Monday, December 31, 2012

The Rearview Mirror

So it's the last day of 2012, a day to reflect on the year ending and a new one starting. I have been feeling meditative of late anyway, so it seems like as good a day as any to take stock.

For me, the year started with some sad news of a death in the family; however, this man was 96 and had lived a very good, healthy life, so the sadness was mostly mitigated by this fact. If only everyone should be so lucky. Later in the year came the terrible news that a friend had accidentally drowned, which gave all his friends the opportunity to realize how quickly this life we live can end.

There was cause for celebration when my son completed his studies at a marine institute. He had had a couple of false starts before starting this program, so this attainment was important. He's been fortunate to be able to work immediately, though he has plans to further his education in time too. My daughter completed the last full-time term for her degree program; her final term this coming spring consists of one course, her honours thesis in Anthropology.

For myself, I continued with my freelance work as well as revising a novel that I first completed five years ago. What can I say? I'm not a driven person and also easily bored with my ideas. It's amazing to me that I've managed four blogs up to now! It's not that I don't think about the state of the world and the meaning of life...I simply don't feel that I'm any more brilliant than anyone else, and possibly these words that I am writing are too mundane to share.

My partner and I are fortunate to have a home and garden to look after. The old dog we adopted last Christmas has done well on a special diet, and he is enjoying a golden retirement with us. We painted our house this summer while the sun shone. It felt good to fill the holes where woodpeckers had taken a few pecks, though also sad to fill the gap in the siding near the roofline where every spring a family of swallows has nested. The new dark colour of paint would have shown their droppings too easily. So they will now have to find another eave or the like next spring when they return. I hope they do come back to our corner of the peninsula. For their cycle will continue somewhere, just as the years cycle by.

In recent days I've thought about my history and wondered about various work mates or friends that I've known and have lost contact with. At Christmas, a couple of them sent greetings without much in the way of real news. I answered in kind. But, I think, there's so much more I'd like to ask these people if the distance between us were dissolved and time expanded. One lives half the year in Mexico and the other half travelling in North America to see family or friends. The other lives across the country in Ontario, where she started out before coming west for some schooling. But there are many others I once spent good times with who actually still live in my city, and I don't see them anymore. It seems we simply grew apart--living lives that no longer intersected. I find that idea sad, yet I know I must also face this reality.

They say people pass in and out of our lives to fulfill temporary needs. I'm not so sure about that. I know some who are diligent about keeping in touch with their friends over decades, and I count myself lucky that they included me in that contact list. I have had times when I made a call or arranged a meeting after a few years of no communication only to realize that indeed the connection that once sustained a friendship seems to have simply frayed away, because that person has an excuse to not meet, or the meeting doesn't quite seem as fulfilling as imagined. We can "catch up" and share current news, but there's no real need to keep in touch more often. Yet I also know that if I were to hear of that person becoming ill or accidentally dying, I would be very sad that I had not been maintaining better contact.

Perhaps that's the best resolution I can come up with this New Year's Eve: to make more effort to reach out to those who have shared their thoughts and histories with me. Even if it's simply to say that I appreciate the time we once spent together and I hope they're well today. Spreading gratitude seems to me to be an appropriate action to take on any day, but after my recent life review, this idea reverberates and gives me a feeling of renewed purpose. Hello, 2013!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Salmon's Leap of Faith

Something I witnessed a few weeks ago has been forefront in my mind ever since. I watched salmon leaping through rushing water and wriggling furiously against a fierce Puntledge River current to get upriver to their spawning grounds. This sight has been happening on many rivers in B.C. during the past month or so. Every year at this time, people who care about the wild salmon wait with apprehension, worrying about dried-up riverbeds, previous oil spills or overfishing as possible deterrents to a healthy salmon stock returning to their home spawning grounds. I don't know what kind of salmon I watched; I'm no biologist, though I do know they weren't the obvious red sockeye that return to the Adams River far inland.

Aside from being totally amazed at the determination I witnessed, I was also inspired. Because when you see such a small creature prevailing to fulfill its destiny in what looks to be the most strenuous and almost impossible situation...well, you can't help but feel inspired. Here's a very brief clip of one such salmon that I happened to catch on film that day.

How often do we see ourselves in this way--naturally driven through such extremes to overcome obstacles? Hardly ever. Yes, every time an athlete out-performs another in competition, we hear about that person's dedication and what he/she did to prepare for such victory. And there are those that persevere through wars, famine, drought, floods and so on. Sometimes they accomplish such feats alone, but more often they manage through support from others. We are communal creatures, and our need for community proves to be paramount in such difficult circumstances.

These salmon are alone in their struggle. And they prevail. They may have some kind of communication with one another (who truly knows?), but we can only know what scientists have observed through tagging and monitoring the fish closely: an inborn natural habit for the salmon to return to the place they were born, every four years, in order to repeat their life cycles. If communication isn't part of the salmon's knowing where and when to come home again, then isn't it even more amazing to consider? Seeing destiny by design certainly appears supernatural, making it easier for me to understand why many believe in an ultimate creator.

Thinking about these fish reminded me of a wedding sermon I once heard. The minister compared the couple marrying to two salmon, making their way up the river of life together. They will find rough places in the flow and also calm pools. When one falters, the other is there to accompany or assist, and so their union will be complete. I found this analogy rather poetic and moving, and it caused me to tear up a bit (I was at a difficult time in my life where I felt alone in my journey). But now I see that no such cooperation is taking place on the river. It's each salmon for itself; they might be aware of a treacherous spot by watching another fail there, but each one must work alone. There is no "hand up" or such in the salmon world (except by humans who build fish ladders or transport fish over manmade obstacles).

Knowing that it's each fish for itself gave me a different kind of perspective of the human condition. Our community spirit, when it's strong and functioning well, helps all of us to live more complete lives. Yet, when we are not strong, or even ill, we must also have an inner resolve that gets us through. Yes, there's help in the form of medicine or other aid (if it's available and we can afford it), but ultimately we are individuals who must use our inner strength and courage to keep forging ahead to a better condition. We aren't necessarily so obviously tuned to our life cycles as the salmon exhibits, but if we understand ourselves, we might draw upon an innate knowledge and keep striving towards a better place, or destiny. And since we're human, that place will naturally include others who share it with us--not just other people, but also creatures like the amazing salmon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Preserving the Summer

Preserving the fruit from our plum tree has become a major undertaking this year, requiring five separate batches of canning the fruit in jars. Canning our plums became necessary when we couldn’t eat, give away, or find enough room in our refrigerator’s freezer to cope with an enormous abundance of fruit. People say that you can give fruit to food banks or soup kitchens, but then there are usually many others who have already beaten you to it.

(I also know firsthand that fruit isn’t as popular with the homeless as one would expect. My daughter serves snacks at a local soup kitchen and says they usually bypass the fruit and go for the cakes or doughnuts. This is understandable as it's known we're attracted to high fat and high carbohydrate foods when under stress--a drive that goes back to our hunter-gatherer origins when food wasn't always available. Loading up on fat and carboyhydrates offers some "cushion" for the body to fall on in times of famine.)

Since we don’t usually harvest this much fruit every year, and we don’t have the right kind of location (too close to a forest) to have a larger garden, we don’t want to invest in a chest freezer. Nor do we want to buy winemaking equipment. So that left good, old-fashioned canning. With canning, you need only a large pot with rack for holding the jars, the jars and lids, and some sugar--a total investment of about $50 at first and less than $10 a year afterwards. Then all you need to do is follow instructions.

The labour is what stops most people from doing home canning. It’s not especially difficult, but it’s time-consuming. Not including the picking of the fruit, canning takes usually a couple of hours to process about a dozen jars. It’s also a bit messy, requiring a lot of cleanup afterwards. So many people are time-strapped as it is; they don’t see the value in spending so much time over a steaming stove, just to have some jars of fruit later in the winter. But we love the taste of canned plums—it’s a bit exotic compared to the taste of the fresh fruit. They are still quite tart, but the cooking brings out another layer of taste that reminds me of black cherries.

Since my partner and I like the canned fruit, and we have more time this year as we’re not presently working, we ended up canning three-dozen quarts of plums. I’ve also made about a dozen 1-cup jars of apple-plum butter, a slightly sweetened fruit-rich sauce which is perfect on cooked oatmeal. I like looking at the finished product of purple-red liquid surrounding golden-fleshed globes, or the ruby-red apple-plum butter. I feel we have preserved the summer’s sweetness in jars to be enjoyed all winter long.

We have also preserved a method of food preservation that has been used by people in their homes for about 200 years. The recipes I follow come from a cookbook that’s about sixty years old. The method of canning as described in this book is still current. The only part of the process that has changed is the type of canning jar. Following an old recipe gives me a strong sense of preserving history. My parents didn’t can and neither did my grandparents, but they knew many others who did. Until the middle of the twentieth century, when freezers became affordable for the average family, canning was the most effective way to preserve the veggies and fruit you grew.

Growing and preserving your own fruit or veggies gives you a visceral connection to the food you eat. You are also assured that you know where the food was grown and how it was handled. Forget about the Hundred Mile Diet—how about the Zero Mile Diet!
We watched firsthand the cycle of flowering-pollination-budding-and ripening that took place in our front yard. We put up a makeshift stucco-wire fence to keep the marauding deer away, and made sure the slugs didn’t get to any windfalls first, and finally supported the fruit-laden branches with boards. All of this diligence sounds like more work than many would be willing to devote to just one plum and a few apple trees. But that fruit is the most delicious and healthy we could hope to eat.

We’ve also grown a few veggies in a raised-bed area that is fenced, but between digging out fir-tree roots every spring and then watching sow bugs, beetles or slugs work away at our struggling plants, we realized this is mostly a losing enterprise. Fruit and raspberries are more manageable, and we grow a few tomatoes in a little greenhouse. Fortunately we live in a semi-rural area and can buy fresh produce at farmers' gates or the weekly local farmer’s market. We can talk directly to the grower and learn whether or not they use pesticides or chemical fertilizers, or if they grow organically. Most are small farms and rely on natural sources such as manure or compost to enrich their garden soil.

So many people today rely on their supermarket for their produce. They don’t know how much exposure to pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers or irradiation it has undergone. Nor do they know if it’s genetically modified. Many feel powerless to the big farming operations and the food companies who package the produce they eat.  Apparently a large percentage of people are choosing to do something about that. The organic produce market keeps expanding its market share, year over year. Others, like us, have put a few trees in the yard or use containers to grow some vegetables. Still others are joining community gardens so that they, too, can enjoy the fruits (or veggies) of their labour. If you live in Canada you most likely won’t harvest produce year round, but the reward of being able to enjoy anything you’ve grown for yourself is a timeless one.

 But if you grow a lot, lucky you, because then you may become another practitioner in the art of canning preserves!


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Life's Path

Life doesn’t usually turn out as planned. We start out our adult lives with the heady idea that we can do what we want, make our own choices and find our place in the world beyond. Some know right away what their passion is and follow it doggedly; others wander along, often making a few wrong turns before they find a path that feels right. Of course, there is never a truly “wrong” way, because every path we take offers a learning experience. It’s what we do with those experiences that counts.

Even the most predictable path includes roots that trip up the traveller. Some of these trip-ups don’t hinder much, but others can truly stop us in our tracks so that we just can’t continue the way we were going. When we’re stopped long enough we often feel we’re losing our way completely and we might never get "on-track" again. This loss of bearings is a signal that we should pay close attention, because a possible fork in the path might lie just ahead, a fork requiring fresh consideration.

I experienced this kind of trip-up when I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I thought that I wouldn’t be hindered by it, but I soon discovered that this diagnosis created a fork for me.
My illness, Crohn’s disease, is mostly invisible. Only those that spend time with me on a day-to-day basis can attest to its effect on my health. I was diagnosed twenty years ago, after almost eight months of debilitating intestinal uncertainty. The diagnosis, then, came somewhat as a relief: there’s a name for my problem. And they have drugs to treat it. I decided to be stalwart and not wallow in self-pity. That choice was not a considered one: I was simply wanting my life to get back to normal.

But I soon discovered that these drugs that were effective at controlling my intestinal problems caused me all kinds of other symptoms, which were even more debilitating than the first ones. I felt as if I had a severe flu, with achey joints, a ridiculously pounding headache that intensified with movement and total lethargy. The dosage was lowered and lowered and I was able to cope; but then the gastroenterologist said that the dosage was so low that it probably wasn’t doing much, so he put me on another medication, more specific to the ileum—the part of my intestinal tract that was damaged. I was taking the second drug for not even a month when I had a Crohn’s flare-up and was spending most of my day in a bathroom. I also lost five pounds in two days, and I was already underweight by about twenty pounds.

Another drug, an anti-inflammatory, was prescribed by my family doctor, but only for a few months  due to its harmful effect on the liver, bones and teeth. My intestinal problem improved, and I got high from the initial adrenal rush that the drug caused. I was racing around, completing chores and projects that had been too difficult to accomplish for months, if not years. That “high” dropped off as the dosage was lowered, and I settled into a more normal range of activity while also experiencing internal bleeding and intense abdominal pains throughout the day.

Because of the bleeding, iron was prescribed by my GI doctor. I was finding that all the pill taking was quite a routine; I had to plan for them throughout the day, dependent upon meals and so on. The second daily dose of the specific Crohn’s medication could only be fit in just before bedtime. This was fortuitous, when I realized one night while waiting to fall asleep that the abdominal pain began twenty minutes after taking that pill. The next day I didn’t take the morning dose and had only one or two of the pains. I didn't take the evening dose either, and the following day had no pain. I never took that medication again. (I also did not return to the GI specialist who had prescribed it.)

When the course of the anti-inflammatory medication ended, I was doing better, but I knew I needed to take control of my health. I did research on the effectiveness of dietary change on Crohn’s disease. I talked to other sufferers and learned what diets they had tried. I visited a naturopathic and homeopathic practitioner and followed his recommendations after his allergy test: no dairy or wheat, tea or chocolate (I had mighty trouble omitting the last two, but I did to start with).

Most importantly, I allowed myself the time to process my new reality. I hadn’t done that previously; I had said, “This disease will not affect me,” and carried on. The truth was, it had been affecting me for months, and it was going to affect me for the rest of my life. I could either pay attention to this fact and find effective ways to cope with it, or be constantly dealing with an unpredictable set of symptoms.

My analysis opened up a whole new path to me. Through therapy and copious reading of psychology books, I came to understand how I hadn’t been mindful of my inner state. I could see how I had internalized any negative emotion I'd previously felt, and it literally “ate” at my insides. I had not set boundaries or been proactive either. My body literally forced me to finally become aware. My new mindfulness was an awakening for me, but a death to the life I had created to then.  I soon realized that I was at another crossroads, a place where the road forks.

Every life path will come to such a fork, sooner or later. This is the place where we must make a choice and be true to ourselves. Afterall, our paths are our own—no one else shares them. They may accompany us while they travel their paths, but in the end we are the ones that know every step of the way. We all need time to make a choice when we discover a fork. We might have to take a completely unknown path, and risk losing some travelling companions who don’t accept this decision. Or we might go with the path that seems more worn, because it’s the accepted path to take, and taking it won’t upset anyone. We will no doubt need support for our choice once it’s made, because none of us is travelling totally alone—we all have connections to others that sustain us and help us grow. 

I have followed a fork that veered away from my former path. It wasn’t an easy choice; it was probably the most difficult choice of my life, because it affected my family, especially my children. But it was the healthiest route to take at the time, and because the decision was my own, I am able to live with it peaceably. Although my health crisis precipitated my new path, I’m sure that I would have discovered another similar fork without that provocation, sooner or later.  I needed to stop and take stock of where I’d been and where I was going. Through my analysis I discovered—and continue to discover—truths about myself: my strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge continues to change, just as my life path does. The one thing I do know is, whatever choice I make along the way, I am the one who must follow the course I choose, wherever that takes me. 

Respect your life's path; you are the one who must walk it to its end, so take care and pay attention to the roots along the way.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Social Speedia

It's been said in the media that soon more will happen online than does in the “real” world because social media is outpacing other forms of communication. As everyone gets electronically connected, they bypass the physical impossibility of speaking to hundreds in a matter of seconds. At some point, though, this speed seems counter-productive. Messages or ideas are glossed over, quickly forgotten and replaced by new ones. This frenzy of communication lacks considered thought. And that is probably something we need even more in the technological age.
Electronic communication is happening constantly. We're surrounded by people on the street or elsewhere engaged with either a phone or pod or tablet. In restaurants, people are sitting at the same table not speaking to one another but instead fingering the electronic gadget they’re holding. And now we hear that Facebook use has become the leading cause of divorce. All of these signs point to the power of the medium. No wonder many claim they are addicted, saying they can’t ignore their phones or other electronic devices and are constantly checking them. After all, who knows what enticing tidbit awaits to be discovered in cyberspace?
It’s easy to see how people become hooked. Humans clearly like to communicate, and now they can do it like never before. At the click of some keys, they don’t have to feel alone in their space; they can join cyberspace, any time. I find it amazing, though, that not  so long ago we couldn’t communicate so widely or so quickly, yet we seemed to survive quite well! Were there mostly frustrated individuals in our midst, all wishing to make a comment not just to the people around them but others across the globe? The new age of communication has given them that power. But how well is that power being used?
I’ll admit I’m a Luddite compared to most these days. I don’t own anything but a computer. No cell, so no texting. I'm new to blogging (this is my first!) and have never Skyped or joined Facebook, for that matter, mostly because none of my friends have either. Facebook seems to me to be most useful to teens or young adults, needing to assert their identity in a wider world or to keep in touch with school or travel mates who moved on. My then-teenaged children became Facebook users when their friends insisted on organizing parties and get-togethers through the site. Five years later, they still check their walls daily and will converse with "friends" there (instead of the old-fashioned email), butthey have lives too. (One young woman I know has observed that she’s noticed her friends that use Facebook for hours a day are the ones that “have no life.”) Of course, corporate interests have seized the Facebook platform to further their customer bases, which seems to put the whole “social” aspect into question.
Texting or phoning seem to be my offsping’s premier communication means, because cells are more mobile. Of course, they are behind the curve here, since they don’t use smart phones. And though they spend more time face-to-face with others instead of on their phones or computers, even that time is “hacked into” by them checking their text messages when arranging the next social engagement.
They shun Twitter, though. When a friend admitted to liking Twitter, I joined on to see what drew her there. Her Twitter persona exhibited a verbosity that I'd never seen in person, as she retweeted or tweeted with hundreds of followers. She uses the medium mostly for advertising, whether plugging a business with which she's had a pleasant exchange, or mentioning restaurants, concerts, books or what activity occupied part of her day. The amount of activity she engages in didn't surprise me, just that she felt a compulsion to mention it to one and all in the Twitterverse, which includes not just close friends.
I found it too noisy on Twitter. At 140-character chunks, no one is having a real conversation. Opinions are made, either cynical or lighthearted, and quick rebuttals or agreements follow. I try to gauge the person behind the tweets, which is probably a mistake. Nothing terribly profound is going on. Some are obviously just seeking publicity, positive or negative. Others are “soapboxers,” angry about some injustice, be it personal or more global, and must be heard NOW. Some try to send out the happy vibe, posting little stories or thoughts or pictures aimed at making others smile and rise above the discord. And many just use the forum to have a little fun, making jokes about something, probably passing the time during a boring meeting or commute.
There’s no time in this cyberworld to forge a real connection. This is a place for quick repartee—something once only experienced in person at a large gathering of people. (At least in person you can’t hear absolutely everyone at the same time!) This arena is huge, with lots of people, including some more well-known public figures, and everything they say on a subject is available to read. You have to be speedy to keep up. And after you do, you might wonder why you bothered.  
Maybe I’m too reclusive by nature, but I’m really not that interested in how others are filling up their time with this or that activity, putting forth a brief observation or opinion, and generally just communicating quick repartee of wit or whatever. I prefer a forum where a thought is sustained for longer than a sentence or two. So I’m still happy to email or blog. My time is not so precious, and there are others who join me in this slower form of "dialogue."
The only time this instant form of global communication seems truly useful is when organizing demonstrations or rebellions, as we saw during the Arab Spring. But for those of us mostly content in our lives, the medium is being mostly wasted. And it seems to me that instead of being more connected, we are more fractured as a society—with too many individuals communicating in quick and multiple directions and rarely sustaining any meaningful contact.
Although we might feel less lonely knowing that we can connect immediately with someone out there, is this connection one that will truly enrich us, give us “food for thought,” as it were? Don’t we need time to digest our interactions, to learn who we are among the others in our sphere, given our responses to the words spoken and the messages delivered? Or do most people not want to question themselves and only want to feel that they are a part of the mainstream, connected in some way in cyberspace, creating and maintaining a presence there?
I wonder if electronically addicted people feel more enriched with their busy communications, or are they endlessly seeking something that seems to be missing in their lives? Addiction can leave a person in that state: never satisfied for long. The rush of so much communication is short-lived; there’s no lasting connection to refer to later. The moment goes by too fast, and the thought that might seem new and interesting is replaced by yet another. It takes time to understand a point of view and to formulate one’s reaction.
If we could go “cold turkey” for a week and experience life without a cyber connection, we may discover that we don’t really miss that electronic link. And if we do, we might ask why. What is missing from our “real” lives? Are we not surrounding ourselves with a nurturing environment? How can we find self-expression within a limited sphere of family, friends, co-workers or neighbours? These are questions worth considering, as they lead us to a richer understanding of what it is to live our lives, here and now.
Socrates expressed this idea best so long ago when he wrote this: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” [Plato Apology 38a]