Thursday, 10 April 2014

Yellow Violets: A Life Lesson From My Mom

When my mom was in her late thirties, she decided to return to teaching.  

Mom had been a teacher early in her marriage, but by the time she contemplated returning to the classroom she'd been away from teaching for more than a decade.  During that time teacher training requirements had changed drastically, from a two-year program at Normal School to a four-year university degree.  

In order to return to work, Mom had to complete her degree and, in order enter university, she had first to acquire some high school prerequisites she lacked. 

Among those required high school courses was biology.  My mom is an artist by nature, with little inclination toward the sciences, but she took a workman-like attitude to that biology course, determined to get through it with good grades.    

One of the biology class assignments required that students collect ten wild plants and then present their collection correctly labeled with their botanical names and information about their attributes and habitat.  Predictably, the students accomplished this by gathering wild plants and either pressing them or drying them in silica gel, then attaching them to boards on which they had written their cultural information.  

All except my mom.

Mom took her easel and oil paints to a favourite local park and made a painting of the shaded landscape beneath the forest canopy.  Once the landscape painting was completed, she carefully added in detailed images of the wild plants she intended to include in her project.  When the painting was finished, Mom made a line drawing of the painted image with the plants numbered and then detailed in a carefully lettered legend that provided the information required for the assignment.

I loved that painting, not least because a few sunny yellow violets stood like a bright exclamation point in the shadowed right hand corner of the foreground, the only spot of vivid colour among the whites and greens of the other plants my mom had chosen to describe. Those yellow violets were among her favourite spring wildflowers and she had highlighted them beautifully within the composition.

I have no idea what happened to that painting. It disappeared into the the tides of passing time, life events, and moves to new addresses.  It remains in my memory though, as clear as if it were framed on the wall in front of me, because I loved both the image itself and what I learned from it.

In choosing to fulfill her biology class assignment in a way that suited her artistic nature, my mom taught me something really important:  Life doesn't always allow us the luxury of doing things we enjoy but, if we are willing to invest a little extra thought and effort, we can still find the means to make whatever work life may bring us uniquely our own.  It's a lesson I've been thankful for again and again. 

It's the season of the yellow violet right now.  They're blooming in the woodlands, spangling the shaded undergrowth with their sunny faces.  Every time I see them I'm reminded again of my good fortune.  To have a mother who cares so deeply about fostering and sustaining creativity, a parent who has inspired her children to remain true to themselves while making their way in the world, is gift beyond measure.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Be a Fearless Artist

Have you ever watched little kids make art?  You put the materials in front of them and they dive in with abandon, fearlessly marking up their paper, cutting things in pieces, mixing paint, and sprinkling glitter. They are absolutely unconcerned with success or failure, and although they will show you their work when they're done with it, they do so knowing that you'll like it.

Then, as kids get older, they start to compare their work to that of others, and to preconceived standards taught them at school, on line, on TV, in books, and by well meaning family and friends.  Soon they become self conscious about their work, pointing up its flaws rather than its virtues. They become hesitant to even begin a project, not wanting to mess up that clean, white sheet of paper. By the time they're adults, most have convinced themselves that they're "not artistic."

So what about the artists who do continue to make art even as adults?  Are they not self conscious about their work?
I'm pretty sure that most artists experience some hesitation before picking up a brush, or playing a note, or writing that first sentence, but they do it anyway. 

I know that they're often more critical of their work than any objective viewer might be, but they do it anyway. 

They do it because the need to make art is so strong within them that they can't not do it.

That need for artistic expression lies at the very heart of what makes us human.  For as long as humans have been human, we've been making art: embellishing ourselves, our tools, and our surroundings; striving to make things more beautiful, to tell stories, and to reflect the beauty around us. 

Our artists are those who feel that need for expression most acutely.

When an artist creates new work, it's very nice if others like it but even if no one at all cares for it the piece has still served it's purpose: The expression of creativity.

Experiencing art is one of the most intensely individual things we do. Each one of us will view a work uniquely, through lenses coloured by our personal experiences and taste. Whether we like that work or not, it will cause us to think and experience new things and those new thoughts and experiences are at the core of art's value.

So, why am I telling you all of this?

I want you to make art fearlessly, putting aside the fears and reservations you've learned growing up.  

I want you to approach your paper, your musical instrument, your camera, your keyboard, or whatever medium you choose to work with, with abandon.  

I want you to dive into the creative process with child-like enthusiasm; without concerning yourself over success or failure. 

I want you to put aside comparisons of "good" and "bad" and just enjoy the wonder of the creative process.  

I want you to put pen, pencil, paint to paper, to pick up an instrument, to dance in the kitchen, to carve or assemble sculpture, to sing loudly, to write your story, to make your quilt, to grow your garden or to piece together your mosaic.

I want you to do these things with no thought for who might see or hear them, but just for the joy of doing it.  

If you don't like what you've created, throw it away or - better still - use it as a stepping stone to make something new.


Because creativity feels good. It's a meditative process that allows us to clear our minds of the stresses of the day. It makes us happy.  

Creative thought in one area of our lives usually leads to creative thought in other areas too. We become more adaptive - better problem solvers - through fostering our creativity.

I want you to experience art made by others in the same way:  

Step outside the work of artists you already know and love.  Look at and listen to genres outside your comfort zone.  Encounter new and different things with an open mind.  

You may not like the new art you experience, and that's okay: No permanent injury was ever done by looking at a painting you didn't care for, or by listening to a song you don't like. No one ever died as a result of watching a bad play.  

But here's the thing:  You may like some of those things too.  You may discover a passion for some new art form that you'd never have experienced if you weren't open to new work.

Go forth. 

Be fearless. 

Be creative. 

Have fun doing it.

You can thank me later.

Friday, 10 January 2014

A Story About Friendship and Some Advice About Grief

photo by Debra Hughes

Sometimes life can take us in the most unexpected directions.

When I married, we moved to a new town and I went in search of work.  I applied for a job advertised in our new town's paper, providing home care for a 13-month-old girl with spina bifuda .

I didn't give much thought to her disability at the time: Kids are kids to me and I enjoy them all.  I needed work and taking care of a little girl in her home five days a week seemed well suited to both my temperament and my budget.

Cheri was a sweet child: tiny, bright eyed, already talking, and very curious about the world around her. She readily accepted me into her world and embraced me with an unqualified love I couldn't help but return. Very quickly, she became a child of my heart; as dear to me as my own family.

Cheri grew, as children do, and went off to school.  I took full time work elsewhere, but still my bond with Cheri and her parents continued. I provided respite care for Cheri, and Cheri's mother Anna became one of my closest friends.  We were often in and out of each other's houses.

We shared happy times and challenging ones:  Cheri's health problems were many and complicated.  When Cheri was well, we enjoyed adventures, and quiet times too. When she was ill, we supported one another and helped to provide the care and reassurance she required.

So it was that a chance reply to a classified ad grew into a great gift of love.  I am more grateful for it than I can begin to tell you here.

At the end of November a couple of years ago, when she was 28 years old, Cheri's poor body could no longer withstand the many demands her health problems had made upon it.  She was admitted to hospital one last time and, after some days, a decision was made to take her off life support.  I was honoured to be with her when she slipped away.  

I can only imagine the magnitude of pain one suffers upon losing a child.  Anna was a brave woman, and quite stoic, but it overwhelmed her.  She worked very hard to find away to carry on after her loss but confessed to me that it felt like a part of her was missing.  For 28 years she'd centered her life around her daughter, and now that center was gone.

Almost exactly a year after Cheri died, Anna became very ill.  She was admitted to hospital, diagnosed with anemia and diabetes, given meds and - once she was strong enough to manage alone - sent home.  She didn't respond as expected to the medications and began to experience terrible pain in her legs and back. Further tests revealed that cancer had spread so pervasively throughout her body that it was not possible to treat it, or even to determine where it had begun.

Four months later my dear friend was gone.

I am struggling with the loss of these two women, both so dear to me.  Even though it's been more than two years since Cheri's death, and almost a year since Anna's passing, grief still ambushes me at the most unexpected times.  

They are so often on my mind.  I'll see an eagle fly by and think "Oh, Cheri would so love to take a picture of that," or be walking the trail beside the river and think "Anna would enjoy the sight of the mist rising up the canyon."  I'll make a recipe that Anna shared with me and feel her presence in the kitchen beside me.

I'm sad.  

I miss them.  

I'm sharing the story of my friends because I think that we, as a society, are very bad at grieving.  

Grief embarrasses us.  

We avert our eyes from it.  

We try to jolly people out of it.  

We encourage those who are grieving to refrain from showing strong emotion.

We need to do better.  Here are some things that you can do to help friends and loved ones who are grieving:

Reminisce.  Share stories both happy and sad about the person you're missing.  It'll make you feel better and it'll help others too.

Mention the person who's gone by name.  It may make people sad. It may make them cry.  That's okay.  It's part of the process of working through loss. 

Be a patient listener.  It doesn't matter if you've heard a reminiscence a thousand times before.  The teller is finding comfort in sharing it again.  In listening, you're giving them the gift of compassion and an acknowledgement that the person remembered is still important to you too.

Understand that everyone grieves differently.  Don't tell people how they should be acting.  Don't treat their actions as inappropriate. Don't assume that they need a hug, or that they want to be left alone.  Listen to what they're saying and pay attention to their particular needs.

Understand that grieving doesn't have a time table. Grief peaks at different times for different people.  For some, it's immediate and intense.  For others, it's delayed.  In either case, grief can revisit people for a long time after a loss. Don't treat it as being less because a person's loss is growing more distant.  It isn't less to them.

Be there for the long haul.  It's comforting for people to know three months, six months, a year, or many years down the road that you still remember and recognize their loss.

Grief is hard, both for the person grieving and for those around them.  It's painful to watch someone struggling with loss, but a little empathy and a mindful response can go a long way toward providing comfort.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Walk a Mile (or a Hundred) In My Shoes

Last month, Slapdash Mom posted a 100 Miles in December challenge.  I like to walk and needed some motivation to get moving so I decided to participate.  

It was just the thing I needed:  I completed 175.2 km/108.9 miles for the month and learned a few things along the way.

The first thing I learned was that in order to accomplish any fitness goal I need to actively set aside a specific quantity of time towards it in my schedule.  My life, like everyone else's, is busy and - not being a lover of fitness activities - I find it easy to fill my minutes and hours without giving a thought to exercise. By the last week of the month, it became apparent to me that I'd not set aside enough time on a daily basis and I ended up taking some long hikes on my days off in order to make up the kilometers needed to meet my goal.  I've learned my lesson (I hope) and now know to schedule those minutes into my day.  I even enter them in my calendar so that my computer will send me a reminder!

The second thing I learned was that being accountable is a good thing for me.  I posted my walks on my personal Facebook page and, knowing that I'd published my goal for my friends and family to see, I felt obligated to meet it.

The third and most important thing I learned was that walking on a regular basis made me feel a whole lot better.  The comparatively relaxed pace allowed me time to look around me and enjoy my surroundings.  I felt less stress and got to appreciate the beauty of my little corner of the world.  On a purely physical level, it loosened up muscles stiff from too much sitting, aided my digestion, and improved the quality of my sleep. I've been struggling with high blood pressure and my doctor feels that regular exercise is helping with that too.

With all of that in mind, I've decided to walk at least another hundred miles this month and I thought I'd invite you to walk along with me.  I can't offer any prizes or monetary rewards for joining in, but I do think that we'll all benefit from doing this together.  The more the merrier, right?

One hundred miles = 161 kilometers.

Assuming we're starting today, to meet the goal in January, our walks will need to average 3.27 miles/5.27 kilometers per day.

I'll post my kilometers daily on my B on Balance Facebook page and on Twitter.  I hope you'll post yours in the comments too. Let's cheer each other on!

Friday, 6 December 2013

What My Christmas Tree Taught Me

When I was a young wife, houseproud and anxious to make a perfect Christmas, I put our tree up on December first and took great care in decorating it. 

As the years passed by, the tree went up later and later. Eventually a year came when we put the tree up on Christmas Eve. The next year we put the tree up but never got around to decorating it.  The year after that we didn't get around to putting a tree up at all.

That was the year I finally realized that I don't like decorating a Christmas tree. I don't want to spend hours carefully placing ornaments only to spend more hours just a few weeks later taking them all down and storing them away again.

Now we celebrate Christmas without a tree.  Neither of us miss it at all, and I'm very grateful to have that chore crossed off my list.

Given my dislike of decorating a tree, you can imagine how I felt when I arrived at the office this week to find that one of my co-workers had donated a Christmas tree, and to learn that I was expected not only to decorate it, but to go shopping for the ornaments during my not-working hours.

Let's just say I was not delighted.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, first of all because we all feel pressured to create a perfect, never-happens-in-real-life holiday and I want you to know that - despite a gazillion Pinterest posts, seasonal how-to TV shows, and glossy magazine covers - you can choose to do just the things you love. It's perfectly okay to forget about the rest.

If decorating the tree, or frosting beautiful sugar cookies, or singing carols, or going for walks in the snow, or knitting Christmas stockings brings you joy, by all means do those things.  If any of those things don't bring you joy, feel free to set them aside in favour of creating a happy holiday that works for you.

If you want pulled pork sandwiches instead of turkey, or chocolate cake instead of Christmas pudding, if you want to spend the day watching a Star Wars marathon instead of "It's a Wonderful Life," if you choose not to make that wreath for the front door, I can assure you that the holiday police will not come pounding on your door.

I can tell you, too, that no one will care if the things you do choose to do are less than perfect.  Your loved ones are far more interested in spending time with a happier you than they are in being entertained in a house that looks like a feature from Better Homes and Gardens.

That having been said, we all know full well that there are also holiday obligations we can't forgo.   Like my office Christmas tree, there are some chores we just have to do.  Sometimes they're work obligations. Other times they're obligations taken on because we know that, even though we don't love them, they bring joy to someone we love.  

If I had kids in the house whose eyes lit up every time they saw the tree, I'd take the time to put it up, however much I dislike the chore.

So how do we deal with those obligations we don't enjoy but can't forgo?

We each have our own way of coping.  I'm learning to paste a smile on my face and get the chore out of the way. Grumbling isn't going to make the process any more enjoyable.  It will only make those around me unhappy or uncomfortable.  If I dispense with my obligation with good cheer it's likely to go more smoothly, and the sooner I'm done with it the sooner I can get back to doing the things I do want to do.

So right now I'm turning on the Christmas music, making some hot chocolate, and rolling up my sleeves. I'm sure the tree will look lovely when it's done.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Rules: How to Have a Happy Holiday Visit With Your Elders

It's visiting time.  Many of us travel at this time of year, to see family in different towns, or provinces, or states, or even countries. 

Those family visits can be one of the very best thing about the holidays but, let's be honest: They pose some challenges too. Particularly when we're visiting our elders.  

It's hard to know how to abide by the etiquette of a home not our own, and hard to know when - unintentionally - we are testing the bounds of our hosts' hospitality. Despite our best intentions, tempers can flare and harsh words - later regretted - may be spoken. 

Now that I'm growing older myself, I've come to realize that there are some simple steps that can be followed to help ensure a pleasant family visit. I wish I'd known them when I was younger.  It would have made things so much simpler but, somehow, people never speak about them.  Silly, really.  We want to enjoy our family visits, not dread them.

So here are some things I've figured out along the way:

Be prepared.  Set aside some time before your visit to make a list of what you may need.  Write down every single thing that comes to mind. You can cull it later but, remember, it's better to over-pack than to find yourself up in the middle of the night because your youngest child or grandchild won't drop off to sleep without their favourite teddy bear.  

Plan to take bedding.  If you have an infant or toddler, providing safe comfortable bedding is always your responsibility.

Even if you know your hosts have enough bedding, taking along sleeping bags for the kids will spare them some laundry after you leave. Taking along familiar pillows and pillowcases can help ensure a more restful sleep. 

Check with your hosts before you leave.  Things can change unexpectedly, especially if you are staying with elders.  If they've had a lot of visitors they may be too tired to enjoy your visit, and much too polite to say so.  

Before leaving for your visit, call your hosts. Ask how their week's been and listen carefully, taking your cues from their conversation.  If they've been ill or had a lot of company, you may want to amend your plans.  I know that this can be a real nuisance so it's important to have a fall back plan from the beginning.  

If plans for your visit do change, remember that your elders have accommodated you for a lifetime.  Now it's your turn to accommodate them.

While you're checking with your hosts, ask if there's anything they'd like you to bring.  

Plan some "down time" into each day of your visit.  Even though we love our families to bits, too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.  Plan a daytime outing for each day.  It can be something as simple as a walk in the park, or it might be something like skating or an afternoon show at the local movie theatre.  Whatever you plan, do invite your hosts along but don't be insulted if they decline.  Everyone needs a breather now and again.

Don't assume that because they love your kids, your hosts will want to be left alone with them while you go out.  However much they may love your children, elders may find caring for them without your help tiring, and even a little aggravating.  If they ask or offer to babysit, go for it.  Otherwise, assume that, while visiting with your children, your elders want your company too.

Pitch in.  Pick up after yourselves, help to clear the table, and wash the dishes.  If your hosts are the kind of folks who don't mind sharing their kitchen, cook a meal or two, planning the menus around things they enjoy and are used to eating.  

At least once during your visit, say "I'm going to take a few things to the laundromat.  Do you have anything you'd like me to wash for you while I'm there?"  Under no circumstances should you accept an offer to do your laundry for you but, if they offer, it's okay to accept your hosts' kindness in inviting you to use their washer and dryer. Of course, it goes without saying that you should leave the laundry room as neat as a pin.

Call it a night, early.  Except on the holiday itself, it's always wise to get the kids to bed at their regular bedtimes and to call it an early night yourselves.  If you're not an early-to-bed person by nature, retire to your room and pass a couple of hours quietly reading, or online.  It gives your hosts time and space to recover from their day and to get organized for tomorrow.  

Know when to leave.  Benjamin Franklin once said that "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days."  That may be pushing things a bit, especially if you've traveled a long way, but do remain sensitive to the needs and preferences of your hosts.  If they're flagging, you can always make arrangements to leave a couple of days early.  It's the courteous thing to do.  

Write a thank you note.  The real kind.  That goes in the mail.  If your hosts are elders, this is especially important.  They were raised in a time when sending a thank you note was considered a required courtesy. 

Your note should thank your hosts for their hospitality, mentioning one or two things that you particularly enjoyed about your visit, and it should express your appreciation for their kindness in making you welcome. 

So that's it:  All common sense really.

Go forth and enjoy your visits.  

Cherish the ones you love and tell them how dear they are to you.  

Have a wonderful holiday.  

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Next Thing: Kindness

If you spend any time at all on Facebook, or Twitter, or Pinterest, you'll know that there's an awful lot written about the importance of planning, and varied advice offered on how to go about it.  I'm the pits at planning and always have been, so I read these posts with interest. 

Looking back, I realize that most many of my life decisions have been made in reaction to my circumstances rather than anticipation of what the future might bring.  I've always found it almost impossible to imagine where I might be in five years time or what I might be doing, and the idea of setting a distant goal is nothing less than overwhelming for me. 

I mean, seriously, how can any of us have any idea what the future will bring? If there's anything my life has taught me, it's that life in general is just one big long series of surprises.

But I'm turning fifty-five this week, and clearly I'm at a place in my life where some decisions need to be taken.  Plans need to be made.

So I'm reading about planning.

(lol!  Anything to avoid the actual task!  ;^)

All of the planning posts I read tell me that in order to make a successful plan you must set a end goal towards which you will strive. 

I ran through goals in my mind: 

Not being homeless or hungry in my old age?

Not being lonely in my old age?

Having plans in place for when Alzheimer's takes my mind?  (With our family history, this is likely to happen.)

They're all things that must be dealt with, to be sure, but they're about practicalities, not about passion or about joy.  If I'm to work towards a goal with enthusiasm, it must have a positive place in my heart.

So I sought out posts suggesting how I might identify my goals. 

Several suggested making a mission statement - like businesses do - as a means of defining values and clarifying priorities.  

Good thought!

Surprisingly though, when I set out to make a mission statement, only two words came to mind:

Be kind.

That's it. 

I'm sure it's hardly the sort of mission statement the bloggers I was reading had in mind. A person couldn't build a successful business on the idea, or use it as a basis for concrete plans, to be achieved in quantifiable steps.

But here's the thing:

A few years back, when I was at a very dark place in my life and ready to give up hope altogether, I sought a simple goal to work towards; one that would lift me out of my place of despair and give me the means to move forward.  A two word mission popped in to my head then too:

Be grateful.

I took those two words as my mantra and began to make a conscious effort to recognize and acknowledge the blessings in my life. 

In recognizing those gifts, I found within myself the strength to move forward.  Things got better and they are improving still. Not only does my life seem better to me now because I recognize and am grateful for what I have, but it really is better.

Over time, gratitude became a habit with me and it brought more gifts my way than I might ever have anticipated. Opening my heart to gratitude opened my heart to other things too, like optimism, and friendship, and creativity, and sharing, and - in opening my heart to those things - I made new social connections, learned new things, and found new work.

Perhaps "be kind" is simply the next logical step on my journey.

It's entirely possible that this next step may bring me no tangible benefits at all, but it will, at the very least, help me to have a happy heart. 

And for now that's enough.

I'll continue to work on practical day-to-day stuff too of course but, just now, and for the foreseeable future too, my two word mantra has been expanded to four:

Be grateful, be kind.  Be grateful, be kind.  Be grateful, be kind...

As a mission statement, it works for me.