Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nothing to say

I perched on the wide green armchair next to Kathleen, my spine twisted awkwardly. She had made room for me. When I walked over to greet her at the party our friends were hosting, she had patted the seat with her thin hand and offered a small, tight smile. The bones in her jaw stood out like a ledge. Her skin was specked with reddish blemishes. She spoke slowly, her words forming as if from a long way away. Perhaps it was the effect of the medication; perhaps her mind was enveloped in a thick fog, or perhaps she just didn't know what to say to me.

Just as I did not know what to say to her. What do you say to an anorexic and alcoholic acquaintance?

So we didn't say anything for awhile. I watched her two children: four-year old Pamela, blonde and serious, and two-year old Michael, sandy-haired and exuberant. A three-inch scratch ran down Pamela's pale face. Shadows cupped her blue eyes. She wore a pink T-shirt with the words “Little Chick” underneath a cartoon chicken, a light blue velvet skirt, and ribbed white stockings. Michael was dressed in a red short-sleeved Canadiens hockey shirt and blue elasticized pants.

Kathleen's gaze fell on her children. “They're good kids,” she said softly. That's what everyone says about their kids when they're young. We chatted lightly about the shapes of their noses. Pamela's nose turns upward, just like her father's, while Michael's nose has Kathleen's straight blunt end.

Kathleen smiled at me, made an effort. “So how are things with you?” she asked. Please don't ask about me, her eyes pleaded.

I told her about loving coaching, about the piano, about my latest passion of learning poetry by heart. “I used to memorize poems,” Kathleen said, her voice brightening. “In high school. In French.” I told her about learning a poem while on a long drive, and becoming so engrossed in it that I completely missed my turn-off. Kathleen tipped back her head and laughed. I noticed the tendons standing out in her neck, the skin stretched taut. We smiled at one another and fell silent.

And you?” I asked, gently patting her bony shoulder. “I heard that you've been going through a bit of a rough patch.”

Kathleen looked away. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “It hasn't been the greatest winter.

But I'm all right,” she insisted, her eyes darting like a swallow over to mine. “I'm okay.”

Not a word rose in my throat. My hand rested briefly on her sholder. There was nothing to say.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A moment of wonder

One fall morning I was walking through an old cedar grove. The path sloped up a short incline. I remember looking up, and just at that moment, a doe stepped into view at the top of the hill. We both stood stock still, caught in a strange attraction. The doe was about 100 yards away, yet close enough that I could take in her solid buff body, her elegant legs, and the thick white dish mop tail. She turned her body fully towards me, as if to show off her heart-breaking eyes, the large flat nose, and her two leafy ears pointed at me, alert with questions.

I held my breath, suspended in time and space.

Photo: Desktop Nexus
Some caution warned her and she wheeled away. Meanwhile the morning sun slipped through the trees, striping the boulders and the ancient cedars. I dropped my eyes to the trail and continued walking. The doe faded in my mind, replaced by the enchantment of a star-shaped mushroom, the delicate feathering of moss and a rusting abandoned sled.

I looked up the hill, and there she was again. She stood slightly off the path, her neck stretched out for one more look. Once again, we gazed at one another. Once again the moment stretched and swelled. Finally, she decided, firmly, that I was not to be trusted. She raised her left front leg, stamped the ground, then turned and flashed the dish mop at me and sprang away.

I crested the hill and came into a clearing. The doe had vanished, but a large maple, its leaves burning orange and yellow, seemed to be shaking with laughter.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Never too late

When my father was in his early 40s, he wanted to learn to play the piano. At this point in his life, he was a farmer who got out of bed each morning at 5 a.m. to milk the cows: 30 tan and black Jerseys and one huge black and white Holstein. A quick breakfast, and then Dad went on to plough fields, cut hay, mend fences, repair tractors and attend to the never-ending chores that always stood waiting. Supper was at 5 in the afternoon. Afterwards, Dad headed back to the barn to milk the cows once again. His workday didn't end until well into the evening, and then wife and children demanded attention and the last of his energy. He didn't have much time, if any, for himself, and I wonder if this yearning to play piano stemmed from a longing to create a cocoon of solitude and even pleasure, just for himself. 

  Dad loved music, as did I. One of our shared pleasures involved hauling out the straw-coloured portable RCA record player on a Sunday afternoon, when my siblings were outside playing, and my mother was visiting her neighbour friends. Dad and I would choose one of our few records - Beethoven's 6th Symphony, or Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture – take it out of the tattered sleeve, wipe it clean and put it on the turntable. Neither of us spoke while the music, scratched and tinny, still managed to find wings to our hearts.

An old upright piano stood against one wall in the front room of our yellow brick farmhouse. This room doubled as my bedroom. The piano was a Canadian make, Mason and Ritch. Although the mahogany cabinet was chipped and stained, the touch was light and the action responsive. A revolving mahogany stool, burnished to a smooth finish from years of players' bottoms, came with the piano. My mother had bought the piano at a local auction on her way home after a nursing shift. She bid $24 on it. A John Deere dealer upped the bid to $26. One of the farmers turned on him. “You're going to bid against our nurse?” he challenged. The dealer turned away, and Mom got the piano and stool for $28, plus an offer from one of the farmers to transport the newly acquired instrument to our home that afternoon.

I had been taking piano lessons with Sister Mary Lalemont at the convent in Mount Forest, next to the church. My practising, sporadic as it was, had been done in a neighbour's cold and musty parlour, so naturally I was delighted to have my very own piano close at hand. By the time I was 14, I had fallen in love with the piano and practised my Royal Conservatory pieces faithfully every day.

I remember it was a Sunday afternoon, the quiet time in our noisy household. My father appeared in the doorway to my room. He was dressed in his dark green work pants, a tan-striped shirt, and a brown cardigan. His thick dark brown hair was starting to sprout grey. It was early spring, and the inside of the single-paned windows were still covered in sheets of heavy opaque plastic to guard against the cold. Dad stood there, awkward and silent. Then, “Will you teach me to play?” he asked. I gave him a puzzled look. “I would like to learn to play the piano,” he said with simple dignity and no further explanation.

Well, he was my father, and fathers were to be obeyed. “Okay,” I said, my voice shaded with doubt. Dad sat down on the stool while I stood at his right shoulder. He put his large rough hands in his lap, laced fingers together and slowly twiddled his thumbs. These were hands most at home milking a cow, coaxing the last of the warm, creamy milk from her udder. These were hands stained with small black creases of machine oil from hours spent fiddling with equipment. Hands roughened from the early farm years, sowing fields by hand, reaching into the home-made jute sling that held the oats or barley, and with a wide sweep of the arm, scattering the seeds over the freshly ploughed black earth. These were hands that occasionally were drenched in the blood of slaughtered chickens or rabbits. Hands that held a rosary more comfortably than a book. Hands that from time to time fell on us in anger, and at other times, handed us overflowing vanilla ice cream cones.

Dad looked at me expectantly. I had no idea where or how to begin. I took a deep breath. “Put your right hand on the keys,” I ordered. Dad obediently placed his paw on the keyboard. I moved his hand so that his thumb fell on middle C. His hand felt heavy as lead, his long gnarly fingers sliding half-on, half-off the black keys.

You have to round your fingers.” I demonstrated with my own hand an octave higher. Dad tried to shape his hand into a curve, holding his fingers in clawlike tension. The veins on the back of his hand stood out like miniature rivers.

Let's try to play some notes,” I said, and slowly played three notes in sequence: C, D, E. “Now you try.”

Dad hit a jarring C with his thumb, wobbled on the D with his index finger and crashed into both E and F together with his third finger. “Let's try again,” I said, somehow finding the patience of a tree. Dad concentrated intently, the tip of his tongue sticking out of his mouth the way it always did when he applied intense focus and effort at something.

After several long minutes of countless repetitions, he finally managed a passable run up the three notes. The way back down was less smooth as his fingers kept knocking against each other. The keys bounced under his hand. I wondered how we were ever going to get the left hand going, let alone play with two hands. Finally, Dad dropped his shoulders, stood up and stretched. “I think that's enough,” he said. He gave me a pensive smile, squeezed my shoulder and left the room. I sat down, feeling the warmth his bum had left on the stool. I began to play through my pieces, a Mozart sonatina and Solfegietto by C.P.E Bach. After half an hour, I too stood up, stretched, crossed the front hall and wandered into the adjoining living room.

Dad was slumped in the Danish teak and orange naughahyde armchair, eyes closed, chin on his chest, sound asleep. His hands were folded over his belly, fingers laced, the thumbs quiet against one another. He did not ask me for another lesson, and I did not offer one. While it was never too late to start piano, it was also never too early to stop.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Smokin' Mama

During the time my family lived on a farm near Mount Forest, Ontario, my mother worked as a visiting nurse with the Victorian Order of Nurses, or VON as it was known. VON equipped all their nurses with Volkswagen Beetles in a Virgin Mary blue that matched the darker blue uniforms and wool coats worn by the nurses. Everyone in Wellington County, the area served by this branch of VON, knew Maman's Beetle: not because of its color, but because of her fast driving. Her priority was with her patients – changing dressings, administering injections, comforting them and their families. Patients loved her because she gave them all the time they needed and more, but that meant recovering those lost minutes by speeding along to the next call.

Neighbours remarked on how they heard the distinctive burr of the bug and watched my mother smoke by as she raced along the concession roads, deftly down-shifting and swerving to avoid potholes. Stop signs? Roll through and get moving. Her acceleration was wicked, as if everything counted on getting up to speed as fast as possible. Lives could be saved or lost in those few seconds. In the winter, slippery roads sometimes defied her. Once an icy patch tossed the Beetle into the ditch. Maman walked to the nearest farmhouse. About five minutes later, four hefty farm lads walked back to the bug with her, positioned themselves at each wheel, and lifted the darn thing back onto the road. Maman thanked them and sped away.

When we moved from the farm to Guelph, my mother kept her blue Beetle – and her driving habits. We lived in the southeast part of Guelph; the VON office was in the northwest. Maman was blessed with a mental GPS, configured to “fastest route, please.” Just as she knew all the back roads of Wellington County, she had a cab-driver's knowledge of Guelph's short-cuts, and always chose the shortest path from point A to point B. From our home on Delhi Street, the fastest route to the VON office was east on Delhi, a south turn on Eramosa and then, half-way down the hill, a left onto King Street, which ran diagonally down to the river and connected with York Street where the VON office was located. Taking this route bypassed the longer, slower downtown streets. In the face of the oncoming traffic surging up the Eramosa hill, you could see Maman silently calculating just how quickly the car would have to move to make that left turn. Often, she would cut the corner sharply by pulling the wheel hard to the left and stepping on the gas -- much to the terror of anyone sitting in the front passenger seat. A few times my heart almost stopped and I screamed at her to slow down. She simply ignored me, eyes intent on the road, foot firmly on the gas. She had a tiny statue of Saint Christopher glued to the Beetle's black pebbled dashboard: maybe it was his influence, or else the platoon of guardian angels watching over her, for she never had an accident – at least not during those years.

Now, I would like to boast that I am a far more cautious, and therefore, far better driver than my mother. But that would be an outright and pompous lie. My husband John would be the first to call me on it.

John and I enjoy different relationships with the gas pedal. He likes to toodle along at the speed limit and gawk at the latest highway or building construction along the way. This is fine when we're heading into the city to go to Home Depot or Value Village. It's not fine when we want to see a movie, and we left late, and the line-up will probably snake around two city blocks, and we won't get a ticket, and we'll end up disappointed...well, that's where my disaster-preparation mind goes. So when we have to get somewhere by a fixed time, I offer to drive.

I remember one long drive to visit John's father and his wife Beate who lived on Christian Island in Georgian Bay, east of Penatanguishene.

It was a swelteringly hot Friday in July, which sorely tested the air-conditioning in our old Honda Accord. We had been on the road since 4 a.m. that morning. The drive takes about seven to eight hours, depending on who's behind the wheel. Our route took us east along Highway 60, through Algonquin Park, over the top of Orillia, across Highway 400 on the Horseshoe Valley Road, and then through a grid of concession roads to a little outpost called Cedar Point. There, a 20-minute ferry ride connects the mainland with Christian Island. Most of the secondary highways posted speed limits of 80 kilometers per hour. I ignored the signs and drove a steady 100. The times John took the wheel, we dropped down to 85, while I practised deep breathing to tone down my impatience.

Crossing over Highway 400, we turned north on our first concession road towards Cedar Point, which was still some 70 kilometers away.

I glanced at my watch. 12:20 p.m. “When does the ferry leave?” I asked John.

I think there's one at 1:30 p.m. and then another one at 4 p.m.,” he said. “I wrote it down. It's in my wallet.” He dug out a tattered green cloth and Velcro wallet and handed it to me. I rifled through and found a tiny slip of paper, with even tinier lettering. “Hmm,” I said. “It says 1:00, not 1:30, and yes, there's another ferry at 4:00 p.m.”

It was now almost 12:30. If we didn't make the 1 o'clock ferry, we faced three miserable hours waiting in the heat. The only thing besides the ferry at Cedar Point is a tiny convenience store that's more a shack than anything else. “It would be great if we could make the 1 p.m. ferry,” I said. “Yeah, it's kinda hot out there,” John replied. “I think we can make it, but only if you let me drive,” I said decisively. John raised his eyebrows, and after a short pause, nodded. He stopped the car, we dashed around and switched places.

Okay,” I said. “You look out for kids – and cops.” I pushed in the clutch, ran through the gears and mashed the gas pedal to the floor. The speedometer leapt to the right – 80, 100, 120, 150, 160. That was as fast as I trusted myself to go. Luckily, in this part of Ontario, the land is high and flat, and the roads are straight and paved. Even luckier, there was hardly another car on the road. Whenever we did meet another car, I slowed down to a prudent 120. And no-one seemed to be out: no toddlers crawling in the grass, no youngsters playing road hockey, no adults puttering in gardens, or sitting in lawn chairs on front porches. They all must have been hiding from the heat, watching movies in their cool basements or air-conditioned family rooms. All my concentration was on the road, and I felt my mother's genes flowing into my body like high tide. As we flew along, John kept blessedly silent, his right hand firmly gripping the passenger ceiling strap. The telephone poles whipped by; golden barley fields spiralled crazily. Like my mother, I paid little attention to stop signs other than to look both ways before hurtling across the intersection. Corners were trickier. I had to brake enough to manage the curve yet not lose too much speed. From time to time, I glanced down at the car's clock. Five minutes to go and we were less than 5 kilometers from the ferry. Would we make it? The pavement ended, and we fishtailed on the dirt road, gravel spinning up from the wheels. A thick oak forest shadowed the road, the road zigzagged left and then right, more quick, furious braking, and then a sign, Cedar Point Ferry 1 km, flashed by. We crested a hill and caught sight of the magnificent turquoise waters of Georgian Bay. And there, still hugging the dock, sat the ferry. A handful of cars and pick-up trucks were already on board, with one final vehicle, a white Chevy SUV trundling across the metal ramp onto the ferry. We zoomed down the hill and squealed to a stop. The ferry operator, a middle-aged man with a weatherbeaten face, flipped his cigarette over the side. He signalled me to drive forward. Suddenly I became aware of my pounding heart, my forehead damp with sweat and my shaking hands. I rolled down the window to pay the fare. The thick noxious smell of rubber from the over-worked brake pads filled the air and the Honda's tires steamed.

Did some smoking, eh?” grunted the ferryman. I turned to John, and we both laughed giddily. I imagined my mother laughing with us.

Maman stopped operating a car when she turned 85, but that hasn't ended her driving. These days, her vehicle of choice is an all-weather Shoprider Flagship, an enclosed scooter that she affectionately calls her “Doohickey.” Her only complaint: it doesn't go fast enough. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hospitality on 18 wheels

According to Google, hospitality is “the friendly and generous reception of guests, visitors and strangers.” I would add “good food, a comfortable bed, and lively conversation.” By these criteria, my youngest brother Dave treated me to fine hospitality, albeit in unusual surroundings. During a recent five-day visit with him, I stayed in his home away from home, the International Eagle 18-wheel semi that he drives for Erb Trucking.

The week before, Dave had driven out to British Columbia from Ontario with my 89-year old mother on board for a visit with the western contingent of our van Schaik family: brothers Rich and John in Vancouver and the baby of the family, my sister Patricia in Powell River. We all gathered in Vancouver on the weekend that Dave and my mother arrived and celebrated Patricia's 50th birthday. Then my mother flew back to Ontario and I hopped in the cab for the drive back with Dave. It gave us a chance to spend long hours with one another and rediscover the connection of siblings.

When we were growing up on our farm near Mount Forest, Dave was on the periphery of my attention: a thin young rascal with cow-licky sandy hair, habitually dressed in a tan T-shirt, dark brown pants and white-toed running shoes. Richie, Dave and baby Patricia made up the “little kids.” The older brothers John, Steven along with me made up the “big kids.” Peter hung in the middle, neither big nor little.

As the oldest of the clan, and my working mother's stand-in housekeeper, I was too busy sweeping floors and too immature to appreciate my siblings' unique personalities.  I thought my brothers were annoying nuisances. They used to call me “The Boss”, and bossy I was. “Pick up your clothes! Clear the table! Keep your dirty boots off my clean floor!” I don't remember harbouring warm tender feelings towards them.

If I was the Boss, then Dave was the Helper. He willingly pitched in with farm chores: milking cows, stooking hay bales, handing tools to my father when the cultivator broke down. As a young man, and then an adult with his own young family, he continued his helping role, spending a good portion of his career leading L'Arche communities, inspired by the example set by L'Arche founder Jean Vanier.

A natural connector, Dave is the one to organize family reunions and offer his home as the venue. He's the one who makes the regular phone calls and stays in touch with family in Canada and abroad with an annual Christmas letter. He's the one who is most likely to suggest to my mother that they make the long trek from southern Ontario to Ottawa to visit John and me in Wakefield, my mother's old friends in Ottawa, and friends in Arnprior from the years that he and his family lived there. And yet, I rarely spend time alone with Dave: our phone calls usually center around family news, and during visits there is always family present, children to play cards with, meals to be prepared, and others to converse with.

So here we were, youngest brother and oldest sister, five days captive in the 6'x8' space of the semi's cab. If we didn't get along, it would be the week from hell. It was anything but.

The rig and its load
First, I discovered life on the road, starting with the truck and its load.

You've probably seen Erb trucks on the highway. The cab is fire-engine red, the trailer white. The same bright red displays the company name and its slogan 'Another Cool Move' on each side of the trailer. Even though the lettering looks as if a high school student back in the 60s dreamed it up, Dave set me straight: the slogan refers to the fact that Erb ships only refrigerated items. Hence the “cool move”. In truck parlance, refrigerated trailers are called “reefers.” Nothing to do with the marijuana that may or may not have influenced the Erb company logo and slogan.

Dave's rig, like he himself, is middle-aged: it's seen roughly one and a quarter million kilometers and lost its new vehicle smell ages ago. Two tan upholstered bucket seats with fold-up naugahyde armrests and serious lumbar support made for comfortable, if somewhat bumpy, rides. The driver's console displayed enough switches and gauges to rival a pilot's cockpit. Three extra-large cup holders were molded into the lower half of the console, and three more hugged the inside edge of the passenger seat. Truckers, who typically drive 11 to 13 hours a day, drink a lot of coffee.

The rear of the cabin boasted two comfortable bunk beds, each with a decent foam mattress and convenient bedtime reading lights. Thick industry-grade plastic curtains in a dull brown separated the front of the cab from the sleeping quarters. Similar curtains could be pulled across the side windows and windshield, affording complete privacy. Dave gave me the lower berth and levered himself onto the top bunk by placing a foot on one of the several cupboards bumped out from the walls. One cupboard contained books and CDs. Another, fastened with a bunjee cord, held an accordian file folder and Dave's backpack with his two changes of clothes. A toolbox with screwdrivers, a drill, flashlight and other tools sat in the cupboard right behind the driver's seat. A 5' x 2' piece of plywood, tucked against the back wall served as Dave's yoga board. To ease the inevitable stiffness that accrues from hour after hour of sitting, he does yoga stretches morning and night. Dave's thoughtfulness as a host extended to anticipating the female nightly pee. Hidden in one cupboard was a white plastic portable toilet, complete with seat and cover that he had bought at a garage sale. Inside, a removable green plastic bowl. (I took responsibility for dumping the contents in the morning.)

Various cables crisscrossed the floor of the cab, supplying power to a battered blue refrigerated picnic cooler -- another garage sale find -- and to Dave's two computers. The first looked a bit like an ancient Etch-a-Sketch toy. It connected Dave to Erb's dispatchers back in the home office. From time to time it would beep urgently and Dave would haul it onto his lap. At a break in traffic, he would check whatever message the dispatcher had sent him. The second computer, a heavy IBM Think Pad, displayed “Streets and Maps” which gave him directions on how to get from point A to point B. Dave admitted that he's too cheap to buy a GPS.

We constantly checked Streets and Maps. Starting out from Vancouver, our initial destination was Salem, Oregon. We were almost at the bridge, ready to cross to the U.S. when the Erb computer barked sharply. Dave pulled over to the side of the road. “Holy moly,” he said as he read the message. A last minute change of plans meant finding somewhere to do a U-Turn and head north to Pitt Meadows (where was that?) to pick up 40,000 pounds of frozen organic blueberries. I fired up Streets and Maps and acted as navigator. Our route then took us through the Rockies and the northern border States to Hartford, Michigan where we unloaded the blueberries. There, a switch of trailers and we ferried 30,000 pounds of some Campbell Soup product back to the Erb truck yard near Kitchener, Ontario.

Except for one pancake breakfast, we bypassed truck stop food, which is probably why my brother is considerably slimmer than most of the truckers we saw. He had prepared ahead of time all the meals for the week. Our menu rarely varied. “That way, I don't have to spend a lot of time planning meals,” Dave said. Breakfast consisted of diced apple chunks in yogurt, sprinkled with walnuts. Lunch was chicken salad on a soft baguette. Morning and afternoon, we snacked on carrot sticks, green beans, snap peas, radishes and red grapes, all neatly portioned and packaged in re-usable plastic bags. Our dinners were chicken or beef stew topped with rice and then mixed vegetables, all of which had been frozen in a serving-sized glass containers before the trip and placed in the cooler, where they gradually thawed out over the week. About mid-afternoon, we placed one of the frozen containers inside a metal-lined lunch box, which had a heating coil in its base, and plugged it into the cigarette holder. Two to three hours later, the food was piping hot. I spooned half the mixture into a small yellow plastic bowl for myself; Dave slid the other half into a wooden maple bowl, then set that bowl within a larger and flatter cherry bowl that acted as his tray. He had turned both bowls himself on his home lathe. We drew forks and knives from a black milk crate that carried odds and ends, including cloth napkins that did for the week. Meals were always eaten while rolling. Dave ate with one hand and drove with the other. During this week, I served as waiter. When my brother is on his own, he sets the cooler in between the front seats, right behind the gear shift, and places the milk crate on the passenger seat. His right arm takes on the swing and precision of a robotic instrument as he reaches across the cab to retrieve food, utensils and computers.

We spent an average of 22 hours out of every 24 in the truck, eating, talking, reading, and sleeping. About every six hours or so, we would locate a “Flying J” or “Pilot” truck stop and allow a half-hour break to use the bathroom and make a quick call home. Every couple of days, Dave filled the gas tank to the tune of $800. The truck stops also served as our sleeping campground. At the end of a long day, we nosed into the parking lot, already nearly full with row upon row of trucks, many with engines constantly running. Once I got used to the continuous drone, it made for a rough but effective lullaby and I slept decently. A couple of mornings, we treated ourselves to hot showers, $10 bucks each, with the second one free if the driver had a Pilot loyalty card. Which of course Dave had.

Waiting and connecting

When I told friends that I was going to be driving across the country in an 18-wheeler, everyone, including me, thought it would be quite an adventure. But Dave doesn't romanticize his work: much of the time you're not doing anything but driving....or waiting. When offloading, for example, you can spend two or three hours or even half a day waiting. Waiting for someone at a loading dock to give you the okay to back your truck into the dock. Waiting for the okay to open the back doors and get ready to be offloaded. Waiting for the forklift operators to remove the load. Waiting for the paperwork to be completed at the front office. Now repeat the entire waiting game for accepting a load.

Truckers have profound patience,” Dave told me.

We were on the road from about 7:30 in the morning until 10 at night, covering an average of 1100 kilometers per day. But we were never bored. We dissected family dynamics, and shared our very different memories of what it was like growing up in the same family. Dave admired my parents for living their Christian faith so rigorously. We both remembered the many different people who had stayed with us, some for years. They were all disadvantaged to one degree or another, from those who had Down's syndrome to lost souls looking for a refuge, to a family of Vietnamese boat people. Not nearly so generous in spirit, I recalled having mixed feelings: admiration, yes, but also a yearning for times when siblings and parents might be together just as family.

My brother and I discovered that we both loved poetry, and our conversations were often sprinkled with bits of poetry. Dave was making his way through Leonard Cohen's Book of Mercy, and I shared favourites of my own. We read letters and stories about our family. We mused about Dave's former life as Executive Director of various L'Arche communities. After a serious burn-out about seven years ago and tired of hiring and firing, he decided to make a radical switch and turned to trucking. “It has saved me,” he grinned. “I no longer need to help anyone and everyone whether they want it or not,” he said. “Most runs, I'm all by myself. I have literally hours and hours in which to contemplate life. Some days I almost feel like a monk.”

L to R, Annette, Dave, Luke, Cathy, Andy and Monica
Don't take that too literally. Happily married to Cathy, his wife of more than 25 years and his beloved 'anchor', Dave is definitely not a monk. He and Cathy have raised four remarkable children. They adopted their youngest child, Andy, a boy of Asian heritage who has Down's syndrome. Growing up, Andy was never coddled and always encouraged to take responsibility and stretch himself. Now a handsome young man of 21, Andy holds three part-time jobs, pays rent for the apartment that his father carved out of their home (Dave and his renovation mania is another story), shops and cooks for himself, and, this fall, will enter Lambton College to study community living. Meanwhile, Luke is making his way around the world after teaching English as a second language in Korea, Monica is working with people with autism and plans to obtain her Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) certificate, and Annette is a talented hair stylist. 
As I recall the range and depth of our conversations during those five days, it seems to me that my youngest brother has much to teach me about what makes life so wondrously rich: as he himself noted in his 2012 Christmas letter, “good old-fashioned practical love”. The kind of caring for others that doesn't boast, doesn't preach. The kind of love that lifts the Scripture verse from the page and sets it squarely in action in the world. The kind of love that is evident in the small gestures of daily life: a smile to the clerk at the truck stop's cash register; the cock of the head and careful listening to the young forklift operator at the loading dock; the regular phone calls to check in with family and Mom.

Dave's a guy who's comfortable with the non-conventional choices he's made, comfortable to be around, and who takes each day humbly and whole-heartedly. Not to mention, with generous and friendly hospitality.

Can you tell I'm proud of my little brother? I am. And today, April 10th, is his birthday. So happy birthday, Dave, and keep on truckin'!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chilly welcome

In 1994, my brother Rich surprised us all with the news that he, a confirmed bachelor in his late '30s, was finally getting married. He had been travelling in Chile, and had fallen for the daughter of a dentist. Richie always had sensitive teeth. Before the sudden engagement, he and Monika decided to trek together through the Andes mountains, sleeping under the stars and watching the UFOs whiz by. Monika later told us that this nomadic wandering between two unmarried people caused a serious rift between her and her devoutly Catholic parents. For a time, she was persona non grata which must have been unimaginably painful for someone whose life revolved around family.

But parental disapproval softened, as the two lovers decided to get married. Rich called to tell me the news. I could hear bright chatter in the background. “I'm hanging out at Monika's,” said Rich, his voice gurgling with laughter. “Family is very big here. Her family is very warm, very close. Her grandmother is here. Some of her cousins. They're all talking about their periods.”

The weather couldn't have been nicer in Santiago in early February when Rich and Monika took their wedding vows, surrounded by Monika's parents, grandmother and cousins. A feast was laid out in the garden, and the younger children chased each other excitedly, weaving in and out among the grown-ups. The sun shone and a mild breeze stirred the leaves of the nutmeg trees. Everyone knew that Monika had bravely set her gaze on a life with my brother in faraway Vancouver. It's not certain if the family talked about the necessary adjustments: Rich was not the neatest of persons, while Monika was quite particular; Monika's temperament was hot and fiery, Rich was famous for laughing away life's troubles. And what about the weather? From Santiago's mild climate to Vancouver's rainy winters, during which the standard weather report sounded like a broken record: “Ten degrees and raining.”

Airline tickets were purchased. First stop would be Toronto, then Vancouver. Rich asked if he and Monika could stay with John and me for a few days until they made their way to Vancouver. He wasn't certain about the flight's arrival time, and, anticipating delays with immigration – Monika was coming with a non-resident's visa – we planned that they would take an airport shuttle, which stopped at a subway station not far from our home. We would pick them up there. 

The day they were to arrive dawned clear, sunny – and bitterly cold. It was one of those winters before climate change replaced Toronto's snow with rain. During that winter of 1994, we regularly woke up to the outside thermometer registering minus 20 degrees Celsius or even lower. It took forever to bundle up before stepping outside: long underwear under our jeans, turtleneck sweaters, fleece jackets, down jackets, wool hats and mitts, scarves wrapped around our necks, thick woolen socks inside heavy winter boots.

We drove to the Wilson subway station, the blue Honda sedan sputtering in the cold. The heater was just starting to throw out some lukewarm air when we reached the station. John parked the car in the lot across from the subway, and we walked over to the entrance and waited inside. Every time someone opened the doors, a blast of frigid air tore at our ankles. We were grateful for the many layers of clothes, even if we looked like characters out of a Michelin tire ad.

After about five minutes, I caught the sight of my brother's head with its familiar tousled brown hair, rising into view on the escalator. A slim raven-haired, olive-skinned beauty stood behind him, her large black eyes darting around.  She wore tight black jeans, fashionable stiletto-heeled ankle boots and the skimpiest black leather bolero jacket I had ever seen. No hat. No scarf. No gloves. We rushed forward and enveloped them in downy hugs, then took their large suitcases and headed for the door. Monika tiptoed outside. As the cold air rushed to greet her, she tried to pull her jacket closer around her thin frame. She looked up at the dazzling blue sky, then, in broken English cried out, “The sun, he shine – but so col'!”

By the time we crossed the intersection and returned to the car, her teeth were chattering. We quickly drove home. I turned up the furnace thermometer to 28 degrees C. The first order of the day was to brew a strong cappuccino for both of them, and then I headed upstairs to my clothes closet. Spare long johns – bright purple, courtesy Mountain Equipment Coop. A purple zip pullover to match. A blue fleece neck warmer. A green fleece jacket. My blue down jacket. Red fleece hat; padded black mitts. Thick grey woolen socks. Two pairs.

Monika put on every last stitch of clothing, even the down jacket, hats and mitts. Gone was the fashionista: she looked clown-like in the vivid clashing colours. But at least, and at last, she was warm.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

On boredom

What makes you bored?” I asked David and Maureen. They looked at me blankly. We were sitting on the long benches on either side of their eight-foot library table that has hosted meals and conversations for more than 30 years. A chicken stew simmered on the stove. Maureen tossed the salad. John straddled the bench next to me. David poured the wine.

You know, bored,” I repeated. “My writing group's assignment is about boredom. So I've been thinking about what makes me bored. I never get bored when I'm by myself, or walking in the woods. I get bored when I'm with other people. Which is shocking for someone who's a life coach.”

Maureen sprinkled fresh strawberries over the salad greens. “I get bored when someone goes on and on,” she said. “A motor mouth.”

David looked puzzled. His amber eyes narrowed and took on that piercing look he gets when he's thinking. “I sometimes get bored when I'm doing something completely repetitive, like banging nails into fascia. I just tell myself, keep going.”

John stood up and yawned. “I get bored by conversations about boredom,” he said, and ambled off into the living room.

Digging deep into my crusty memory, a handful of boring scenes finally swam into focus. When I was 17 or 18, I travelled to Holland and stayed with various relatives. I remember one visit to a distant aunt and uncle where there was nothing to do. No cousins around. No English books. No card games. We sat on stiff upholstered couches in a large sparse living room, trying to make small talk. My uncle hid behind his daily newspaper. My aunt fidgeted, then went to the kitchen to lay out the cold supper, which we ate in an awkward silence. I counted the minutes until I could decently escape.

Boredom can have consequences. One day in home economics class in high school, our teacher Mrs. Wolsley droned on about how to make up a bed properly. You folded the foot end of the top sheet over the bottom one in such a way as to create a crisp triangular pleat that fell neatly down the side. It was called a “hospital corner” because that's the way nurses were taught to make up hospital beds.

As Mrs. Wolsley earnestly passed on this bit of arcane knowledge, my best friend Lois Ghent rolled her eyes at me and we began passing a note. 'Mrs. Wolsley's nose looks like a pig's.' 'Her nostrils are big and crooked.' 'No wonder she doesn't have children, even though she's married!' We snickered and passed the note back and forth.

The next day, Mrs. Wolsley asked Lois and I to remain after class. We sat down, puzzled. What did the old cow want now? She laid her closed fist on the top of her desk and and then opened her hand. There lay our note: lines of blue and black ink stabbing the three-hole ruled paper. I gulped and turned fiery red. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Lois, head bent, long brown hair hiding her face.

In a mild voice, Mrs. Wolsley told us that these words had hurt her. That was all she said. We left her classroom feeling appalled at our careless cruelty. Lois and I wrote her letters of apology, but the incident often nagged at me. A few years later, at university, I was making an evening gown to wear to a gala and dance to which a boy had asked me to attend as his date. A tight-fitting off-the-shoulder pattern lay ready to be cut out of vermillion velvet. But which way to pin the pattern pieces: with the velvet nap running up or down? I couldn't remember. I phoned Mrs. Wolsley, even though it was the middle of the day and long distance charges applied. Long minutes ticked by as the high school secretary went to find her. When Mrs. Wolsley finally came on the line, I explained my predicament. “The nap should run up,” she said. I thought I heard a note of pleasure in her voice at being called, long distance, for her advice. And even though she never knew it, to this day I take pleasure in making neat hospital corners.

In all fairness, I suspect that I too have been boring from time to time. I remember talking with my cousin Titia's husband Henk at a family gathering in Holland several years ago. The room was filled with aunts and uncles and cousins – many of whom I did not know well, along with family friends I had never before met. I glommed onto Henk, peppering him with questions about his volunteer projects. At first he replied enthusiastically, but finally he backed away, saying, “I really should say hello to some other people now.”

Looking back, it's been difficult to find many examples of boredom – and my friends agree. Perhaps it's because boredom blurs things, washes away memory's bright colours. Or maybe our lives are just way too busy for boredom to take root. I remember going for coaching during a time when I was trying to overcome deeply ingrained workaholism. My coach, Anne, assigned this exercise: every weekend, three hours of unstructured time. “No flipping through the to-do list,” she ordered. “And no reading – that's an escape. I want you to tune into yourself and listen. What would you really like to do? Maybe you'll be lucky enough to get bored and experience what springs out of boredom.”

The first weekend after this coaching session, I spent several minutes aimlessly wandering about outside. I finally sat down on the ground and began playing with the large flat flagstones left over from the building of our fireplace. Three hours of total absorption later, I had placed five stones in what would become an unfinished path to our front door. Needless to say, I wasn't bored.

But what is it about being with other people that causes boredom to seep over you like a thick fog? What exactly is it that's boring? One-way conversations. No interest in what I might have to say. Someone who is blind to reading signs of eyes glazing over. A feeling of being trapped in time in a never-ending tape loop of the same thing, repeated over and over. Blah, blah, blah. Boredom leads to restlessness and wandering thoughts, to stifled yawns and tapping feet. Boredom brews resentment and cynicism. Boredom is an ennui with what is, and with whomever is sitting or standing in front of us.

It strikes me that I get bored when people don't live up to my rules – that there should be mutual interest, that one should sensitively include others. Give and take is one of my rules. Plus, give and take leads to connection, which is the sine qua non for me. The point of good conversation, of lively teaching, of meaningful exchanges, is to connect – isn't it? What would happen if I abandoned those rules? Would boredom transform into something else?

I'm going to try something new,” I said to Maureen and David. “I never get bored by trees – there's always something fascinating to learn about them. The texture of the bark, the shape of the leaves, the play of light among the branches – it's endless. The next time I catch myself becoming bored with someone, I'm going to say to myself: 'what kind of tree is this person?' “

David stared at me in silence, then guffawed. “Good luck!” We sat down to eat.