Sunday, January 31, 2010

Coaxing Works Better than Forcing

 Image from

In October I put some crocus bulbs in the fridge to chill for the requisite number of weeks. Just after Christmas, I arranged them in tall glass vases, with only water and stones. I had done something similar with white narcissus and hyacinths, and expected similarly good results: early crocuses in the house by February.

It didn't work that way. They sprouted and bloomed, but they were weak and droopy. When the flowers started to show, they had no oomph. I waited a few days, but the situation didn't improve.

Today, I couldn't stand it any more. I took them outside and tenderly potted them out in my best potting soil, with bulb food mixed in.

To thrive, I realized, they needed to grow in their own element as nature intended, and now I've given it to them. I hope they'll still bloom this year, but I will understand if they don't.

By trying to force them forward, I actually held them back. They have their own timetable, and will bloom when they bloom. Maybe this year, maybe next.

People are much the same, I think.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Olympics are Coming, but Where's the Snow?

The last time I could see the Lions, a few days ago, the snow layer looked very thin for the time of year. Yet just a few days earlier, the twin peaks were as richly white as vanilla ice cream.

Then the rain came, and apparently, we borrowed the chinook concept from Calgary. The snow pack that had been building nicely on the North Shore mountains started looking obviously thin.

It's been cooler the last few days, but the mountain tops have remained hidden behind clouds. Nothing strange about that; it is their habit to keep a low profile. The Vancouver sky tends to keep a low ceiling around this time of year. On the other hand, the crocuses and snowdrops are well above ground already.

Last year we had a very white winter. The snow cover that began before Christmas lasted a couple of weeks, and we had more in January and February.

This Vancouver winter has been typically mild and green. But there is still hope. I associate a lot Vancouver snow memories with Valentine's Day. Wouldn't we just love to see a nice snowfall around then?

Maybe it's snowing up on Cypress, Seymour and Grouse right now. Perhaps we'll awake in the morning to see the sky a glorious blue, and think ourselves in Paradise here in the Fraser Valley, ringed with sparkling snow-capped peaks.

For the sake of the athletes and many others, I'm keeping my fingers crossed in hope.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Firmly Grounded in the Present

Recently, I've been thinking about how to inhabit my life more fully. I want to enter each moment attentively and experience it without judgment or distraction. When I succeed in doing this, my life slows down and becomes richer.

Allowing myself to become frantic about how I will ever complete my to-do list is definitely not a good strategy. On the other hand, when I meditate, sit quietly, or lie for half an hour in a hot bath, ideas flow into my mind that help me do what needs to be done. Calmly, efficiently, painlessly.

The more hurry, the less speed, as the old saying goes. I've finally experienced the truth of it, in my lungs, belly and bones.

Today I posted an article on Suite 101 on a related topic. It's called Illusory Contact.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My Annual Tax on Stupidity is Helping to Pay for the Olympics

Yesterday morning I changed my routine just slightly. It was enough. My automatic pilot, the part that gets me to work at the right time every morning, signed off. When that part came to, I found myself driving along 88th Avenue toward the morning rush hour bridges. What I should have been doing was putting the car in the parking lot and getting on the train.

I could blame Wade Davis. Listening to the CD of his 2009 CBC Massey Lectures, ironically titled The Wayfinders, was really enthralling. But to be fair, I think I just had a mental blip. For a moment, I panicked, but then I realized that the traffic wasn't bad. I decided that instead of doubling back to the train station, I would drive in to Vancouver.

As I drove, I listened to Davis describe the devastating rate of loss of cultures and languages that is going on while we barely notice. Half the languages being spoken today are not being taught. They will likely be lost within a generation.

I was still pondering this when I pulled up by the building. Was this space big enough? The car was sticking out a bit over a driveway, but who would come up this little back street? Who would need this driveway? Who would care?

A part of me knew the parking spot was too small for my car, but I didn't feel like finding another. I definitely didn't feel like going to the trouble of dealing with parking machines. Decided to take a chance.

At the end of the day, I finished my final tasks quickly. I was determined to leave in good time to beat the rush hour. Still, I was aware of feeling a little drowsy, and wondered: Should I have some coffee? Or some water? Am I sufficiently alert for the hour's drive home?

Turned out it didn't matter. When I came out of the building, I blinked once and looked again. My car had vanished. Could I have misremembered where I parked it? No, impossible. It was definitely gone. Towed away.

Apparently the time had come to pay my annual tax on stupidity. Or was it now just a two-yearly expense? It seemed like a long time since I had last allowed this to happen. I sighed and wondered how much it would be. Towing charge and parking ticket: a double whammy.

But who had the car, and where was it impounded? When I called Security, the guy gave me the number of Buster's Towing. The same company that towed my ancient but still serviceable 1954 Austen Somerset Coupe de Ville away from Wreck Beach all those years ago. Sadly, I still had not learned.

I dialed the number and waited. A woman came on the line and asked me for my license plate number. Recalling the mnemonic my daughter and I had cooked up together, I rattled it off. "Sorry," said the woman. "We don't have your car."

Then came the moment I am proud of. My next reaction showed me that even though I haven't learned to avoid getting my car towed, I have changed my outlook. I didn't panic. Instead, I thought for a moment.

To the woman on the phone, I said, "That number must be wrong. It's probably my daughter's car. I don't know my plate number. Is there any other way you can find out if my car is there?"

"You'll have to call ICBC," she said, and gave me the number.

After choosing an option, waiting on hold, hearing faux-soothing music, and then answering the standard security questions, I got my plate number from the insurance company and called Buster's back. Yes, they had the car. For just sixty bucks, I could get it back. I took the address and set out for the train.

Strangely, I didn't feel the least bit tired any more. I was quite philosophical. Obviously I was not meant to be driving through traffic at this time. Rush hour would have set in by the time I got my car, I knew, but I would hole up somewhere and wait it out. This would be an adventure, I told myself, a change of routine.

I rode the train downtown, intending to catch a bus. And at the precise moment that I stepped out of the station, I ran into a friend, almost literally.

"What are you doing downtown?" she asked. When I told her my car was in jail, she insisted on driving me to the impound lot under the Granville Bridge. We had a pleasant visit on the way.

I paid Buster's, making a point of being pleasant to the clerk, then looked at the parking ticket I'll have to pay in a day or so. I'll think of that as my personal contribution to the Olympic Games, I told myself. Then I got in the car, and headed downtown to pick up my library holds. I found a parking spot easily, and as I was getting out of the car, I picked up a dime. In the library, I met another long-lost friend, and enjoyed another visit.

Books safely stashed in my backpack, I put more change in the meter, then strolled across the concourse to the place where they have the single slices of really good thin-crust pizza. I was breathing in the heady aromas of the shop when the clerk said to me, "Would you like to have this piece free? I need the space for something else. Don't worry. It hasn't reached it's best-by date yet."

Having dined on free pizza, I still had a little time, so I stopped on Commercial Drive and had a coffee and a creme caramel. By then the traffic had abated. I drove home at a relaxed pace and watched a DVD with my husband.

If I had not gone with the flow yesterday, things might have turned out quite differently. Instead of running into my kind friend Kat, I might have run into trouble.

I choose believe that the sharp break in my routine yesterday happened for the best. Looking back, I feel it was a perfect day.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Afternoon Coffee before Going Home

Many times, both alone and with friends, I have sat in the Calabria coffee bar on Commercial Drive. Through the passing years, certain things have remained the same: the rainy street through the large front windows, the fragrance of excellent coffee, the mottled marble tables, the white classical statues tastefully placed among pillars and plants.

The Calabria is a family-run business. At the counter where once the father presided over the expresso machine, one of the younger sons had taken his place, and I noticed that even he looked a tiny bit older. It has been a long time -- a couple of years, perhaps, since I set foot in this coffee shop, though I used to be a frequent visitor. Life's routines have a way of changing.

Looking back, I feel that the dark, rainy winter afternoons have been the most memorable. Often I have sat at a window table, half-watching the parade of passing life outside while I scribbled in my notebook, breathing in the heady fragrance of espresso coffee as it was ground against a backdrop of Italian opera.

Yesterday was definitely memorable. The long afternoon I spent talking with my friend had an edge of poignancy. For she is leaving Canada in a few days to return to Brazil; it is quite likely that we will not meet again. During the past few months we have talked and laughed together, worked together, witnessed the passing weather of one another's moods. In the Calabria, we spent a long afternoon deep in conversation about many and varied subjects. It seemed unbelievable that this would not likely happen again.

The Calabria always has wonderful music playing. In a strange twist of fate, our afternoon visit was bracketed by two songs that seemed to speak personally to each of us in turn. As we sat down, I was surprised to hear the clear voice of Lucille Starr, Quand le soleil dit bonjour aux montagnes...It carried me back forty years and more to my adolescence in a small town in Northern BC.

Nearly four hours later when we rose to leave, my friend paused as another song came on. It was is a Brazilian one, she told me, often played at Carnival, and she sang along for a few bars.

We parted in the doorway, both resolutely smiling. She opened her umbrella under the shelter of the awning, laughing as its disconnected spines spilled out every which way. She will not need to buy another. Brazilian summer is all sunshine and heat.

As for me, after years of living in Vancouver, I carry no umbrella. I pulled my hood up and set off along the wet familiar street towards the train station; the early winter evening had already fallen.

I too was going home.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Weird weather isn't new

This year, as my family grew tired of seeing the same Group of Seven landscapes year in and year out, I made a change.

On New Year's Day, I put up a weather calendar published by Firefly Books. This one provides us with with a year's worth of amazing photographs: forked lightning, the northern lights, lake waves frozen into icicles, and gorgeous clouds and rainbows. Even better, every single day has facts about weird weather of the past.

For example, in 1936, Ontario experienced a killing two-week heat wave, with a sustained record temperature of 44 Celsius. It was so hot that steel rails and bridge girders twisted and fruit baked on the trees. The following year Saskatchewan beat that record when the towns of Midale and Yellowgrass both registered 45 degrees Celsius. That was long before the roads were crowded with hydrocarbon-burning vehicles, too.

I'd heard that Snag, Yukon reached -63 Celsius in February 1947 -- the record for cold in Canada. But not by a large margin. In 1911, the temperature in Fort Vermilion, Alberta plunged to -61.1.

The calendar provides plenty more food for thought. Saint John's, Newfoundland, the wettest, windiest, and snowiest city in Canada, also enjoys 124 days of fog per year. The above picture was taken on Signal Hill in August.

The "Great Hurricane" that roared through the Caribbean in 1780 killed 22,000 on the islands of Martinique, Barbados and St. Eustatius.

In 1800, Savannah, Georgia, which now enjoys an average annual temperature of 66 degrees Fahrenheit (18.9 C), had a heavy snowfall: eighteen inches.

In London in 1890, there was not a single hour of sunshine for the entire month of December. Also in London, the worst of the infamous pea souper fogs killed 4000 in 1952. It took another four years to pass legislation forcing clean-air reforms. Meanwhile, 1953 brought devastating surges that flooded the UK and the Netherlands, killing another 2000 people.

Without doubt, the past forty years have continued a longstanding series of weird weather events, arguably more frequent and often more intense:

In 1979, Cyclone Kerry claimed the record for the world's widest cyclone eye. It was measured by a reconnaissance craft at 93 km. The relatively small eye of any hurricane, of course, is surrounded by a much larger storm.

In 1989 in Pelly Bay, Northwest Territories, the problem was not global warming, but wind chill. While the mercury read only -51 Celsius, the wind chill dropped that to -91.

In 1999, Tahtsa, British Columbia broke the Canadian record for a single day's snowfall when 145 cm fell on the little northern town.

In the fall of 2009, while Venezuela seeded clouds to combat a desperate drought, severe floods struck India and Saudi Arabia. Mudslides killed 124 in El Salvador in November, and by mid-December, New Orleans had recorded record rainfall for the month.

Indeed, I am hit with a veritable blizzard of weather facts whenever I glance at the new calendar.

The ones I'd like to close with concern rainbows and moonbows. Rainbows are curved because the raindrops that refract the light are round and curved. Moonbows, though rare, can sometimes be seen at night during rain showers when the moon is full. I'd love to see one. Maybe they'll become more frequent too.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mothers, Daughters and Pomegranate Seeds

While dismantling a ripe pomegranate, I think about Demeter and Persephone. The mother loved her daughter so passionately that she could not bear the thought of Persephone going off with a man to have her own life. Could not bear to be without her, and fell into grief.

Neither could the daughter bear to leave her mother. With Hades, she resisted eating except for those few seeds of pomegranate. She knew eating in the underworld would stop her from returning to her mother.

Mother and daughter, daughter and mother. Profound relationships – even such that they affect the weather, the crops, the life of the entire community. When the mother and daughter are reunited, everything is sunshine and flowers and fruit again.

Persephone ate five seeds…only five. It was enough. After that she began to divide her time between her old life in the upper world and her new one below.

I think about my own daughter. She was home for Christmas, and now she has gone back to the adult life she has created for herself.

If she were still living at home, she would soon be digging into a bowl of red jeweled seeds of pomegranate. But she is in another city now. She has her own life there.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Circles Opening and Closing

Life is never static. Just as we get used to things being a certain way, they change.

Sometimes I see my life as a series of large and small circles that open and close. Some of these stay open for a very long time. Others open and close in a matter of days or weeks.

For some of these, I can remember the precise moments when they opened. Others I become more aware of when they close.

At any given time, there are always many circles open. Then at regular intervals I have an awareness of one of them closing. Sometimes I can almost hear the satisfying click as that phase completes. I don't always know what it is that's over. I only feel that I have moved on.

In December I turned sixty. Since then I have felt myself stretching as a new circle opens, large and flexible. This is the circle of the writer as she steps out into the world with her words. It stretches me wide; I yawn open like an elastic band.

I have a feeling that it will be a very long time before I hear the snick as this one closes. This circle may be the largest one I've known yet.