Wednesday, September 10, 2014

how to enrich your life.

It is September, I have just returned from a wonderful but somewhat dizzying month-long trip to Europe, I'm putting on sweaters and scarves, and I am trying to enrich my life.

To sum up the trip: being in foreign places anchored by long histories marked with suffering and triumph, walking every day for a month straight on cobblestone, looking at art I've only read about or seen pictures of online, listening to languages I don't understand, reading The Age of Innocence on so many trains, jumping into the Mediterranean and letting the waves roll over my face, never spending more than a fifteen-minute-long shower's length of time apart from Eric, trying to absorb everything right into my marrow so I can feel like the experience was real.

Now, back home on the ranch, back at work where I'm attending webinars on fundraising techniques between teaching children how to ride horses and cooking meals for large groups of people, I'm thinking seriously about how to enrich my life. To accept that I cannot quit my job and just be a "writer" or an "artist." (I use quotations intentionally, and I'm trying to give up the idea that these are things you just suddenly become, rather than things you just are or aren't -- and if I'm not, then maybe I'll have to accept that, too.)

I signed up for an adult novice concert band. Last night I went to a church in a somewhat seedy neighbourhood and played the flute with other people for the first time in nine years. It was a humbling experience. As it turns out, I've forgotten how to count to four, and how to breathe.

I'm re-reading Ariel and trying to remember how to talk about poetry, with the help of Lizzie, who very much knows how. And I have big plans to clean out the office and to set aside two hours on Sunday nights to go into the room, close the door, and write. And, as I usually am when the weather turns cold, I'm thinking about winter crochet projects.

All of this to try to hedge the winter ennui that I know is coming. This year it took till August to shake it. Maybe this fall I can start by being more grateful for the life I do have.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

after a long time

This was a long winter.

It followed a tense and difficult fall, and was only broken by a busy and stressful spring. Now summer is opening up on the Ranch with clouds of mosquitoes and the sweetness of Alberta roses. Mornings are warm and bright. Everywhere is green leaves or blue sky. I come in at the end of each day smelling like sunscreen and bug spray and horses. Just like I used to.


I haven't slept in a month. Every day I force my body to do the things bodies are supposed to do in the daytime: have open eyes, put food in mouth, go to work, speak to other people, shower, brush teeth, wait for sleep. When the day is over and I think sleep might come, it eludes me, always. I am awake while everyone sleeps. The dog snores. Eric faces away from me, buried in his pillow. I keep checking the time on my phone, lighting up the room with little disappointments -- it's just later and later and later.

If I didn't live in the wilderness, I would leave the house. We used to stay up until dawn, remember? Talking and talking and talking and talking over craft beers and sometimes pipe tobacco and sometimes campfires, and always Garneau. I don't know what they do now, if they still do that without me.

But now I'm in the quiet of the countryside. No cars, no backyard parties next door. Just the hum of bugs in the air and the wind in the trees. The breaths of horses and the songs of frogs. And at three in the morning, before the birds have woken up and before the sun thinks of rising, I'm awake and alone.

It's been months since I've written anything. I tried to strangle out a poem this winter, but it wouldn't give. I've been reading a lot about the creative habits of writers and artists, trying to glean what it is that makes art work for them and not for me. It is hard work for them, too, but they've got an idea to start with. Something to go on. To work towards finishing. The process after that idea comes is different for everyone.

How long do you wait for an idea? At what point do you just surrender to your life? To going to work, speaking to other people, making plans with friends, being a nice wife, a worthwhile citizen? To putting on sunscreen in the morning, running my hands over the smooth summer coats of our team of Belgian horses, to standing on the deck next to Eric and looking out at the wide green world? There is nothing wrong with any of these things. They could be enough, maybe.

But I would like both. The ideas, the words -- and to surrender to my regular life. And, of course: to sleep for a month straight.

Friday, August 9, 2013

i love my home (part 1: south cooking lake)

Everyone mourns the lake.

What used to be a thriving waterfront for boating, canoeing, fishing and swimming has been disappearing for decades. Lakes don't really dry up; they just fill in, slowly, from the bottom to the top with sludgy sediment eroded from the watershed and from decomposing plants. What used to be a lake deep enough for horses to swim in over their heads is now probably no more than a foot deep. This kind of lake is classified as eutrophic: shallow, weedy and filled with organic matter. It is evolving into a wetland before our eyes. Large areas have given away to vegetation.

Shrubs and wayward canola grow in the very bay that I once canoed across as a child at summer camp. It was a windy day, I was nine years old, in an aluminum canoe with two other girls my age. One was scared and crying; she wouldn't paddle. We were blown clear across the lake, coming ashore on someone's farm. I remember looking back towards our own shore and thinking it looked so far away. Other kids in other canoes paddled around the shoreline, but we were lost in some distant land, not knowing what to do or how to paddle effectively enough to get back. Eventually, a camp staff member rescued us and towed us to safety. To this day, when I look across the lake and see the field dotted with cows and the idyllic red barn, I think of sitting in a canoe at the edge of that field, wondering whether we should ask the farmer for help. But the idea of the lake being choppy enough to make canoeing difficult is almost laughable now. So much has changed.

Four summers ago, a large bull moose waded out into the lake, as I'm sure he had done for many summers of his life. They like to eat underwater vegetation. They stand long-legged in lakes and ponds, dipping their noses below the water to tear up tender grasses and weeds. But this moose hadn't kept track of the way the land is always changing -- how you can never take nature for granted. As he waded deeper and deeper, he sunk down into the sludge beneath the water. Down past his belly. Stuck out there, he must have fought a long time to free himself, but by the time we saw him, he was mostly still. We heard his moaning cries. We could see him from the area we use for campfires with the kids at camp. The little girls all cried for him, begging our staff members to rescue him, their fingers all pointing out past the large wooden cross that stands on the beach to the suffering soul in the water beyond. Fish and Wildlife had to come out the next day. They went out in a canoe to assess his situation and determined there was no way to save him. I was standing on the soccer field with a group of twenty kids around me when I heard the gunshot. The kids, startled, looked to me. I told them it was fireworks. The fact that it was mid-day didn't seem to occur to them, and they believed me. They went on playing, and that night their week of camp was over, so they all went home. I wonder if any of them ever thought of that moose again. Now there's no sign of him; the area is filled in with reeds.

So often I ride my horse alone up this shoreline. His hooves flatten reeds and tall grasses to the spongey ground. His footsteps scare up crickets and frogs. Sometimes the grass is stirrup-high. If I look up the shoreline, I can imagine I'm somewhere very far from civilization. Somewhere very wild. All I can hear in those moments are the sounds of my horse moving through the grass and the buzz of insects and the wind through the leaves of poplar and birch and the calls of birds and the splash of ducks moving across the water. And sometimes, my own voice, as I speak to my horse and to myself and to God.

There may not be water-skiers and fishermen on this lake anymore, but there is so much more here than ever before. The vegetation grows wild. What used to be a sandy beach is now overgrown with cattails, bullrushes, bushes and saplings. The ducks, geese and other shorebirds are thriving in ways I've never seen before. Once, while I rode my horse along the lakeside, what seemed like a thousand birds took off from the water's surface and flew over our heads; the sound of their wings beating was deafening. Awestruck and a little afraid, I craned my neck to watch them pass us and fled to the water around the bend.

In the early spring I can hear the constant mating calls of ducks from my house. Watching ducklings and goslings swimming along behind their mothers is a special pleasure. And in recent years, I've seen much more wildlife activity in our back pasture area, a mix of forest and meadow that borders the lake. I regularly see deer, moose, osprey, falcons, owls, coyotes, and even bald eagles. Just last night while walking my dog, I was followed by a red-tailed hawk, who cried at me to stop invading his privacy. I'm not sure if this increase in wildlife is related to the fact that our lake is becoming a wetland, or if I am just more conscious lately of what goes on in nature around me. Either way, it has been an incredible gift, and I want to share it with as many people as I can.

Last week, I had the kids at camp making sandcastles down on this wild shore. I found four little clearings in the trees and brush that miraculously held soft, clean, non-weedy sand. The kids ran around collecting wildflowers, sticks, rocks and moss to decorate their creations. They dug moats, putting their hands into the same sand that I'm sure I felt between my toes when I was nine years old, standing on the shore with a canoe paddle in my hand. I looked at the trees that never used to exist but are now taller than me, and wondered what this lakeshore will look like in another fifteen years. Or thirty, or fifty, or a hundred. Long after Birch Bay Ranch no longer resides on this shoreline, what will it look like? Will the clearing where we have our campfires stay clear, or will the aspen forest overtake everything? Will there be any people here to build sandcastles and ride horses, or will the only residents be birds, moose and beavers?

Everyone mourns the lake, wishes it would come back deep and clear. Longs to splash out into the waves in bathing suits, dreams of boating along its surface, of standing happy and shivery on the shore, water dripping from their hair onto sunburned shoulders, smelling of sand and sunscreen and something vegetal, like algae. But I see the thriving community of plants and animals who have moved in now that we've moved out, and I don't mourn it the same way the others do. We can still use this lake, interact with it and enjoy it. I am glad to hear bird calls and watch ducklings grow and listen to frog songs. God created so many different and incredible things -- I hope I'll be able to cherish them all.

And nature has a way of reclaiming what is hers. What will she do with this piece of water and land that I have known and loved for seventeen years? And will I be able to witness it?


I kept a typewriter
I carried a little dark suitcase around
I asked the proprietor for some or a little space
I was a stranger
I was always moving about
I knew there was lightning on the moon
I hammered gold letters against the wilderness
I hammered gold letters against the night
I held this light to myself
I had so little to say to all the rest

-- Alfred Starr Hamilton

Monday, July 8, 2013


Well, I have been wrenched into the present at last. Slapped in the face by realities I never once considered a possibility. While I've been spending my days wallowing in longing for the past, or hoping for a distant future, I took for granted what was now. And I know that. I've known it this whole time, struggled against that fact, tried pulling myself out of the past, tried making myself feel present, tried swallowing that crippling nostalgia. But I can't do just by sheer force of will, and never have been able to.

Well, I'm here now, present. And I am not happy about it. Now I'm scrambling to stop taking for granted all the wonderful things about our life here in the country. One day, we will not be young. One day, we will not live in a community where everyone loves us. Where nature abounds. Where I can step out the door of my office and let my horse breathe his sweet hay breath onto the palm of my hand whenever I feel like it. One day, the work we do will not be in service to a greater cause. One day we'll look back on this time and miss feeling passionate.

This era, too, will pass. And I will mourn it for a long time.

Maybe forever.

To treasure a life -- how many of you can say you're really doing it?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


It's summertime. When it isn't raining, the sun is hot. Alberta is such a funny place -- we live always between two extremes. Those long winters where the cold settles right down into your bones and doesn't leave for months, and these short, blazing summers where the sun seems almost never to set.

Lately it's been muggy. Threatening to thunderstorm. Warnings of tornados break into our radio broadcasts and we find ourselves sitting on the floor in the basement laundry room, our dog, whining, on a leash. The rain will pour down for an hour and then the sun comes out and all that water comes out of the fields in a mist, all at once. Steam curls off our tin roof.

I would spend more time outside if it weren't for the mosquitos. They're everywhere, in clouds, and they're insatiable.

Lately I've been working on a project for work that enables me to spend time during the day photographing our horses. I have loved how each of their personalities becomes so evident on film. The silly ones are silly, the grouchy ones grouchy. The ones who know how pretty they are stand tall, ears pricked forward, eyes bright on some imaginary point beyond the lens. How do they know how to do that?

Tomorrow night I'm going on a trip with my friends (we do it every year). I'm only about a quarter of the way packed; the rest of my clothes are currently drying on the rack in the laundry room. Part of me feels guilty for taking time off work. But the rest of me is thinking about laughing in the car and wandering through wilderness and drinking wine outside. And wondering what wildlife I'll see.

When I get back, true summer will begin. I might not come up for air until September.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

be here now

Are there other people in the world who are being as stifled by nostalgia as I am?

I'm sitting in my office at a place I've always loved to work at. I have a nice life. I can ride horses whenever I feel like it, I'm surrounded by nature all the time. My husband is easily the best man I know. We are comfortable. The times here are not hard, even though some days feel impossibly long.

But just now I heard a song that wrenched me back three years, to sitting at my desk in the little Garneau house. An open window, cool air, rain drops on the roof. The street was so green, everything was fresh. I'd be walking to work with a lime green umbrella later that day. I'd be staying out until the sun rose with new best friends.

This memory, rather than just being a sweet little glimpse into a very different kind of life I used to live, seems to have closed around my heart like a tight fist. It seems rather than reliving happy memories, I immediately think, "I never go back."

And that thought makes me feel immeasurably sad. It's homesickness, really. Homesick for another time.

I'm never present enough to just enjoy this time.

How can I be here now?