Sunday, August 16, 2015

Listen Carefully

I live only a few blocks from a church which is on the way to the shopping area of my neighbourhood. This particular church has a large outdoor message board with moveable letters. They change the message once a week or so. It’s generally what I think is intended to be an aphorism, a terse saying that expresses a general truth or astute observation. A pithy saying perhaps.

A recent posting: “Listen carefully, your ears will never get you in trouble.” This is actually a slight misquote from Frank Tyger, who was an editorial cartoonist, columnist and humorist for the Trenton Times, New Jersey. The actual words he is recorded as saying: “Be a good listener, your ears will never get you in trouble.”

My first problem with these postings is that they are never attributed. In other words, they never note who said the words originally. In this particular case, the originator is also slightly misquoted. But my main problem is that the sayings are usually over simplifications.

Many of us probably remember playing a game called “Gossip” as children. In it, we stood in a line while someone whispered to the person at the end. This person then whispered to the next in line and so on. By the time the words got to the other end, they were usually mangled because everyone heard slightly differently.

As we grow older some of us become increasingly hard of hearing, particularly in crowd situations. As my father got deafer, even with a hearing aid, he would often respond to what he thought someone said to him. In many cases, this was not at all what had been said.

When I turned sixty I developed a case of vertigo. I got so dizzy doing yoga one morning that I phoned my son to drive me to the doctor. As we sat in the waiting room, the vertigo and dizziness returned with such force that I had to rush down the hall to the washroom and throw up. It turned out that I probably had Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). Quite a mouthful to say, and disturbing, but it eventually went away, though it does reoccur now and then. The condition (more common in people over 50, and in women) is caused by certain crystals in the inner ear moving out of the otolith organs of the ear and getting into the semi circular canals. Check out the Mayo Clinic website for more information. (There are other causes of dizziness, too.) Obviously, my ears did and do get me into trouble in this case.

I imagine that the people posting the saying at the church wanted to remind us to pay attention to what others have to say. There are techniques of active listening – restating in your own words what you think someone has said, for example, to check that you’ve understood. Even this, though useful, can be problematical on occasion.

We sometimes complicate our lives needlessly, but we can also oversimplify. So let’s think about the meanings of what we read and hear, what we say. The aphorisms or quotes that I like best are the ones that don’t appear too easy, and make us take a few steps back to take time to contemplate the words.

Here’s one to mull over, from Alexander Pope, English poet (1688-1744):
“All nature is but art unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good;”

Sunday, July 26, 2015


I recently finished a novel in which elephants played a major part. It made me want to know more about these huge mammals.

In a way, I could say that elephants have always been a part of my life. I saw them in childhood at zoos and circuses. Was fascinated by what little I learned of them. Believed, like others, that there was such a thing as an elephant graveyard where elephants went to die. This, by the way, is not true. Still, reading the novel and the list of books at the back that the author had used for her research, I realized that I really knew very little about elephants.

I’ve been fascinated for years and read books about “Leaky’s Angels” who studied the great apes. Now I realize elephants are equally interesting.

The world ‘ele-phant’ means ‘great arch.’ Ancestors to modern elephants show up in the fossil records 45 to 55 million years ago. These early elephants had no trunk. (Remember Kipling’s story “The Elephant’s Child”?) Hairy mammoths and mastodons were only two of the later versions of elephants.

The three modern species of elephant are African savannah, African forest, and Asian.

Similarly to humans, elephant mothers keep their young with them for a long time. An elephant is considered to be in the ‘baby’ stage for about fourteen years. The herd helps to take care of all the young. In adolescence (between age ten to nineteen) the males begin to leave the herd, at first just for short periods of time, but eventually to join a group of other young males or to live alone. The females stay in their birth herd. Females start to breed around age fifteen to sixteen and can have up to twelve young in their lifetimes.  Herds are generally led by the eldest female, the matriarch. Males come into mating age between thirty to thirty-five years. Elephants can live for up to seventy years. Mature males can weigh up to seven tonnes, while females can reach 3.5 tonnes.

Elephants have very complex methods of communication. Up to seventy different calls have been identified by researchers. These can range from loud trumpets to quiet rumbles. Elephants can also communicate by infrasound or low frequency sound that humans can’t discern. These sounds can be heard by other elephants up to fourteen kilometers away. If you’d like to experience some elephant sounds that humans can hear, go to “The Elephant Listening Project” on line.

Although elephants once lived across all of Africa, now they inhabit only 37 African and 13 Asian countries.

There are many elephant researchers working among wild elephants and in elephant sanctuaries. You can easily find these on line.  I’ll be looking there as well as checking bookstores for more information about the world’s largest land mammals, complex and endlessly fascinating, as well as in need of help to continue to survive.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Writers’ Gardens

The small house where I’ve lived for 22 years has a compact yard, front and back, in which I’ve created a garden that I love. I have very little lawn, but lots of perennials. 

I’ve been thinking recently that I might write a blog about my garden and then I found a book at the Saskatoon Public Library (love libraries) called, The Writer’s Garden (How gardens inspired our best-loved authors).

The book has wonderful photographs of the English gardens of such writers as Rudyard Kipling, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Beatrix Potter, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and others.  Most of these writers were personally involved in designing and/or working at least parts of their gardens. Many of them fell in love with the houses they bought, some lived there as children. Many of the writers had special huts or rooms in or looking out over their gardens where they did their writing.  Most of the locations are now taken care of by foundations or trusts and available for public tours.

My own garden provides pleasure for much of the year. In early spring I wait for the first shoots and blooms.

Various birds show up at different times, though I no longer put out as much bird seed as I used to because, particularly in the fall and spring, it seems to encourage mice that want to make their homes in my house! 

 I do love to watch birds.

My Siberian irises have finished blooming now, and it’s the turn of peonies – pink, white, red. I love to cut and bring a few of these into the house for their flamboyance and subtle scent. My roses are blooming as well, hardy bush roses developed in Canada. I generally avoid the more delicate tea roses, which have to be pampered to survive.

Every garden should have a few places to relax, and I have those, too – a place to read and write, to have a cup of tea or even a meal, and share with friends.

Each year I make some changes – add a few new plants (I mostly prefer hardy perennials, but I always pot a few annuals), thin and move other perennials.

There’s a lot of work to a garden, but I love it. Some people plan very carefully, designing beds and colours and determining when things bloom, mixing textures. I have done a little of that sort of thing, but mostly I try things and see how they work. The next year I may change it. Basically, though, my garden has retained its current form for some time.

I do take some time every spring to look through my books about prarie gardens - perennials and annuals - to choose what seeds I may try this year or what new plants I may buy. Then it's off to the various garden centres in the area to see what may inspire me there.

I also like to have food from my garden, so there are the berry bushes as well as a small vegetable area, which mostly has greens for salads, tomatoes, carrots, and herbs. I`ve even  tried corn, potatoes, and egg plant. Though the latter required starting the plants indoors in January and then I only got one tiny egg plant to eat.

Still it’s wonderful to go out in the morning and pick a few strawberries or raspberries to put in my cereal (that will come later this summer).

And there are the cacti that I keep indoors all winter and put on the deck when danger of frost is past. A couple of these my mother gave to me and they are more than 30 years old. If it gets hot enough the fish hook cactus will bloom spectacularly.

Today is a rainy day, so I am mostly enjoying my garden from indoors, but that’s OK, too. So much to look at, so much to wait and look forward to.

There are asters blooming, and moonflower vines have come up. A few sweet peas are survived the attacks of birds and I hope they`ll bloom eventually.

Later on there will be lilies of all kinds.

Working in my yard and garden is a wonderful way to think about writing, be inspired, and just relax.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Why I’m not a Poet

I have written a few poems in my life, and I love reading poetry that moves me. The latter gives me an emotional kick or a prickling at the back of my neck, or rarely a feeling as if the top of my head is going to come off. I also write fiction and non fiction and feel that I have a certain grasp and talent with both of those, and do call myself a writer. But a poet? No.
When I read lines like the following, I know myself in the presence of someone who has talent, is a master (or mistress) of the art.

“All of a sudden came the pelicans:
crazy old men in baseball caps who flew
like jackknives and collapsed like fans.” (John Malcom Brinnin)

This fragment is by a poet now dead, who was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but moved to the States with his parents as a child. What appealed to me in the poem was the image – we in Saskatoon know pelicans, after all, and I’ve often stood and watched them, thought about what they make me think of – punk rockers with their tuft of upstanding feathers at the back of their heads.

“All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.” (e.e. cummings)

E.E. Cummings has long been a favourite of mine, particularly this poem. It feels like magic, the images piling one on top of another, beautiful language, hints of mystery creating the story.

“I may feel guilty after a poem
for what is revealed, for what
stands bare when the speaking stops,
for what utters itself with full wings spread
of angel or bat
but I am healed to the saying.
I think it must be.” (Marge Piercy)

Piercy is an American writer, of both poetry and prose (fiction and non fiction). I loved her novel Vida, though don’t like everything she’s written. Still, I am bowled over by her talent, and glad to know she’s still alive.

“Wind turns back the sheets of the field.
What needs to sleep, sleeps there.
What needs to rest.

The door has fallen from the moon.
It floats in the slough, all knob and hinges.” (Lorna Crozier)

Years ago, I took a writing class from Lorna Crozier, and I have always admired her talent, both in writing and teaching. She captures the land and emotions of the prairie like few others.

I don’t know how these poets do it, find the images, put them together in ways that open and illuminate the world. I have difficulty with that. Maybe it’s a matter of practice? If I wrote as much poetry as I do prose, would I get better at it?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Letting Go

Human beings have to let go of many things, places, and people through their lives. At times that’s easy, mostly it’s hard. As we grow older there is even more to relinquish before that final good-bye – youth, energy, sleeping through nights, vision and hearing, sometimes health. Dylan Thomas wrote, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.” I can empathize with those sentiments, but I prefer to think of aging with grace rather than with rage. Perhaps all the smaller instances of letting go are preparation, helping us learn how to let go for the big one.

I’ve written before about dealing with aging parents. I’ve been trying to find ways to cope, trying to achieve understanding that might make me look more kindly on the way some people live in their latter years. Those who have lost their parents earlier may think me lucky to have mine around for so long. I think of my mother telling me, “Don’t get old.” To me that statement reflects her unhappiness, but happiness is subjective and perhaps I’m making a judgement that isn’t so for her.

Not all women get along with their mothers. I’ve been one of the ones who didn’t. I know that in some ways we are alike – our stubbornness, and our criticalness, for example. I have a lot of bad memories from throughout my life of my mother. My mother was not the sort of woman to think before she spoke and she still isn’t. Hurtful words can’t be taken back. I think I learned from her the kind of mother I didn’t want to be. Which is not to say that things were all bad. She walked me to school in the first days of elementary school. Sang to me when I was young. Sewed clothes for me in high school.

I’m the eldest daughter, which made me the most likely to care for my parents as they grew older, stopped driving, and needed more help. For most of that time, I’ve also been the one who lived closest to them. My brothers did and do help, but they live farther away. My mother got in the habit of phoning me if she needed something, or if she wanted to talk about her problems. I still didn’t like many of her behaviours, wouldn’t have spent time with her if she wasn’t my mother, but I felt a duty to help an aging woman who didn’t seem very happy. When the time came to sell their house my brothers and I helped them move into seniors’ housing, and then I helped them sell the house. Later, in their new place, I arranged for homecare cleaning once a week and a nurse to come once a month. When my mother talked about wanting to go back to a church she’d been away from for years, I contacted the minister and arranged for a home visit. I drove my parents to medical appointments. Often spent a few days near Christmas with them, though I found that extremely trying as my mother was often nagging and cantankerous. During all this time my mother rarely showed much appreciation or understanding for the time I took from my own life to help her and my father. She seemed to take me for granted. Mostly I swallowed my resentment, though recently I’d told her a couple of times about things she’d said or done that hurt me. She didn’t respond very satisfactorily; told me once that she thanked God every night for what I did for them.

Things came to a head recently with some financial issues. I did a lot of work making contacts and doing research, planned to meet with my parents and their accountant. Subsequently, my mother phoned me several times questioning why I was coming to this meeting and asking what I could possibly do? She said that she could handle things. When I told her about taxes owing, she became confused about the process for paying and no matter how I tried to explain, insisted that she knew what to do, though it was obvious she didn’t. I said that if she wasn’t happy with me, maybe she should get someone else to handle things. Finally, I asked myself why I was putting myself through this – sleepless nights, digestive disturbances, stress. So the next phone call from my mother, I said that if she really didn’t want me to come to the meeting with the accountant, I wouldn’t. Subsequently, I told my brothers that I could no longer deal with my mother and was turning things over to them.

I’ve been looking for a long time for books about this stage of life, trying to understand what might be happening to my mother. She is still independent in many ways, but stubborn as she’s been most of her life, and insisting that she can do things it’s obvious she can’t handle. In my estimation her judgement is faulty. She has also lied, and often twisted events, recalling them in ways that didn’t happen.

I think my mother didn’t have a particularly happy childhood, and it seems she didn’t learn good parenting or social skills. I’ve also learned that people into their eighties and nineties often want to retain independence, and deny that they need help even if it’s obvious that they do.

I found a couple of articles about letting go of aging parents when they are still alive:

I realized that although my circumstances and my parents’ are somewhat different than the above, I had to let go also. I had too many years of doing things to help (in my opinion) make life better for my parents, and not getting recognition or appreciation for it, while I was really not enjoying spending time with my mother. Perhaps it was time I let my mother have complete charge of her own life and let her find others in the family or community to meet her needs. So far the issues I’d been trying to help with had not been about safety, after all, but quality of life.

Subsequently, I found an article in the Journal of Marriage and Family (August 1999) that further illuminated the dynamics between me and my mother. It’s called, “The Micropolitics of Care in Relationships Between Aging Parents and Adult Children: Individualism, Collectivism, and Power.” An abstract of the article is available at:

Essentially, the researchers found that Exchange Theory applied in most situations between aging parents and adult children. If both were able to get enough of what they needed (e.g. recognition, appreciation, deference on the one hand; and independence and a measure of control on the other) things would go relatively smoothly. If one or both sides did not get what they needed, the system of care taking and help broke down.

In thinking about this, it seems to me that my mother wants her independence though realizing at times that she needs help. She both needs help and resents having to have it. I’m sure I haven’t been as diplomatic as I could be at times in letting her know that she is capable, and yet needs help with some things. For me, there have been too many years of this. I feel sad at times, but also angry about all this. Some guilt, some relief. 

For now, I need to keep distance between my mother and me. I need time to let go of anger, and sort through other feelings, figure out what kind of relationship if any, I can have with my mother. She’s not going to change – can I find a way to relate to her despite that?

I will continue to search for articles and books, try to understand this thing called aging, because I want to find a way for myself to age with grace and diplomacy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Rain of Dragonflies – Excerpt

His Daughter’s Eyes

He skis along the crest of a ridge through drifts of crusted snow and it’s hard going because no one has broken a trail. An unzipped jacked lets some of the heat of his exertion escape. His wife and daughter had been with him, but he and they have become separated. He is not really worried yet, although he came up here in hopes of spotting them more easily, and now it’s beginning to cloud over. Pale grey sky blends into white ground, isolating him, a dark speck in a huge washed out canvas.
He wears no watch, has no idea of the time and begins to wonder how long he has been skiing by himself, whether his wife and daughter are worried, searching for him. The only sounds are the hiss of his skis as they slice through snow, the in and out of his breath and the beating of his heart. He has thought about shouting their names, stopping and waving his arms, but has not done it. Perhaps it’s because he is afraid to give up hope and what if there is no answer to his calls?
A dark shape breaks the whiteness ahead, an outcrop of rock that has not been covered with snow. Though he doesn’t know when he last stopped, he thinks it’s important to rest, to eat. He leans his skis against the rock, crouches against its hardness. His small backpack contains a chocolate bar, a hardboiled egg, a chunk of cheese, a thermos of coffee, waxes, an extra ski tip, a screwdriver, a length of leather thong, and a jack knife. He has always prided himself on being prepared for any emergency.
As he sits chewing, a slight wind rises and he watches snow sift over the marks he has made. His parka is down filled and he is warm enough in the lee of the rock. They didn’t want to come skiing. His daughter wailed about plans with her friends and his wife supported her.
“Why today?” she asked. “You’ve gone skiing by yourself before, why not this time?”
A necessity he thought, some kind of last chance, but didn’t say it for fear of embarrassing himself. They wouldn’t understand, probably laugh, his fifteen-year-old daughter regarding him with blue-lashed eyes rimmed in black. He could not talk to those eyes, saw a stranger looking out of them, under the stiff, spiky hair.
“Leave her alone,” his wife often said.  “She’ll grow out of it.”
But he remembered his own adolescence, how his parents never seemed to understand anything. When he finally went away to university it was a relief and he made his visits home as short as possible. There had never been closeness between them again. Of course he got along with them all right, but they talked about inconsequential things. They didn’t know anything about his real life, the things he wanted, what he worried about, what was important to him. How could the same thing have happened with his own daughter when he had decided he would not let it?
He watches snow swirl, making patterns that he can’t read, like the twitch of his daughter’s dark dress at the dance. Not the kind of thing he remembered girls wearing to dances. He’d volunteered to be a chaperone because he wanted to be part of his daughter’s life, but all evening she and her friends ignored him and he felt like a stranger in a foreign country, unable to speak the language. A peacock among crows, in his red shirt and faded blue jeans. So many of his daughter’s friends wore baggy black, and to him unattractive, clothes. Recently his daughter has even taken to wearing heavy chains around her neck and wrists.
“Maybe one of us should quit working,” he said to his wife. “Stay home more, be here after school.”
“I’m not staying home,” his wife answered. “For God’s sake, she’s not a child anymore!”
That’s what worried him, though he’d not been able to say it. His little girl growing into an alien, perhaps dangerous creature.
It’s time to get moving again. Slowly he rises, puts on his pack, cleans his boots and connects the skis. He continues in the same direction, along the top of the ridge.  After a while he realizes that he is going down, the slope so gradual that he didn’t notice at first. He stops and debates the best way to go. There is really no way of knowing for sure and so he continues on, letting his skis take him where they will. The ravine offers shelter from the wind, but it’s beginning to get dark and colder.
He worries about his wife and daughter, hopes they have sense enough to go back to the car. His wife has her own keys, so they will be able to get in, to keep warm. They are probably impatient and angry that he went off without them after insisting that they come on this trip.
Bushes slip away on either side as he weaves his way along, skirting the edge of a frozen slough. Now that he has convinced himself of his wife’s and daughter’s whereabouts, he digs in his poles, skis shooting through drifts, cutting tracks, leaving puffs of snow behind. A big hill and he herringbones up, then stops at the top, breath rasping in his throat, to rest and gather a bit of energy for the last leg. He’s not exactly sure where he is, but the parking lot can’t be far. He skis along the top of the hill in the deepening dusk, watching for headlights that will guide him toward the highway.
A dark shape stands out slightly in the snow ahead – an outcrop of rock. He stops beside it, sees in the hollow on one side the marks of someone who crouched there earlier. It is the place he stopped before. Panic rises in his chest, but he pushes it down. Darkness won’t be total for a while. He’ll just have to be more careful this time. He hopes they’ve waited for him, or maybe worried by his long absence they’ve driven to the nearest town to notify the RCMP. Right now he doesn’t mind the thought of that at all, even if it discredits his outdoor skills. A gulp of coffee from the thermos to warm his insides and then he’s off.

For a while he follows his own tracks backward, but this time he watches for landmarks and finds the place where he thinks he went wrong earlier. He should be more certain now, but he is not, his confidence in himself, shaken. Surely he has been this way before, knows these trails and yet there’s a nagging doubt. Maybe his whole life has been like that, his self-confidence all a con, a sham, and someday people will find him out. It’s why he’s gone in for things like skiing that involve technique and specific knowledge that can be learned. He’s needed to prove his competence to himself as well as to other people. In the past he’s always pushed such thoughts back into the dark parts of his mind, but suddenly they have broken loose.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Aging Brain

For a long time now I’ve been dealing with aging parents.  Watching and experiencing their lives makes we wonder what is in store for me as I continue to get older.

My mother likes to say, “Don’t get old.” I’ve tried responding to that in different ways, though I think what she really means is she’s not enjoying getting old. Not every older person I meet has that attitude. I’ve been wondering what makes some people more negative than others as they age, what leads to odd characteristic, like increased lying or talking almost constantly? Why do some people age more gracefully than others? What is the psychology of aging?
One theory of aging says that people have a tendency to withdraw from society as they get older. I do know people who are like this, but others I know stay actively connected. In fact nowadays we are encouraged to stay engaged and active as long as possible for healthier lives. Another theory states that as we get older there is a certain amount of introspection in regards to evaluating our lives. If we think we’ve lived well and contributed, we feel better about ourselves than if we think we’ve not done as we wanted or not lived up to our potential or hopes and dreams. The latter may lead to despair and withdrawal.

Contemporary theories talk about life-long character traits rather than stages of life. Particularly important are such traits as openness to new experiences, levels of anxiety, impulsiveness, and consciousness of self. Also are important are assertiveness and openness to positive emotional experiences. If you are stubborn and cantankerous in youth, you will likely remain that way as you age. However, some researchers have found that personality traits might change as we age.
I have some thoughts of my own. It seems to me that some people, when they realize that they are not able to physically do some of the things they used to do, feel unhappy and manifest that by complaining. Others, in this increasingly complex world, find themselves unable to cope with things such as technology, (e.g. telephone voice mail systems etc.) and feel less competent. At times these feelings can lead older people to tell direct lies about something that happened or modify the facts in order not to make themselves look bad or incompetent. Some people do not seem able to say, “I just don’t understand that,” or “I can’t do that.” And then of course, there are the changes in the brain. Have you noticed yourself getting more forgetful? Or do certain things just not stick in your mind anymore? Perhaps it’s more difficult to maintain focus, especially if there are a lot of things going on. Hearing and sight may deteriorate. Some of us are able to compensate through various strategies such as making lists or maintaining a detailed calendar of events, using hearing aids or magnifying glasses. Others don’t seem able to cope.

I’ve been able to find books that talk about how to make the aging process better (e.g exercise, eating well, being active), how to deal with the legal issues (making wills, etc.), possible physical health issues (e.g. osteoarthritis), financial issues (e.g. how to save for retirement), living options (e.g. assisted living, long term care, etc.), and how to be a caretaker. But so far I haven’t found any books that talk about the characteristics that older people may manifest (some of which I’ve mentioned above), whether these are part of the aging of the brain, and how to try to understand and cope with these things when you are a caretaker. Is there anything we can do, or should we just accept the negatives and try not to let them bother us? Are there things we can say and do to make things easier both for ourselves as caretakers and for those we are caring for?
I continue to search for good books and articles on the subject. And I’m working on a book of my own.