Somewhere beneath the garden

When we arrived on this land, some eight or so years ago, I was struck by the sense of peace, even as coyotes wailed all around me on the clear night of a full moon. I had no inclination to run.

Some trees were cleared to build our house, but for the most part the rest remained untouched and are close by. As I wandered our acres I became familiar with alcoves and outdoor rooms, which provided privacy and presented peaceful unobstructed views of meadow, sky, and woods.

I half planned a garden, mostly by the pliability of the land. I bought a pick ax to make that pliability more so. Plants went where mother earth, clay and stone yielded. I gathered some planks, used for various stages of house building, to erect four equal rectangular raised planters for a vegetable garden. I measured and cut, and wound up with not four, but five quadrilaterals, not square, not rectangular. Soon these boxes radiated from the corner of an outcropping of trees and, as a friend called it, I had created a “pentagarden.”

Knowing that the number five and the pentagram figures significantly in ancient wisdom, I began to wonder if perhaps the land was instructing me, controlling my actions, creating something which I had very little control over.

I then built a yard for our young dog. It just happened and it is perfect, fun and just right.

After that, when my mother died, I was taken by the obsession to build a pond. I seemed to know where, but realize I had no idea where, I was perhaps a conduit for a greater story, a more massive creator. Perhaps the garden I was building was some kind of ancient power center, responding to lay lines and other-worldly commands.

I met a minister in a nearby town, who was offering a blessing of the animals, and she told me that the boundaries between the profane and the spiritual world were very thin, here, in this part of the world. Then my dog licked her on the nose.

All I can say is that these rare comments and suggestions, mistakes and actions encourage me to wonder. I look out the window now at the trees. They look back at me. I sit on the deck at the end of the day listening to the birds, while the trees bend toward me, to listen too.

We all travel at different speeds, me, the trees, the water in the pond, the beets and lettuce in the “pentagarden.” I want to build something where the planters meet –– a platform perhaps, or a small hut. A place where I can further stall my on-rushing life, and listen and be listened to.

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My Garden is Like One of My Novels

grdblogThe other evening I sat on our deck surveying the garden. I wanted to describe it, I suppose, in defense of the fact that there were weeds, rotting planter boxes, and untended creeping mint and late harvest raspberries.

It occurred to me in a mild eureka moment, that the garden wasn’t unlike one of my novels, a bit of a work in progress, it was a structure familiar to me, with a topography and a geography and a landscape that I seemed oh so familiar with.

Yes my garden is like one of my novels. There is a buddah by the pond for clarity and respite and contemplation. The gentle tinkle of water runs through an old pump to further enhance the feelings of solitude and to help the mind focus on the moment. There is order –– where an editor built in some structure –– some sturdy planter boxes. Beyond, in part two or three, there is another kind of odd order, where I have built other planter boxes victims of some kind of plan gone wrong. But they work. It all seems to work on the whole. And in my mind, I am quite proud. I cannot second guess people’s reactions, from “what a mess,” to “how lovely.”

There was a beginning, imprinted on my mind –– my mother taking a picture of me standing on some scrub land proud and inflated that I had grown an allium of all things.

Like any novel, the end may not be quite as clear. It may go on. It may melt into the ground, it may be shared with friends as we wander and taste raspberries, tomatoes and pinches of chives, onions or tarragon.

There is a way in and there is a way out, there is time to spend and time to remember.

Spring and then Some

springWhen I was a kid. When we were very young. Back in the good old days. Anyway yes, way back when, to get to our school we used to have to walk through a forest, which comprised of about eighty percent of our walk. There and back, twice or four times a day, spring, winter, fall, with a bit of summer tacked on at both ends. We were on one side of the forest and our school on the other.

In spring huge puddles would form between groves of trees, to become ponds. And the ponds were filled with life. Early on we got to recognize the clusters of frog eggs, which became tadpoles or pollywogs, which became weird missing link type of frogs with tails which then graduated to dry land. Sometimes we’d fill jars and bring them home to watch this compressed display of evolution, marveling at the tadpoles as they wiggled up and down the inside of the jar.

And some of these ponds were dark, and deep, a surprise, because they didn’t seem that way after the summer heat emptied them of their dark contents. But with water, they seemed bottomless as I recall. Deep enough to fill our galoshes when tested. Deep enough to suck the boots from our feet, to be abandoned to that darkness, or retrieved if someone brave accompanied us. Deep enough to thrill us.

By the same manner, the lakes in the Canadian Shield, just to the north of us, held the same mystery and terror and seeds to stir the imagination; they were said to be bottomless. Had anyone ever tried to go to the bottom? Had anyone drowned? Were they still down there? Where exactly was there? Was it like Journey to the Centre of the Earth, with James Mason, which had thrilled us at Saturday afternoon matineés? We were guarded as we walked the narrow trails around these lakes, fearing that not only would we fall, but that we would be sucked towards the bottomless bottom.

And there was a groundhog hole in a narrow passage between two garages in our neighbourhood. As kids we’d leap across the hole, telling one another that it led down to hell. This was actually a kind of activity, if one were to describe or recall the day’s events, leaping over the hole counted as much as collecting tadpoles, building airplanes or hiding in half built homes.

But in spring, back then, what was only a momentary coming-forth of life, flowers, birds, was less a growing season, than part of a cycle. I’d pick dogtooth violets, lilies of the valley––never a trillium, it was against the law––and other as-yet-to-be-identified purple flowers, and make daily bouquets for my mother. It seemed eternal, rather than a fraction of my life.

But it’s larger now isn’t it? Perhaps not even a cycle, nor a season, nor a series of seasons, as much as it might be waves washing the shore. Perhaps a rise and fall, but never the same spring twice.

The Golden Hour

grass

It’s the end of February and the snow has melted already, though that’s not to say more snow is not on its way. There is the odd mound left in a bit of shade under a tree. Today it is definitely cold enough to snow and I have seen the odd wave of flakes race past the window looking for a ledge or a corner pocket to collect into. With the snow gone, the grass is a dry light brown, hard to imagine it will –– climate change willing –– be green once again. I noticed yesterday in the early hours, after the dark had lifted and before the day had risen into view, that the meadow was glowing dark orange, as if it held its own light, contrasted by a grey sky and independent of the unenthusiastic green backdrop of junipers.

Was this the golden hour? I have no idea and it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. I would not have mentioned if but for the fact that at the end of the day as a gentleness crept in, and the light weakened, the golden phenomenon appeared once more. It was indeed the golden hour. I had a witness. My eyes were not deceiving me. There was something about whatever makes brown grass brown and yellow grass yellow, that operates independently of prevailing light. It is one of the miracles of nature, a small miracle, but a miracle that reminds us that light can shine on it’s own, with no coaxing, just as life can exist miles below the ocean surface. While dreams may not come true, and our paths take u-turns when least expected, the miracle of kindness can be that spontaneous light, that independent glow that gives meaning to life.

The Timelines of Immigrant Lives

For any tears of pain or denial there are also the tears of defiant laughter at our own private Babel. The absurdity. The frustration. The array of accents, colours and cultures.

Although I teach English as part of a settlement program for recent immigrants, I have come to realize it may not be just language we are here for.teach

As an ice-breaker, I encourage my new students to draw a “timeline” of their lives, marking major events; then, in pairs, explain them, using whatever grammar they are comfortable with.

Harjit, a student from Calcutta who comes to school full-time now, since her children started their own schooling, stared blankly at her paper until I asked if she understood the task. After an awkward moment of silence, she looked up at me and pointed to a notched scar about six inches long across the front of her throat, eerily similar in form to the timeline I had asked her to draw. She looked at me blankly and shrugged.

Sometimes I have them write their stories. Olga from Croatia wrote what her family no longer wants to hear. When working as a nurse in her homeland, a boy came into the hospital hysterical and holding his mother’s leg, asking her to put his mother back together. She held the boy close to her and comforted him with an unopened 20-year-old package of rationed crackers.

My students are from lands where the mundane can quickly flip into a life-or-death situation, but given better circumstances they would return home.

For Hussein, my Iraqi lawyer, newspaper photos of his burned-out dream home and of dying children are probably what has caused a crippling ulcer beneath his million-dollar smile. “I love my country,” he says. And, despite dreams of practising law in Canada, he knows it will be easier to become certified as a barber than a lawyer — a sad reality for professionals who come here.

There are personalities but very few egos to deal with and rarely any walls to scale. What we can’t say with words, we say with looks, glances, expressions, a hand on a shoulder or a reassuring pat on the forearm. And for any tears of pain or denial there are the tears of defiant laughter at our own private Babel. The absurdity. The frustration. The array of accents, colours and cultures.

Shiu is one of my stalwarts. He always shows up, a couple of teeth shining for a smile and sun-blinded-cataract eyes squinting out of a face that looks like he has just emerged from a coal mine. Now he walks with a phantom load still attached a body crooked from a lifetime harvesting sugar cane in Fiji, starting at 2 a.m. and working until the heat was unbearable.

Others’ attendance isn’t as regular: Alan has to work extra shifts in a restaurant with overtime pay questionable, and Jian and Harpaul doze from backbreaking days working on a local mushroom farm and tomato greenhouse. And his week, Katarina can’t come to school because she was hit by a car — “not badly,” I am told.

These past years of teaching immigrants have been the most rewarding in my life, and although I presumed myself a portal to these people’s Canadian experience, it is they who have taught me just what it means to be a Canadian.

Our neighbours on the bus, in the grocery store, at the post office and in the park, they move anonymously among us, many driving cabs, cleaning office buildings late at night, washing dishes or working in sweat shops.

Despite my words of encouragement, they know it will be a difficult, if not impossible climb, something for which they may not have the energy (after leaving a violent past they’d prefer to forget): Finding a home and some mind-numbing work in a sewer or as a security guard in Canada; saving to pay the rent, buy a pair of comfortable work shoes or eventually go to a community college.

Approximately 250,000 come to our country each year and in spite of perceived freedoms, this new world has its own set of psychoses.

Over Christmas, an older Iranian couple I teach were thrilled that they were going to see all of their family at a wedding in Minneapolis. Relatives from all over North America were to attend this event.

For Christmas they gave me two beautiful cushions made in Shiraz and hugged me, thanking me for being their teacher.

In January, when I asked them how their trip had been, they told me, blinking back tears, that they had been denied visas.

Later that day I tried in vain to comfort one of my Acehnese refugees who had lost all the female members of his family in the tsunami, because they could not swim.

Recently, Harjit brought in two CDs she had recorded in India when she was a singer. Her photo was on the front of the CD cover with two other stunning Bollywood-esque beauties.

Amid her classmates’ fawning attention she touched her throat and whispered to me that she could no longer sing.

Again I became the student and this moment, coupled with the smiles contrasting adversity, has now left a permanent place on my own timeline.

The Horizon

sunYears –– I mean decades –– ago I lived in Kingston Ontario (kind of the upper right hand area of your map of North America, at the east end of Lake Ontario) where I attended a couple of years of university before setting out on my own, taking a u-turn on my path, and choosing the road less traveled.
I had a comfortable room in Kingston, in a solid lime stone house with many halls a couple of stairways and lots of walls. At night I would drift off to sleep by listening to some radio station from miles away to the south, across the US border. I recall how I would then imagine where the station was, what it was like there. This led to a kind of home made meditation in which I would see the broad expanse of lake and I would take flight, southwest, over the great lakes, across the plains, foothills, mountains, as far as the coast and a little beyond, where I would meet sleep.fungus2
In those days I didn’t think of the cities really, I thought more of the land, and not much about the people who inhabited or had come from or to that land so many years before. I just saw land.
In retrospect, was that twilit dream my future, a blank slate of places yet to be seen, visited, not conquered? It was a world of adventure, of untold stories. But for the topography, my future was something I couldn’t quite imagine.
I never thought I would live anywhere near Kingston again, and yet I am within an hour’s drive to the limestone city.
But now, my views to that horizon are taken through the filter of what I am told, on the news mostly, as I keep my head, and my view, to the grindstone. I was out walking this morning and looking southwest, remembering how I had felt almost four decades (yikes) ago. Why –– I wondered –– can’t I hold my head up? Why can’t I let in the same airborne magic that was mine back then. Why can’t I look beyond the trees and be filled with the awe of a grey, not blue, day? What keeps me from imagining that slate still lake and the lands beyond. The beauty and power of a grey January day. Have I listened too frequently to the stories of man-made foibles, to be able to lift my view, open my heart and feel the immensity of possibility? Why can’t I own my feeling of connection to the land, however imagined it may be, it is my feeling and no one else’s. Am I ossifying? Becoming jaded?
It is a simple act, to grow mighty wings as you close your eyes and lay your head on your pillow at night. Another simple act to soar, to let go, swoop however fast you wish.

Stillness

Now that I have had the zipper replaced on my parka, there is an ease at venturing out into the chilly December morning. There is also ease when the wind is at bay, and nothing, not even a spent leaf drops from the trees. Walking though December light, and stillness is a luxury.

pic2It isn’t difficult on these mornings to stay in the moment, and be engaged with the surroundings. The low morning light is golden as it filters sideways through the forest. Though my concentration ebbs as flows between a pop song on repeat between my ears, and just how much sugar and butter I’ll need for a batch of gingerbread men, the surroundings win out. And winning means that I am free of the noise, mental and emotional, to just indulge in the silence.

Our only companions this morning are a flock of angry chickadees reminding me to keep the bird feeder filled. I have fallen behind in this task. Add it to my to do list.

We walk past a field of Napa cabbage, or is it bok choy? It looks good enough to eat.pic1

On some walks I am struck by the shades of earth, taupe and deep dark greys of the horizon, mingling with a crisp distant blue sky, dropped in behind the torn paper cuttings of heavy cloud and fog perhaps rising off of the lake, beyond my view.

There are other moments on our walk, when I wonder what it is that will greet us, in a month or two. Ice encrusted snow? Deep powder? Hard frozen bare land? It will be cold no doubt, and I will be glad that my parka is good for another season. And for now, I’ll stay in the present.