The Golden Hour

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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.

Anticipating Fall

We had a drought this summer, our well didn’t go dry, but others’ did. I held my breath as I sparingly doled out drops of water for the tomatoes, and the watermelons. Fall rallied and gave us rain, enough to give the garden a renaissance. It seemed as though everything that shut down or died during the summer, wanted one last kick at the can, given the opportunity. Buffalo beans, daisies, rhubarb and raspberries all made an admirable showing. Morning Glories took off, and the tomatoes kept a steady stream of shapes and colours. Not until a recent frost has most of the garden been shades of green, echinacea purple and cone flower yellow. I’m not sure if the plants were as dumbfounded as I was. Or perhaps they knew.fall11

They did indeed give us a great, intense and brief show, making us almost forget the long hot days of summer, monotonous, not broken by a late day storm, or an early morning shower. It was a summer of heat and dry and more heat, and cracked raised beds, and dust and weeds dying and grasses flourishing in the vegetable garden, but dying on the lawn. It was weird and complicated.

fall2No one expected the fall would be one of the most intense, long lasting and colourful. I thought, with no water the leaves would surely turn brown and drop off the trees and we would be into winter with little fanfare. But this autumn has been one of the most colourful and long lasting. The colours are intense, moist, shimmering, vibrant and downright healthy.

I suppose we all want to have a chance to show our best, show what we are capable of, given the right conditions, regardless of age, wear and tear and history. These opportunities may or may not come along. Nature had its moment this year, and most importantly, it had an appreciative audience.

Enlightenment

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Recently I have had my less enlightening moments in the garden. I get overwhelmed and curse under my breath, the garden and Christmas. Yes, on my darkest days I do admit that I hate them both equally. Yet, on closer inspection, what I hate are others’ expectations around these events, seasons, occasions. I love my version of Christmas, and I love my version of the garden: a place with mayhem, fauna chewing at new growth, flora choking out other growth, and the fact that I need a pick axe to plant every new and generous donation from fellow gardeners.

Up where we are, yes up, the soil doesn’t exist, it has all been washed down to where you are. We have rock and clay. Our perennials have persevered admirably, much better than my patience

To be fair the garden and my little tinkling pond has provided much pleasure and mindful relaxation. But I am coming to see that I do not work on the garden, it works on me, trying desperately to explain what goes where and what will never thrive. My problem is that I still need to slow down, even more, and listen, while it speaks. Some things thrive and others wither.

 

The Holy Land

ritblogIt doesn’t seem fair to go on about the weather, no matter how much we Canadians love to talk about it. But I will, just for a sec. Tonight an “Alberta clipper” is headed our way, after a chilly weekend, we are in for snow and then rain, but it is finally ushering in above freezing temperatures. Tomorrow could be absolutely balmy, but wet. Hope is on that dark horizon of approaching storm.

A colleague had mentioned a few weeks ago something about me swanning around my home, pajama clad, on Sunday mornings. What a lovely, if untrue vision. This particular person is a local minister and commenting––somewhat slyly sliding it into our conversation––on my lack of attendance at church. I have to say that the picture I am posting in this particular blog is my cathedral on Sunday mornings. For me, my union with the big picture takes place under a ceiling of wonder. I try to get out back whenever I can during the week, but our long walk on Sunday morning, down through the woods, through farmers’ lanes, up escarpments, and across more fields, is filled with silence, timelessness, absolute wonder, even on the grayest of winter days, discovery, not to mention observation of a wonderful curious little being who connects distant tales –in time and geography––of the animal kingdom, back to our trek and to our moment.

There is comfort in the solitude, occasionally we come across someone else, a neighbour enjoying the same thing. In our light conversation (about the weather) we understand what it is that brings us to the middle of nowhere. It’s not that there is now a lack of busyness, it’s just that busyness is replaced by something I find far more nourishing. I can’t really explain it, nor should I have to.