Category: Green Dreams

A minor breakdown

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So much on my mind today. I couldn’t shut it down, not even in yoga class this morning. The word I used to meditate as I held poses was “strength.” I want to be strong. I think I am strong. But sometimes I wonder, at what point does “strength” become “unwillingness to appear weak”? Is it better to grit through a difficult pose, or to give in to the desire to rest? Maybe sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other. I heavily favour the former, of course.

I do believe, however, that our greatest strengths are also our points of greatest frailty. So I have to be careful.

Let me tell you about yesterday. It was a pretty crappy day, if I may be frank. Writing time vanished as I had to take one daughter to a doctor’s appointment. Vanished some more due to errands and piano lessons. And then the truck slowly but surely started breaking down. Right in the middle of the fairly complicated back-and-forthing between school, piano lessons, school, birthday party. Three kids were directly counting on me to be in specific locations at specific times.

The truck refused to shift into reverse.

I was lucky. I realized what was happening. I’d parked on an incline and was able to roll out of the parking lot. I was able to call Kevin right away. He was able to book a carshare car right away. I was able to park at the next location in such a way that would prevent me from needing to reverse. And the next. And the next. And we were able to make it to the repair shop before the entire transmission shut down.

I never realized how frequently I use reverse, when driving. Maybe this is a life metaphor. We’re not meant to be stuck going forward at all times. We need to be able to back up, too.

The situation was stressful. I was worried the whole time and couldn’t find my “happy place,” shall we say. But I recognized, too, that the day was not nearly so crappy as it could have been. Kevin and I worked together as a team. We were only about ten minutes late for the second piano lesson. The truck did not need to be towed. The children adapted to the changing plans. We belong to a carshare!

Home at last, I felt so tired — not physically, but mentally. Fooey wanted to play an imagination game while I was hanging laundry. It was all I could do to manage the most banal responses.

It also happened that I was due to Skype in to a book club in Toronto at 9pm. Well. I made a pot of peppermint tea, brushed my hair, and sat down in my office. We made contact. But we couldn’t work the video. In the end, we decided just to chat. I looked at my own video smiling back at me (not sure whether they did the same), and we spoke for about forty-five minutes. My tiredness evaporated. Their questions were thoughtful, respectful, insightful. We talked about how daughters view their mothers. We talked about being mothers. We wondered, will mothers ever get cut some slack?

I hung up feeling so much better.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with the truck. The two eldest kids wonder: would this be a good time to become a car-free family? “I’ve been thinking about it, Mom, and it would make us be more eco-friendly and more organized….” I’m proud of the values we’ve instilled in them, but, oh, I like having that truck waiting for me on freezing dark mornings when I’m headed for a spin class.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with the book. The editing is so slow. One foot in front of the other. One small step and another and another. Many, if not most, of my writing days are shortened by other necessities that take priority.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with my applications for writing grants and midwifery and The Amazing Race (thanks for watching the video: we’ve had tons of excellent feedback already!).

I feel as if so much of my life is up in the air right now. Strength. I’m calling on strength as I hold this pose.

Ring your bell, ring it loud

Good morning. Good rainy dark pre-solstice morning. So dark, the bus picked up AppleApple in what appeared to be the pre-dawn. At our house, at this time of year, everyone takes vitamin D and fish oil. Yes, I make my children take fish oil. Nobody objects. CJ actually came running for his fish oil this morning. Here he is, waiting patiently to ring his bell during his Christmas concert yesterday.

He’s not the only one in the family ready to ring some bells and make some noise.

At supper last night the conversation ranged. It started with the weather. Albus and friends had rescued their snow fort from the rain, but it was dwindling. “It’s going to be 11 degrees tomorrow,” he reported. “Why is this happening?” “Climate change?” I mentioned an article I’d read about giant plumes of methane gas bubbling out of the Arctic Sea. We talked about Canada’s government withdrawing from the Kyoto accord. We talked about the oil sands. We talked about the power of money. We talked about weather versus climate. AppleApple worried: what could she do?

My suggestion: start by sending a letter to our federal environment minister, Peter Kent, a former television journalist who in fact reported in great detail on the emerging science of climate change way back in 1984 (the internet is useful for so many things). I write a lot of letters. It’s one of the few things I can think of to do and I’ve been doing it since childhood. In fact, in 1987, aged twelve and in homeschool, I was upset and disturbed about the effects of greenhouse gases on our environment, and wrote to then-environment-minister, also in a Conservative government, Lucien Bouchard. I received in return a large package in the mail some little while later: glossy pages of activities and suggestions (turn off the tap when you brush your teeth!). No actual response to the questions raised in my letter. I was disgusted by the obvious waste, and the irony: the ministry of the environment producing glossy reams of paper, essentially propaganda. (My parents were peace activists, so yes, I knew about propaganda.)

And so, our dinner conversation turned to propaganda. We talked about how we humans like to fool ourselves. We like to comfort ourselves, and distract ourselves from news that would make us sad or worried. (Which would explain why celebrities are a bigger “news” draw than actual news.) And then the conversation got really funny. Albus didn’t get the concept: How could we fool ourselves?

Hm. Pretty sure you’re a master at it, Mister “It Was an Accident” Albus. We all admitted familiarity with that sickish feeling when you know you’ve done something wrong. Around the table, almost unanimously, we discovered that that feeling arises more often when we’ve done something wrong by accident, and less often when we’ve been deliberately bad. (Maybe when we do something deliberate we’ve already built up the rationale around why we’re doing it; we’ve already bought into the wrong-doing; cough-cough “ethical” oil sands cough-cough.)

AppleApple decided to research climate change–what we can do, what the government could be doing. She wants her ducks in order before she writes her letter. She wants INFORMATION and FACTS. Maybe we’ll all write letters (you, too?). Albus also suggested that we could have a protest. Hey, good idea, grandkid of activists. Protests are in the air. The Protestor was just named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

But as I watch cars stream past my house this morning, as I myself turn to my vehicle in the cold and the rain, as I consider how we are creatures of cultural habits and patterns (currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers), as I tap out these words … I wonder how to answer AppleApple’s anxious question: What can she do? Is there anything we can really do? Really? Beyond hope and pray and protest and write and try and hope some more? Life is so damn short. A second ago I was twelve; blink, and my daughter is nine–and what’s changed?

But that’s not how the conversation ended last night. Somehow, it ended with us going around the table taking turns trying to fake laugh. You should try this at home. In fact, you must. Don’t think about it too hard; just give it a shot. It will give you hope. Because even the most ridiculous half-hearted attempt will turn genuine in about two seconds when everyone else joins in.

New rooms, day one, take a look

**Notes on the rooms.

My office has nothing on its walls. And we’re using my old crappy furniture. But it’s serene, austere, and dare I say perfect as is. I may not change a thing. Yesterday as we worked to move and rearrange four different rooms, I found myself taking moments to sit in my great-aunt Alice’s rocking chair and look at the brick and the lights and the height, and to breathe.

AppleApple and Kevin created a bookshelf from the old costume bureau. An awesome repurposing project. I love that she has The Bible arranged beside other favourites like Bone, Misty of Chincoteague, and Children of War (the latter being a wonderful book that she keeps recommending her big brother read, as way of encouraging him to stop playing imaginary games with exploding bombs.)

The new bunk bed in the little kids’ room is a marvel of design. We found it on kijiji, and it’s not of the best material, but heck, it was available and in our price range. It’s a t-shape, and CJ sleeps in what amounts to a little cozy cave. On one end is a desk with shelves and a built-in light. Bureau drawers are built in to the other end, along with a set of deep shelves. I still can’t believe how different that room looks.

My step-mother figured out how to make a comfy couch out of the guest futon under Albus’s bed. We’ve had the darn thing for about a decade and never knew it was possible. Neither Kevin nor I could understand her explanation (apparently it was very simple.) We’ve decided she operates on a higher level than us. My dad also loaned his muscles and back to the moving. It wouldn’t have gotten done without their help. I’ve gone all wimpy now that I’m running. I keep telling Kevin, I’m a runner, not a weight-lifter. I don’t want to injure myself.

Yet to be done today: painting, or at least prepping for painting; cleaning; and our living-room. I stole that beautiful wooden cabinet for my office from the living-room, and somehow that had a domino effect of toppling the entire room into a disaster zone. You know it’s a disaster zone if the smallest members of your family tell you: “This room is a mess!” Uh, yeah. We’re making use of kijiji to source a few more items. Kijiji is my new favourite virtual place. I’ve been inspired to post a few items for sale, too. If I get organized, I’ll post the entire contents of our attic. My inspiration, in part, came from this blog on the zero-waste home. (And no, we’re nowhere near zero. But hope springs eternal.)

Green Dreams: where ideal meets grumpy

Yesterday morning, I carried my three-year-old to nursery school, nearly one kilometre away, in the rain. Why? Well, he wasn’t in a walking mood, that’s why he was on my back. But the reason I was walking was bare bones basic: I didn’t have a car at my disposal; Kevin had an early appointment to which he needed to drive. About six months ago, as part of our family’s Green Dream plan, we downsized to one vehicle. Are we a greener family than before? Yes, mostly because having fewer options forces us to make different choices.

Such as carrying a kid on my back in the rain to nursery school.

Listen, if I could have driven, I would have. I’d been up early swimming, I’d gotten four kids fed and organized and three of them out the door. That left one little guy, and he couldn’t get to school by himself. I wanted my quick restorative morning nap. It was too wet to fire up the bike stroller. If there had been a vehicle in the driveway, would I have chosen to walk? Not a chance. So the omission of the vehicle itself is feeding into the success of our Green Dreams. It’s so easy to take the easy route when it’s easily available.

Sometimes, I’m grumpy about it. If you see a bedraggled woman, surrounded by a pile of kids in raincoats, shaking her fist at you as you drive by, think of me. In fact, hey, that is me! And yes, I just cursed you and your car for blocking my family’s passage across the street. Or maybe just for being inside a warm dry moving vehicle. Sorry. It’s wet out here. And we’re moving so slowly.

I am not a naturally patient person, but do subscribe to the notion that by walking (or biking) rather than whisking along inside the sealed world of the car, I am experiencing life differently. Out here, I know the weather. I know the seasons. I know the geography. Plus, I have to leave on time, or I’ll definitely be late. There is no such thing as breaking the speed limit when walking with four children.

But here’s my confession: you’ll still see me in a car pretty frequently these days (maybe that was you shaking your fist at me.) We do have ONE after all and I can’t imagine life without it. Well, I can, but life would include a whole lot less soccer. There are no direct bus lines to either of the two sports facilities that draw members of our family upwards of nine times a week. One is 5.5km away, the other is 9km. In other words, not terribly far, and probably biking distance (though not for short legs on tiny bicycles); but in addition to there being no direct bus routes, there is also no safe bike path to either place (not to mention, as the season changes, we’d be biking after dark.)

It’s one thing to complain about this, but another to ask: Would we choose to bike or ride public transit if it were an option? And truthfully, I think we would not. Not unless we had to. Because we’re usually in a hurry. We’re dropping one kid here, and racing to get another there. We’re cutting corners, juggling schedules, trying to cheat time. Having a car allows us to schedule our lives in a way that cannot be transposed into a car-free life.

So, I’m resigned to carrying some Green Guilt. In fact, our family’s increasingly busy sports schedule also means we consume more water than we used to. I’m telling you. The laundry. Wash those socks as quickly as possible! I hang everything to dry, with the exception of giant loads of towels, which tend to go in the drier. But still. Green, it ain’t.

Maybe it was the Green Guilt over the car and the sports that led me to introduce our latest experiment: we’ve gone vegetarian at home. We are neither buying nor cooking meat (with the exception of seafood, on occasion). The kids are missing ham on their sandwiches, and I am constantly brainstorming ways to get more protein into all of us (like starting the day with eggs for breakfast). And if a grandparent invites us for a meal that includes meat, we’re happy to eat it up. But at home, we’re meat-free. It’s been about a month, and I’m sticking to it, despite the odd complaint, because a meatless diet is one sure-fire way to shrink a family’s ecological footprint. And we’ve got such a big (sweaty) one. We’ve got to try.

Even if it means grumpy walks in the rain. And children fantasizing about summer sausage.

Our Yard

This is our yard, as viewed from the back porch, where I hang laundry. As you can see, it’s very shaded, and spacious, especially for a lot so close to centre of the city. It’s been an ideal play-yard for the kids, and we’ve added, over the years, to the small swing set that came with the house. We now have a large sand area, and a play structure with homemade climbing elements added on. We also have a soccer net in one corner, and some composting bins for yard waste. We poured the patio and laid the bricks, perfect for chalking, biking, and scootering. But there’s room for more, as the kids grow older. We’re currently saving up — an all-family effort — for a trampoline. A treehouse is in the works, too.

A few years ago, we added raspberry canes, which spread like wildfire. This summer, we’ve tried to contain them, and Kevin cleared paths so the kids could get in to pick more easily. The berries are ripe right now. This side of the yard has a bed of perennials, some which were here when we moved in eight years ago, and others we’ve added over the years. In springtime, the colours are insanely gorgeous. By July, it begins to look a bit weedy and sparse. Yesterday afternoon, the little kids and I spent a blissful hour and a half before supper picking raspberries, playing (them), and weeding (me). The weeding started giving me ideas.

Look at all this untouched space. As I weeded, I started to hear words in my head like “homestead,” and “truckpatch,” and “harvest.” I started mentally cutting down trees: the old pear and apple, which give next to no fruit anymore. The black walnut. The mostly dead maple. The two Manitoba maples in the middle of the yard. (Wow, that’s a lot of trees; what do you think, too many? Will we miss the shade?). But it would call down a lot more sunshine: the valuable morning sun especially. I started thinking goats and chickens, a barn cat, a dog. Could we petition the city to except us from its by-laws so we could have our own little carefully tended urban farm-plot? I won’t ask for a pony. (Could I ask for a pony?).

Meanwhile, this is the extent of our backyard edible gardening: potatoes in the raised beds along the back patio. Kevin built these several years ago, and they’ve never gotten quite enough sun to nourish anything we’ve planted in them. This year, I added tons of compost and new soil. The potatoes were going to seed in our root cellar. Seemed like a good fit. I’d like to add another row of beds just below these, though it would mean sacrificing the tiger lilies currently sprouting on the incline. (My all-time favourite flower, and one I associate with being in the country).

Talking about thin spaces yesterday … there is something about being outside in green space, no matter how hemmed in it is inside a city, that brings real peace to the mind. I’ve had my share of farm fantasies, but, really, I wouldn’t want to move to the country because it would mean car-dependency; I love that we can walk or bike almost everywhere we need to go, and I love our close-knit neighbourhood for the kids (and for me, too!). But I’d love for our yard to be a farm-like sanctuary, too.

Something to dream about while weeding on a lazy summer afternoon. I’ll keep you posted.

The Car

Pickle Me This has posted its picks for 2011: Canada Reads Independently, and this year I was asked to champion a book, not an easy thing to do as it turns out. How to choose? In the end, though I wanted to go with something newer or more obscure, I had to champion a writer who has been with me for many years (in my imagination, I mean), and who has deeply influenced my own writing–and whose work I return to perhaps even more often than L.M. Montgomery’s or Agatha Christie’s. (My taste is not highbrow). Interested in finding out more? Click here.

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In other news, I find myself obsessed with an accident that occurred in our neighbourhood, in which a twelve-year-old boy was struck by a vehicle while crossing the street (in the crosswalk). (He survived, but will have a long recovery). The boy was outside, on his own; not unlike I hope for my own children and other children of the neighbourhood to be able to be. And for all my primitive brain fears of losing a child to a stranger, my rational brain understands that the car is a much greater danger to them, outside, on their own.

My children have walked with me since they were very small, all over town; a fairly large proportion of our conversations, while walking, have related to how we are negotiating with traffic. Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of teachable moments while walking with my children. My conclusion is that our city is not a safe place to walk. Pedestrians can follow the rules of the road, but this will simply not guarantee their safety: they must use instinct and constant attention; a lot of ask to anyone, let alone of a child.

How many times have my children and I waited at a crosswalk, with the signal telling us that it is our right of way, while a driver, who wishes to turn right on a red light (her legal right, too), inches forward, head craning to look the other way: she will step on the gas and go if it’s all clear on her left and never look to see what’s before her: a child, a mom, a stroller, a cyclist. My kids have been taught to make eye contact with drivers before making the decision to cross the street. On their walks to school, they’ve waited for vehicles whose drivers are backing out of driveways without ever once checking behind for children walking on the sidewalk. An elderly woman waved to my daughter at a crosswalk, typically a sign that the car is waiting for the pedestrian to cross; fortunately, my daughter had only taken a step before the woman zoomed through the intersection. Apparently she was just saying Hello to the cute little child, as she hurried on her way. These are not isolated incidents; similar things happen every day. We might call them minor, but they are inches away from being major.

As pedestrians, of course we have to stay vigilant. But pedestrian vigilance is surely not the only or even the best answer to this problem, which seems to go much deeper, and speaks to the many sacrifices our culture has made on the altar of the car. Our cities are built not to move people, but to move cars.

The way we think about driving is mixed up, too. We consider driving to be a right; getting a driver’s licence is also a rite of passage. We forget that driving is actually a privilege and a responsibility.

To get inside a car is to enter a sealed bubble; it distances us from the world we’re driving through. How often am I hurrying to get somewhere, or late, or distracted by grumpy children behind me? Getting into the car does not make me a kinder, more aware, more empathetic person; it makes me quite the opposite. I become impatient. It’s the last place I want to be–in between, en route from somewhere to somewhere else, and not enjoying the journey. Inside the car is about the only place you’ll ever hear me swear (oh–though you might hear me swearing at cars when I am walking).

Yet I am very very appreciative of our vehicle. I use it primarily to ferry kids to activities that our family considers valuable: theatre school, music lessons, horseback riding. I’m not prepared, voluntarily, at this moment in time, to live entirely car-free. But I do want to try to live as car-free as possible. I want to remind myself, always, of the heavy responsibility that I bear as a driver: for lives both inside and outside of my vehicle. And I want to be able to walk safely in my city.

What are some next steps, as I consider how to bring about real changes? At the very least, a letter to the editor. But I also need to clarify my thoughts on the subject. Should I consider researching and writing about the car, about walkable cities, about how to get from where we are now to where we could be? How does change happen, especially change that feels enormous and structural? Any ideas?

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