew butter works divinely as well. This should be done when it is warm and although I don’t rely on a microwave, this appliance is handy here.
3. Once you’ve got your base, transfer it to a large stainless steel or glass bowl (plastic would be a stinker to get clean after).
4. Add anything and everything dried or nutty that your heart desires. I choose sesame seeds, poppy seeds, almonds, walnuts, raisins, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, sometimes even chocolate chips if I’m feeling naughty. Crispy cereals can be fun in there too but now we’re getting back into processed sugary business again. Your choice. I do both.
5. Blend the mixture together somehow. This can be done with a spoon, a fork or your hands. Whatever gets it all mixed together evenly. It shouldn’t be too runny but if you need to soften it to get it mixed, add a touch of water or honey.
6. Press the mixture into a rectangular dish. I prefer glass because it is the easiest to get the bars out. It doesn’t need to be greased. I suppose you could do them up in little bite-sized balls too if you were feeling energetic. Otherwise a tray of squares works great.
7. Store in fridge or freezer until ready to eat. This snack does not keep well in the heat. For travel you may want to wrap individually in saran wrap or wax paper and then take out of the freezer before you leave. They can be gooey when warm but hold firm when cool.

That’s all for today.

Happy Spring everyone!