Building better boxcutters

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It is a rainy late October morning in New Brunswick. I am just back from an arts conference in Maine, where we talked about advocacy, strategies for sustainable success, public engagement, and leadership. There were lots of buzzwords, jargon, and catch phrases that get bandied about in many fields, but through it all, I was struck by how many of the people leading these seminars gave concrete, inspiring stories from the local level – how personal life philosophies translate into an organization’s mission, and become the locus for change agency over and over again. How an Opera House in a small coastal town has become an advocate for local lobster fishermen. How a theatre group is helping the citizens of its community become great performers of life. How an art teacher transformed signage in her school through student design, and changed the way her school engaged with the larger community, too. How an orchestra has helped the corporate world lead from every chair.

I ruminate about the nature of leadership – how each of us, if we are able to articulate our personal life philosophy (and that may shift over time, as we grow and learn and change), can translate that, through focused action, into positive change in our communities. That each of us, whether we are introverted, extraverted, and regardless of where our talents lie, have something to offer our family, neighbor, community, or jurisdiction. That true engagement lies in self actualization, and that self actualization grows up through a sense of empowerment to express oneself…and that there are so many modes of self-expression that our school systems do not yet adequately address.

I ponder creative problem solving. Creativity is not the sole domain of any one discipline – and yet our education systems encourage quantitative versus qualitative knowledge – pushes towards specialized knowledge rather than opening opportunities for cross-disciplinary / multi-modal thinking, and too often ignores anything that can’t be written or enumerated. So often I hear people in positions of authority toss about the worn-out phrase, “thinking outside the box”…and yet none of them seem to have access to a box cutter. What if the most creative thinkers from all disciplines had greater opportunities to intersect? What if there were deliberate openings for scientists, artists, computer programmers, health practitioners, etc. to meet and exchange ideas?

Our world is demanding a new kind of literacy – the net demands visual literacy, auditory literacy, and more highly developed critical thinking skills to parse through mountains of data, messages, and argumentations. To navigate that world with skill, to insert ourselves in it with any kind of lasting gravity means we have to have better listening skills, thinking skills, observation skills, and the ability to understand how the juxtaposition of various elements – visual, literary, auditory, etc. – impacts how we perceive – or how somebody else may be manipulating how we perceive.

I have never been the best listener – but more than ever, the ability to listen actively and critically is increasingly key. So is empathy, in a world that is increasingly coming to one in a stream. We can’t afford to be passive receivers – somehow we all need to become active, sophisticated listeners…and we also need the critical capacities to analyze what is being received in order to reframe something before we share it with others. What lens were you using when you read that cbc article about shale gas fracking? What elements were being shared by the media? Was the reporting balanced? What was the government’s response? Is there evidence of active listening there? Empathy? What of the people of Elsipogtog? Of Kent County? Where are they coming from? Where is there disconnect? Why is there disconnect? Why are traditional methods of dealing with this kind of crisis so ineffective? What could be done differently? Who holds knowledge and skill in those diverging methods of approach? What does social license really mean, and to whom? What values are at stake? Why is each value valid? Where can balance and respect be restored?

We have so much to sort out in how we approach things – but it all begins with empowering children with as many means of self-expression as possible when they are young…so that they are equipped with lateral thinking skills (thinking about things from multiple perspectives, observing in different ways, with all five senses) in order to become lucid, articulate, capable proponents of their own individual philosophies of life – and to thereby ultimately become more engaged, open, empathetic citizens.

Spring runoff

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Spring runoff gushes excitement: raging whitewater in the brook alongside the steep walk down the hill to the bus. Gloopy red mud swallows rubber boots unexpectedly, tries to suck them back. The snow grows grainy and hard, glares crystalline in the sun. The spruce trees exhale: nature’s breath mint. Buds purpled. The sun feels warmer though the air is cool. The lichens stand out in sharper relief on the bark of trees, somehow. Everything glistens with the sleeking of spring. The gaspereau  run the rivers…fiddleheads plump their nubbly homes on the riverbanks. Spruce buds prepare to pop their papery brown hats…which for me has always signalled a spring run – off to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

In the 70s, Spruce Budworm spray included a spicy little ingredient called DDT. So each spring, my parents would pack us up and ship us off to Yarmouth to stay with Lucy and Helen at their studios in Pembroke Dyke. Lucy was my great-aunt, and the reason my mother had come to Canada in the first place. She and Helen, both painters who had met during their art school years in Boston, had been on the way back from a mentorship in Europe and made a pit stop in Paris to paint in a studio there…and met my mother, who was then an art student at l’école des beaux-arts. They invited her to come paint with them in Pembroke Dyke for a year…and she did. Then she married my father. Had us. We bumped around the planet a bit and eventually resettled in New Brunswick. And so Pembroke was where we retreated for two months of school each spring during budworm spraying in New Brunswick.

We stayed in Helen’s studio and had family supper’s in Lucy’s studio. The bus arrived, swirling out of the mists every morning to take us to the local elementary school. Softball was a much bigger deal there than it was in our regular school – and we hadn’t much of a clue how to play. Luckily there were pickup games with the kids who rode the bus with us in a neighbouring field. All the kids knew Lucy and Helen, so accepting us as an extension of them was easy.  Lucy’s studio was a key destination for the local kids. There were marionettes, toy soprano saxes, a record player, paints, pastels, paper, papier maché, and two artists working in the north light of a bay window. And they had ducks and dogs. It was a huge draw.

Every visit to Lucy and Helen began and ended with an enthusiastic round of ring around the rosy. Her weathered studio-house was perched on a raised grassy meadow between two beaches – one that arched toward the Overton fishing docks, and another that sloped away towards a neighbouring farm on the next point of land. The duck pond was ringed with reeds, beach roses, and punctuated by a little duck house. Feeding the ducks leftover stale white bread was a favourite.

In the mornings, eggs were fried in cast iron pans on the old wood stove in the kitchen, and the toast was browned over the fire in the studio’s beachstone hearth. The air was fog-fingered dampness ringed with wood smoke, beach roses, rotting bladderwrack, turpentine, oil paints, and salt. There were forbidden sugary indulgences a the studio, too: Pop Shoppe pop – something that never crossed the threshold of our own home – pink wafer cookies and ambrosia salad with coloured marshmallows.

During the day we were sent to the beach with pails, forks, and shovels to dig for clams. Later we would arrange a fire and have a clam bake just meters from where the clams had been sourced.  Before bed, water was pumped at the sink, a final trip to the outhouse in the back yard was made (we sisters went together in the dark with a flashlight, and took turns), and then the kerosene lamps were dimmed, blown out, and we all tucked into our cots in the tiny shared space of the garret.

Bliss.

Transplant

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It’s late May, and hovering around the zero mark, despite verdant evidence of spring’s enthusiastic upthrusting and many warm, sunny days leading up to this one.

Yesterday I dug up plants from the perennial beds at my house in Fredericton, and transported them here for transplanting in Bloomfield. There are plants in Bloomfield now that were divided from the carefully tended soil of the Pink House, too – an old family home filigreed with a verandah inspired by echoes of ancient mosques of the Middle East. Each plant has been torn from its neighbours, and carries with it the residue of the soils from which they’ve been drawn. As I set the plants down anew into the Bloomfield beds, I observe the contrast of the brown soils in the plants from Fredericton with the ruddy soils of the Kennebecasis valley. I tuck the radicals of each tender rootling into its new red bed, tamp it down, sealing in the muddy slurry that will help blunt the trauma of displacement. In a year, the plants will be well-established. In three, they will have spread themselves, occupying the bed with confidence. Claiming new ground, even intermingling with the neighbouring plants. In five years, some of the more spready varieties will need to be divided and sent off to other beds, or to become compost to enrich the soil another year.

I am a transplant, too. A veteran transplantee. As a child, I was transplanted according to the nomadic whims of philosophical and occupational undertows. Some were patterns of transition on repeat. My sister and I counted the schools once: 13 in 12 years. The transplantings continued in adulthood, too. It’s a long log: northern ontario, western Australia, southern France, New Brunswick, western Australia, New Brunswick again (Salisbury, Sussex, Sussex Corner, Markhamville, Woodstock, Fredericton, Bloomfield). Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia. I remember how easy it was to move when I was very little. How much harder when I was school-aged, struggling to find a place in the jostling, noisy clamour of various classrooms and playgrounds and secondary school social strata. How I leaned forward into the transitions of university and early couplehood: within five years, a strong social network with ties that bound tightly as family, borne of simultaneous blossomings and discoveries that come with the early years of an emerging family nucleus. And in the transitions of midlife, things are slower, more measured, more deliberate…but there is still malleability.

To each new place, I have carried the trace elements of the places I have been: the scents, the light, residual sinewaves of cultural rhythm, the contours of the land and the brushwork of the vegetation. I am an infusion of the people who surrounded me, their influences flecking my mottled composition.

As I get older, the time it takes to integrate in a deep way seems to a little stretch longer. Odd: returning to New Brunswick after years away, I felt the relief the deep recognition that comes with homecoming – and at the same time, the jarring realization that having been away, I am also an alien element. I waft of otherness, which, with so many moves, is familiar, too. Easy it is, resettling in the family flowerbed. Linking with old friends brings a comfort unique to deep acceptance. New connections, though, are fewer and somehow more tentative and careful.

My children have made three major transitions in their young lives: much less than in my childhood, but no less challenging. With each transition, the tendrils of connection have stayed strong, and new connections are being forged. The tension is like that at the edge of a water droplet: that line of separation between containing the past and bursting forth to insinuate and be absorbed into a newness of being.

In Bloomfield, a brook sluices its watersong through the property, making its way to the Kennebecasis, which meanders below the house, winding between willows, alders, dogwood, silver maple, chokecherries, shad bushes, and green pillows of pasture. The presence of water is steadying, somehow. The brookslurry wets my root tendrils and softens the edges of things, offering to welcome a new settling.

I remember reading about imprinting in animals. Imprinting upon one’s parents, imprinting upon place. Later, readings on the importance of place in literature.

Hugo’s Gloss to Worlds Colliding

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Although I have yet to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in its entirety – I was fingering its thick spine in the original French not long ago in Gallimard’s aisles on St. Laurent Street in Montreal recently, contemplating the challenge – the work’s sweeping power resurfaced for me this past winter when watching the latest film version with my family. Literature has always been for me a labyrinthine gloss to the complexities of human reality, so in the middle of a spring night on Saint Lucia, far from home on a getaway with my husband to replenish ourselves, up pops Les Miserables in the wakeful wee hours with a possible paradigm to help a newly blended family integrate: a challenge which is a humbling daily reality.

Now, it has been a long time since I’ve attempted a mildly academic parsing of a text. Let’s not even pretend I’m taking a stab at such an exercise here, since I’ve only seen Les Miserables twice: once live as a play long ago in my student days in Montreal, and more recently the film version. To boot, I haven’t bothered to bone up on who the scholars are, nor what they posit. This is a personal parsing: the kind that comes combing up through the tangled root system of my own inner world, that twines the radical tendrils of truth and revelation from a parallel fictional reality with those of my own life, to wring from my present new opportunities for improved understanding.

At supper last night, I  listened attentively to my husband outline his observations on a couple of recent challenges we’ve been contending with in our freshly merged family reality – which is still very much in Seinfeldian “worlds colliding” phase. Two worlds that had individual integrities are mashing in the middle in a snipped up jumble of collage that is unintelligible to anyone yet. As I listened, I felt two things: that I was getting closer to understanding his perspective, and at the same time, that through that understanding, I felt isolated in a completely separate reality bubble when examining the same situations from my own perspective, on the other side of the collage shards. I rarely feel fully prepared to respond when I have that sensation, particularly when what I’m aware of an accompanying sense of creeping defensiveness and a reflex to refute, repudiate, deny and disassemble – all of which are more likely to lead to an argument at a time when what is most needed is a sympathetic ear. Not that argument doesn’t have merits in helping to a better understanding…it’s just that there are some situations where a more nuanced approach is needed. And I was feeling helpless to offer a gentle bridge in the moment, so I just listened and did my best to understand things his way.

Reel forward to last night’s/this morning’s insomniac moment. I woke with my processor at full bore, which is somewhat of an annoying pattern these days. Another issue for discussion at another time. My brain yawed alert onto how even the distilled musical version of Les Miserables forces us to examine something we all struggle with: that we are all of us directors of our own particular reality show. We cast the characters we come into contact with into the unfolding narrative of our lives as we live it – and sometimes recast the same characters in revised drafts/retrospectives of the same realities as new realities inform our previously accepted versions of the narrative we constructed yesterday. We all do it, we can’t help it. Narrative is how we structure our understanding of the world. It’s the baseline for logic, for thought, for argument. When we talk about our day at the dinner-table, we’re already in revisionist mode, and chances are the history we’re recounting is replete with things we’re not even conscious we’re adding, omitting, or including through assumptions born from shared societal contextual framework. The coffee spilled on one’s chest during the morning’s commute may have clicked into place a lense through which all subsequent events of the day were warped.

So there I was, staring into the void, considering the obviously Christian lense through which reality is interpreted by Victor Hugo as he opens the saga of Jean Valjean to his readership – and of just how many lenses of particular to individual characters we are offered to look through in the course of the story. And I thought of all the signals we receive as an audience on the question of perspective. At the beginning, “Look down” is sung from both below and from above – and it describes a power relationship – those meting justice look down upon those who are serving punishment for crimes large and small – indiscriminately – and at the same time, the prisoners are through the same act of “looking down”, exercising  a method of defensive self-containment and protection through a deliberate withdrawal from self-expression to avoid further correction from above. The nature of justice and the human paradigms we create to mete it in a society are questioned. We know that the punishment – several years of hard labour – does not fit Valjean’s crime, which was stealing bread to prevent his sister’s son from starvation.

There are two overarching social paradigms for understanding the world in Les Mis: that of the justice system, which is devised by humans through their government, and that of religion, a system devised by humans through the Church. Though Hugo reveals himself, through his own storytelling biases, to adhere to the tenets of Christianity, perhaps the more important crux of the matter Hugo is driving at is something that transcends any particular religion or justice system: love is the key.

Xavier, who is a policeman, sees Valjean reductively only: he is a criminal, and in the paradigm that governs how Xavier operates in the world, as a Christian and as a policeman (despite having been born in the gutter, just as Valjean was), Xavier casts Valjean as a villain and refuses to see his humanity or to consider the nuances of the dire human situation that precipitated Valjean’s crime. Valjean sees things in black and white: the damned and the just. And necessarily, he sees his role as being that as a defender of justice, and in his strict adherence to what he sees as his duty to god and country, he fails to see Valjean the human being, to understand Valjean and by extension himself all people – as a combination of flaw and virtue – imperfect, and worthy of forgiveness, love, and sympathy.

Throughout the saga, we see Valjean struggle between the selfish id-drives of survival mode right after his release from prison (destitute with damning papers that seal his doom as one not to be trusted, hired, or respected as an equal human being) – where selfish drives reign – and his consideration of the needs of others. His recurring theme song is Who am I? –  pointing straight at this inner conflict. It is the gift of mercy, meted through the gift of the silver from the man he has stolen it from – that forces Valjean to think beyond himself for the rest of his days. Mercy, being an extension of the act of loving (Christian or not) is the gift that keeps on giving – it is what makes Valjean’s life decisions exceptional – it is what forces him to look at situations from more than one vantage point…to consider the needs, drives, dreams, and struggles of others, and to act with pluralistic perspective of each situation in mind rather than allowing the single lense of his own needs, motivations, and comforts to guide decisions that have fateful implications for more than just himself. What Valjean comes to inhabit is a social conscience, and fits of social conscience always make Valjean sing refrains of the Who am I? song.

When worlds are colliding,  social conscience guided by love and sympathy for the other – a pluralistic understanding of a given situation – is key to conflict resolution, and to finding a way to conduct oneself that respects and considers all. Sometimes it means compromise. Sometimes it calls for sacrifice. In reality, most of the compromises and sacrifices most of us make daily are fairly small, though they can make a big difference. Power relationships play a role, often, in who bears what degree of responsibility. Some imbalances can be corrected easily. Others can be more challenging, may right themselves more gradually over time. Or not: leading to sour, bitter people with chips on their shoulders, who are completely hobbled in getting past the demands of their id and survival mode. It happens. The trick is to avoid the bitter sour stuff if you can.

When Xavier finally comes to understand Valjean’s humanity – his capacity to act from love: to put others’ needs before his own, to have mercy, and ultimately to forgive those who have wronged him through an understanding of their own humanity, motivations, and situation…that moment is what undoes Xavier, for that same flash of understanding of Valjean’s worth as a fellow man calls into question his own unilateral interpretations of justice and the roles he has cast people in, how he has acted accordingly, often blind to mercy and without love for his fellow man. He awakens to his blind acceptance of a social paradigm that he had applied unilaterally to others. As he realizes his own human flaws, mistakes – he finds that through his own strict lense, which he cannot escape – a habit of strict interpretation of moral code – that he cannot accept, love, or forgive himself – so he ends his life.  Drastic, and not recommended problem-solving.

Although extreme and ill-advised, Xavier’s act is symbolic and provokes more thought on the “worlds colliding” scenario. With change inevitably comes destruction in some form. It doesn’t have to be cataclysmic. In fact, it’s optimal if it isn’t. If we love each other well and try our best to understand, consider, and relate to the perspectives, needs, fears, and dreams of others – and we are conscious of what our own needs, motivations, and responsibilities are – inevitably we all see where we need to make compromises. It doesn’t mean that we’re all going to rise above our selfish interests every day. Or that we’ll all summarily abandon the routines or paradigms we’ve clung to for years that make our world make sense. The real world doesn’t adhere to a Utopian ideal of any sort. But maybe we’d all be a little more flexible and understanding and forgiving if we could just get past that id/survival mode bit. We live in an era of instant gratification. Distinguishing needs from wants isn’t something a lot of us  dwell on much. We’re spoiled, comfortable, and entitled in North America. To boot, most of us live with a healthy helping of cognitive dissonance – that handy ingredient that helps us accept less than optimal personal operating procedures and still maintain a healthy self-image without  the pesky hassles that come with true self-awareness and the inevitable self-recriminations that come with that territory.

Me? I’m no better than anybody else. The mama bear comes out in me when I fear my young are being threatened, misunderstood, or unfairly cast in roles that seem too reductive. And I can be defensive on my own account, too, and perhaps too quick to make reductive castings of the characters in my own home movie, according to the patchwork paradigm collectively curated consciously and subconsciously over the course of my own life – the hodgepodge of societal norms and values I adhere to.

It’s complicated. And it’s simple. John Lennon nailed it: All we need is love.

Here’s to worlds colliding.

Glacial dandruff and other pleasures

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My parents decided to build at the top of a sawn-off mountain (all Appalachians were decapitated by glaciers). Since Dad is a geologist, you’d think that the name alone would have been an indicator of the fertility of the soil at the tippy-top. Not good. Glacial dandruff, anyone?

At one time, there had been a Manganese mine in the hill. The adults all seemed to know where the ancient shafts were. To all children who grew up in Markhamville, however, that’s still classified. Apparently there were thriving communities in Lissonville Settlement and in Markhamville when the mine was productive, over a hundred years ago. Today, Lissonville is empty.  Its houses listed in a sloping, twisting, descent into the toothy, open mouths of dark foundations. Blueberry barrens now smooth their bright foliage over the fields that once were…englobing mounds and mounds of rocks picked from soils that bred baby rocks in the night. And grandmother rocks. With plenty of cousins.

At the top of mine hill, my parents geared up for their back-to-the land endeavours. A garden plot was tilled in an old hayfield above the house. I can’t recall whether the roto-tilling broke any blades, but I do know that every subsequent spring roto-tilling yielded enough rocks to sink a large ocean-going vessel. And every spring, we picked rocks. A rock wall grew taller and taller. The rocks were nubbly, pinky-red and irregular. The rock wall was not a beautifully arranged thing. It was a higgledy-piggledy wall of glacial rubble. Manure was generously applied to the soil. Clouds of lime. Bags and bags of peat were crumbled and dispersed in the hopes that the “soil” would one day hold moisture. If you’ve ever poured a bucket of water on a pile of gravel…well, you get the idea. And every spring, the frost heave would vomit forth another crop of rocks.

Somehow, the garden did become viable. In the years that followed, we added a second garden above the first for potatoes, and then rotated the crops so that the “soil” didn’t get depleted. We had corn, beans, radishes, potatoes, chard, beets, cabbages, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes that barely managed to get green before the first frost hit. A chicken coop helped for ensuring a steady and short-haul supply of fertilizer. Raising Meat Kings meant we had organic protein, too. Since the telephone and electric lines screeched to a halt at the bottom of the almost 45 degree angle of Mine Hill itself, a little hut was built at the bottom of a (wait for it) gravel pit. In this hut we stored a freezer and a telephone, which were shared with our across-the-road neighbour, who was running a pottery before we moved in. So we had a place to freeze meat, veggies, and a party-line telephone. This was the ultimate convenience. Now we only had to drag the protein and veggies by sled up the sometimes-plowed road in the wintertime. And it was a quick toboggan-ride down – luge style, if there was a lot of snow and the plow had somehow managed to climb the hill with its tire chains ringing and motor groaning. Nobody lingered on the long-distance calls, since it was freezing in the winter and cooking in the summer.

Idyllic, right? Utopian. Heavenly. I haven’t even mentioned the swarms of mosquitos and blackflies that attended the weeding festivities. Black flies have a talent for flying in one’s eyes, up your nose as you breathe in, in your mouth if you dare to speak, and they feast on your scalp and the backs of your ears, leaving crusty dried blood deposits that would make a shark go absolutely berserk if it had the pleasure of scenting you on a swish of saltwater current. Good thing we were half an hour from the Bay of Fundy. Oh yes, and as if these delights weren’t plentiful enough, did I mention the red ants? Ants go absolutely gaga for acidic glacial soil. They were so giddy, they established a veritable metropolis of high-rise ant condominiums in the upper field. If you stepped on one by accident, they would swarm your legs and bite you en masse. My youngest sister once made the unfortunate choice of sitting on what she imagined to be a nice tussock of spruce needles during a hide-and-seek game. The shrieks echoed in the valley.

Acidic soil is also great for wild raspberries…and then later in the summer, blueberries. I always had scabby legs and arms from the raspberry brambles. We filled empty yogurt containers with sweet wild gems, and filled our bellies, too.

Our neighbours at the bottom of the hill lived in a lush, fertile paradise, by comparison. The soil was loamy. Brooks gurgled past. They had a pond fed by springs – and they rigged up a diving board with an old tire for a spring. On hot summer days, we would change into our bathing suits, clamber with our towels slung over our shoulders into the back of dad’s half-ton, and bounce in the clouds of dust kicked up by the dirt road all the way down to the pond. In the pond, there were tadpoles. Frogs sang their froggy song from the long grasses at the edges. If it was really hot, you swam till you found the cool spots where the springs sprang. There were little leeches in the silty areas – we would pick them of, stretching until they popped in release – and leave them to a dry death on the diving board dock. My mother made tents with old mosquito netting from our years in Australia. She packed picnics. Between swims, we would take refuge beneath the netting. Horseflies and deer flies compounded the swarms of black flies with their persistent drone. Horsefly drone would leave you at the water’s surface and be waiting when you came up for air. The frogs were well nourished. And so were the flies. Circle of life, people.

In the evening, the air cooled and the stars came out. The milky way spread its veil, and we’d thread constellations. Adjustable screens propped the windows open, and the house breathed in the dewy night air. From our blankets, we watched the moon rise until sleep winked it out. Maybe Utopia wasn’t so far off, after all.

Om to Ω and back again…

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Dad was raised Anglican in a perfect little white church in Woodstock, N.B. Mum’s mother was a Huguenot…but her paternal grandmother was Catholic, so both played a role in her early years.

By the time my sister and I rolled along, though, my parents were exploring every religion under the sun. And we moved a lot. Seven Arrows was bedtime story fodder. Indian sitar music unwound from the stereo. Our dining room table in Perth, Australia, was a low Japanese one with cushions to sit on, cross-legged. Buddha shone from a jewel and mirror-encrusted framed confection on my bedroom wall. At bedtime, we said the Lord’s Prayer and learned the Golden Rule – which Dad claimed distilled all one really needed to glean from Christianity. And at supper, we joined hands: right hand upheld to recieve your neighbour’s energy, left hand palm downwards to pay the bliss forward to the neighbour on the other side. We were told to close our eyes, and everyone at the table would intone: Ooooooooommmmmm. . . Oooooooommmm. . . Ooooooooommmmmm. The soundwaves resonated and jiggled the insides. It was downright ticklish. And so very, very earnest.

Most kids fidget at grace a bit. My sister and I could barely contain our snorts and giggles. “Shh! Say om!”

Mum spent her days, however, submerged in the chemistry of pigments, paints, turpentine. Dad spent his bagging soil samples, charting them on maps, reading in minerals and outcroppings oracular signs and symbols of his science: distilling the physics of ancient geological moments frozen in the earth’s crust. My aunt, a biologist, had faith in science as others believe in religion – in the logical networks of its taxonomies, the clinical precisions of scientific observation, its proofs, its queries, its quirks, quasars, and quarks.

A varied landscape? Yes…but unpredictable, mysterious. A mystic bumbleberry pie. Energy as particle, energy as wave, energy being passed around the dining room table from hand to hand. The idea of a hierarchy of reincarnation. Of the body and blood of Christ being metaphorically consumed (canibalism?). Of deep meditation that wears the impressions of monks’ bums deep into stone over hundreds of years. Of the zodiac’s network of stars lacing the night sky of the southern hemisphere…or the northern one. Aborigine songs at a fire. Bagels eaten by a girl named Zinya. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Faeries. The nomadic patterns of the Bedouin. Egyptian hieroglyphs. A muslim prayer rug.

In Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, Piscine’s father, who adheres to science and is married to a botanist, tells him that he has to choose between all the religions he is exploring: that to believe everything is to believe nothing…and yet Pi does not seem to choose, ever, really – mysticism and mystery is inconclusive in this fictional world, too. Throughout the book, there is an exploration that rang real for me, a vein that explores truth, divinity, mystery. An exploration that refuses to pin anything down, that allows mystery and alternate possible realities to coalesce, fuse, winnow into the multiple alternatives that twist about us, present themselves, twist away.

It isn’t any wonder that I couldn’t extricate myself from books, then or now. I wanted to know. To understand. To see things from a myriad of different perspectives.

To witness the elusiveness of truth.

Gridless: Paradise flapjacks

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It oozed with ideals, my childhood. And tactility: wet sand between the toes, oil paints and turpentine, the sappy-tangy whiff of sawdust, kerosene, spruce needles, earth, raspberry cane prickles, red ants, water, ozone, and woodsmoke. At table, the air was alive with voices: clamouring, arguing, clashing, parrying, beguiling, vying for position in a varied terrain of opinion, politics, philosophy, fact, and fiction. The everyday shimmered with the dream-veil of idealism. Visions were realizable, something that could be poured, framed, fenestrated, stacked, pumped, lit, cultivated. A direct relationship existed between the built landscape and the one outdoors: windows were mounted to frame it and let it in all at once – they angled to meet the sun, to make the most of her even on the coldest days. Beauty was omnipresent. Nothing was off-limits.

Except maybe sugar. We dreamed of it. Craved it. Even the grim version of Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel couldn’t poison our gingerbread-sugarplum dream. Christmas, Easter, and Hallowe’en were oases in a sugar-free desert. To hell with carob, chocolate’s imposter twin. Reviled were the whole wheat birthday cakes topped with grapes and whipped cream. We relished the rare occasion that our mother would greet us from a day in the snow, bent over golden rings of apple fritters shimmering in a pan – a dessert that she herself had enjoyed in childhood…dusting them with fairy-crystals of white sugar. We gorged ourselves to bursting, waddling  away from the sticky table with greasy cheeks and dilated pupils. 

Limits existed, though. On the bus and at school, we bumped smack up against them. School: a Lord-of-the-Flies version of society, awaited. It was like entering a plexiglass funhouse maze. At every step, invisible barriers smacked, tripped, and thwarted. A straight line from A to B morphed magically into circuitous routes that could have confounded ancient Egypt’s crack labyrinth-planners.

In gym I was inevitably the last one picked. The words, “Find a partner” filled me with dread. So did: “Arrange yourselves into groups of four for this project.” That was just the beginning.

“You talk funny.” “Don’t you know it’s rude to ask somebody to share their licorice?” “Eeeew. What’s that in your lunchbox? Poop?” “You can’t play with us.” “Where did your mother find that weird bag?” “Who cuts your hair?” “Find somewhere else to sit.” “What do you mean, you don’t have TV? Are you poor or something?” “Dougie has lice and eats from the garbage can. He can be your partner.” (apparently somebody had it worse than me – but he was in my league). “Hippy-dippy-yippie-ie-ae!”

Other kids’ lunches had Wonderbread. Between forensically fortified white slices inevitably lay: ham and processed cheese, hard-boiled egg with Miracle Whip or peanut butter and jam (the store kind). Invariably, they had a sugary dessert, too: waxy Wagon Wheels, Twinkies, Half Moons or cookies. And there were little baggies of brightly dyed synthetic sugar-drink called Baxter’s Mini-sips. Narry a veggie in sight. Apples, oranges, and bananas made occasional appearances. Lunch-boxes were emblazoned with Barbie or G.I. Joe decals. They slung Adidas book-bags nonchalantly over their shoulders. They wore canvas Converse sneakers.

It was a brave new world – one with factory food, name brands, and secret codes of belonging that were equally alien. Worse: everybody seemed to be in on these secret codes. *I* was the alien.

You know how when you approach a pasture with cows in it, one cow will look over, then the others follow suit…and then that first cow will begin walking, and one by one the others follow? ‘Till they’re galumphing at a brisk trot? Well, that’s similar to how I’d describe that moment when my classmates realized that we used candles and kerosene lamps at night rather than electricity. On purpose. How did anybody live without TV, anyway? Did we have a toilet? What the heck was a clivus? Did we have running water? Was my family living in the stone ages?

The cow herd had officially trotted, and I wanted only one thing: to flee.

The bus ride home was another treat. There were heated debates on the merits of Ford versus Chevy. Diatribes on the intimate details of Chinese torture (fingernails still freak me out a little). Glowing reviews of Kiss’s latest album. And let’s not forget Unavoidable Rural Vocabulary 101 – ranging from new and creatively juxtaposed curse words to an impressive array of racial slurs. The bus disengorged a small group of us to a van. The van delivered everybody else…and then left my sister and me at the bottom of Mine Hill. Then we trekked up the steep dirt road to home: where smoke unfurled from our chimney and kerosene lamps cast a golden glow upon the snow.