I wrote this back in 2016 and it’s just as relevant today. Of course, little boy was being dropped off to Forest School back then, and now he is a teenager taking himself places. But the rest is all there…
It’s only fitting that the robin came flying by the side of the car as I am driving slowly on the dirt road after I dropped little boy off for Forest School somewhere in the grasslands for a day of exploring.
It is March 8th, and that’s Mother’s Day back where I was born.
No bells and whistles, no marketing campaigns to make you buy this and that for mom. Flowers, yes, the grownup men bought flowers for their wives, and kids like me picked snowdrops, tied them with a nice little ribbon and presented them to Mom. No Hallmark cards, but carefully hand drawn cards featuring snowdrops as well. They were easy to draw and the earliest of all flowers. I always thought that was quite a feat for how fragile they looked.
It was on Tuesday evening last week that I deleted (again) all the promotional emails from my inbox; there were a few hundred of them. It is now Saturday afternoon and another load of 234 promotional emails are going to meet the same fate. Many of them have to do with the Black Friday sale, which I choose to stay out of for obvious reasons.
The fact that around 50 or so find their way into my inbox every day is beyond disturbing. I’ve unsubscribed to anything I ever signed up for, unless it’s worth having, and I do not open any invites to shop on a black Friday or any other colour day; I shop when I need to and, as they say, what better way to make the best of a sale then to save 100 percent by not buying anything.
The thing is though, ‘tis the season to be giving and there are things our loved ones need that can be happily gifted come Christmas day. That aside, here’s a thought that is not new or revolutionary in any way, but a humble reminder: set aside time to spend together rather than money to buy gifts.
Last year we had my in-laws over during the Christmas holiday and we made precious memories out of it. I got puzzles from the thrift stores in town prior to, and that meant many hours of afternoon chitchat and laughter while trying to solve them; our oldest son and mom-in-law’s favourite activity. We played cards and other games too, plus we went out for hikes in the woods in deep, wonderful snow.
My mother-in-law built a gingerbread castle with our little guy; some of the otherwise solid foundation became veritable trenches in the end, and the fact that we all remember it fondly is a sign that it was all done right. We will do the same this year, after we trade our puzzles in for ‘new’ used ones, and we get a couple of board and wooden games that everyone no matter the age can be part of.
We will open (minimal and useful) gifts too, and we will delight in the funny, witty rhymes my father-in-law puts together every year for every one of us. Those riddles remind me of my dad, who was always fond of riddles. There is a fascinating little portrait of the person in each gift-attached missive. Part of the delight is deciphering the ‘code’ in each.
Playing games together leads to silly banter and laughing together, and it leads to togetherness not just because we share the space but because we’re present right then and there. No TV, no phones, just time together as it happens.
We get the games out not just at Christmas time though. We play for no reason on any week day when no evening activities steal any of us from our home, and we play when we have family over or when we visit them. Many years from now when the boys will look back and think of what ‘now’ was made of, I want them to remember the playfulness we built our memories on. The silliness of that chat that games often elicit, the times when you are there not to make ‘quality time’ but simply push everything aside to make room for each other and for that togetherness that is more elusive than anything else because time really is a wild creature that minds its own and cannot ever be tamed. Or stopped.
The cynics among us can argue that time flows just the same whether you play with your kids, watch TV or get lost seeking meaning in the countless scribbles of invisible crowds on social media. I’d argue that if we employ pure physics to prove it, the answer is yes, it does. The reflection of it on our minds and, dare I say, soul, is a different story though.
There is no equation to prove that it is healthier for everyone, no matter the age, to spend enough time with their loved ones. There is only that feeling of fullness of the heart when you do. And when you try to measure the size and money value of gifts against the immeasurable goodness of being fully present where your loved ones are fully present, well, there is a discrepancy that points to the evident.
I spent every Christmas at home with my parents until my late twenties. The only gift I remember is a doll I got when I was eight or so. I do remember that my sister and I baked with my mom every year, and I remember the times my dad pulled my sister and I all bundled up in a sled under a million stars shining bright and happy. I remember the snow crunching under his feet, the tone of his voice as he was telling us stories; I would not trade the magic of those nights and the delicious smells of cooking and baking with my mom for all the gifts in the world.
There is no email warning us that one day it all ends; there is no promotional material telling us ‘just spend time with your loved ones while there is time still.’ Giving out of love is good and it makes us smile. But it will never come close to the one thing that can do what nothing else can: spending time together.
Make it so this holiday season. Fill your heart and others’ with joy and laughter rather than your shopping cart with things. It’s the only gift that matters in the end; if you make it so.
I grew up with books. Our living room had tomes lined up in tall bookcases covering entire walls, floor to the ceiling almost. When you’re a kid, that is as close to infinity as it gets. I loved climbing to some of the highest shelves and reaching to the back row where old books hid both enticing adventures and that smell of old paper that to this day is one of the most comforting smells there is.
That smell meant the world was all right. It still does, though much has happened since and my world changed in many ways over, some happier than others. Every year in the spring, the same mix of emotions and memories finds its way into my mind. Lilac flowers, bright morning sunshine, memories of my parents’ chatting in the kitchen over coffee, books to get lost in.
Many of the books I read as a kid and later on during adolescence were suggested to me by my Mom. No ‘you should read this’ but instead, she would tell me why she liked this or that book. She made me curious. Some stories came in many volumes, and far from being intimidated by the number of pages to read, I often felt a deep feeling of regret when the story was over.
I believe the writers of such great stories aimed to leave readers with that sense of regret in order to cultivate a love of reading and ensure they’ll search for the next written adventure. My parents would often make references to books that touched them in one way or another, which made me read them. You could say I was learning about my parents from a different perspective, learning the depths of their hearts and at the same time wading into getting to know mine.
To this day, reading brings me close to my parents. The love of reading they opened my mind and heart to was not confined only to books. They told stories too, some real-life ones of their own and many gleaned from books: fairy tales, adventures, sad stories, poems. Both my parents are gone now so my attempts to dissolve the very boundaries that separate our worlds are carried on with books.
I aim to do the same for the boys. We have many books in our home. Because we homeschool, we have entire shelves dedicated to subjects such as math, all flavours of science, grammar, history, geography, and languages. But we have adventure books, silly and serious, we have many entrenching conversations about books and we often fill the library book basket with treasures.
We read together, we read separately, each with whatever grips the heart and mind the most, and we marvel at treasures that we find in used bookstores, which we all love to get lost in occasionally, whether in Kamloops or on the road.
Yes, my Mom would beam to see all of this, and she’d smilingly approve of our bookwormy forays. It’s the thing that lasts when life as we know it brings itself to an untimely end. It’s what I wish my boys to look back on and smile at the memories we’ve seeded along the way.
Because of all of this and more, I was touched, not in the kindest of ways, by the latest news on book recycling in Kamloops. It won’t happen anymore. Makes one wonder about the plethora of books lying around. What’s in store for them?
If you visit thrift stores and used books stores you’re likely familiar with the overwhelming number of books that bend the shelves downwards. There are so many of them and very little, if any, room for more. A good thing, indeed, to be inundated by books, unless we stop to ponder on the ongoing shortening of children’s attention span nowadays and the overall little reading being done in our society. Blame it on the interminable, addicting TV programs and other types of screen-related activities, as well as the fast pace of life that makes leisure time feel sinful.
It’s not. It is perhaps more sinful to throw books in the landfill and at the same time, inundate the stores with more. An unfortunate consequence of mixing money with books, and at the same time preying on the very human curiosity regarding the next best thing… We have become so primed for it.
There are many beautiful, profound reads out there, and there is, unfortunately, a lot of fluff, for young and old alike, not that books have an age. The classics have been rendered boring and less engaging by many, and they are sold for peanuts, though the wisdom they hold is priceless. They are the first ones to see the landfill from up close.
So where to from here? Saving the books seems like a fool’s errand. I’d start with saving the love of reading. Saving our leisure and reading time from the bad time-thieves out there, and safeguarding stories and books and memories that our children can carry with them, literally and otherwise, all the way to the side of life where their children will once grow up and they will be encouraged to learn the value hidden in tomes.
My mother would feel honoured to know how much books mean to me because of her gentle nudging to reach for the ones at the back of the highest shelves. It’s been a worthy adventure.
It’s 8.03 so her eyes are on me. Ready? Not yet, cuddles first. Not sure when this became a morning ritual. Her head on my chest, eyes closed, so much is being said without a word coming out.
She knows my every move. Mornings are particularly important because when you have that kind of nose you want to see what the new day tells you about the night before.
She waits by the door, eyes fixated on me. Love and pressure go together sometimes. Finally, the door opens and we’re out. It’s -18 and sunny, though the sun is scarce on our block still. Heel, leave it, good job, repeat. Her little feet dance on the sidewalk this way and that, her nose sniffing tracks of cats and dogs and birds. So much has happened overnight. Again.
The park is white and frozen. We know where the sunny parts are so that’s where we’re heading. Interference. A dog that mostly doesn’t like other dogs, his owner says, shows up. She feels it’s not a friendly greeting but a ‘let me sniff you so I can bash you shortly’, so she declines. A short-lived pursuit follows; her tail is down, she is not comfortable like she is with other dogs. She stands her ground though. A brave pup she is.
We move along. She runs ahead. I stop to adjust my mittens and I notice her standing in the middle of the path waiting. We gaze at each other for a few seconds. ‘Should we keep going?’ I ask. She tilts her head. All right then.
We take a trail that will ultimately take us to the sunny parts. It’s cold. My face is stinging. She dashes up and down the hills chasing birds. Then she stops by the squirrel tree. Yes, there is one she knows of in the park. Other than the whooshing sounds made by my feet and hers, all is quiet.
We reach the sunny path. As soon as I feel the sun on my face I stop and let it kiss my cheeks. She does too. We exchange glances again. We speak sparkling together; a language that makes your day brighter.
All of a sudden she starts sniffing with a vengeance. Her nose plows through deep snow and then she holds it up and smells the air. There are tracks that she sniffs again and again. Then I understand. The snow becomes a translator of our pup’s behaviour. When we’re walking down the street or around here, certain tracks that the snow makes now visible, make her go crazy.
I follow a narrow set of tracks with my eyes all the way up the hill. I wouldn’t have been aware of that if she wasn’t here to make me see. Coyotes. We saw one the other day just out of the park. She looks like one, people say. One day we’ll meet face to face, coyotes and us. I know she’ll be brave, but I hope she’ll be wise too.
We’re in the shade again. It’s cold and I’m thinking of warmth and hot coffee, boys waking up, and morning snuggles with little boy. It’s a good sunny, day. It’s her first birthday.
She’s been a catalyst of laughter in our home, she’s reminded us all of the simple pleasure of being, quiet and peaceful, and let the world go by even for just a bit. She knows our names, we know her favourite games and hiding places and we’re constantly revising the house rules just so we can have more of her.
Happy birthday, pup, glad you’re ours and we’re yours. We love you so.
There is always that feeling of mild sorrow when leaving a place where you stayed even for a bit. A part of you stays behind no matter what. When we left in the morning, the cabin that was our home for one night was inundated by bright sunlight. It looked pretty and inviting. Places where you share laughs and snuggles always do.
We crossed a frozen lake, following our own tracks from yesterday. Deep enough wells lined with hoarfrost that looked like tiny evergreens. As if a white forest grew in each of them. The four of us and pup too, we left tracks that danced together and trampled in each other’s steps all the way to the cabin. Now we were trekking back. So much sun to walk with us. That only the pup pranced is because we were rather weighted down by winter gear. But our hearts did, alongside her.
We traversed the first lake and followed a path through the woods. Tall swaying trees decorated with big clumps of snow, lichens and sunshine guarded the trail and the magic of walking among them was unsurpassable. There were holes in the snow that were filled with blue light and you wanted to be small enough to slide right in and marvel at the world of light filtered through ice crystals piled on top of each other.
Magic, yes. Boys chattering behind the supply sled that Max pulled, and pup and I walking ahead and announcing dead-fall crossings. Ever heard the music of trees swaying in a gentle breeze? It’s yet another kind of mystery that the forest envelops you with.
There are tracks of bunnies and squirrels and mice too, the tiniest of all, and my camera is asleep due to cold temperatures so we only stare at them and imagine the stories that go with each, grateful for yesterday’s glimpses that got photographed. This is what I always wish for. Time to be. Present so we can see each other…
We are in the heart of the snowy woods, no notifications on any devices, just furtive glances that speak of winter-kissed red cheeks, simple joy, togetherness and being able to steal some time together, away from a fast-moving world that often makes us feel we have long misplaced the brakes of it. Hence the speed and craziness. Hence the need to trek away from it at times.
We reach the half point; there’s some sighs, tiredness, and laughter at the pup’s antics. She buries her face in the snow, swims, and crawls through the white thick waves of brightness, checks in with us and dives in yet another pile that might or might not contain a mouse somewhere at the bottom. Worth a shot.
We reach the second lake and follow thick translucent snowmobile tracks. They had churned the slushy overflow on the lake and now it’s all frozen, thick tracks and small bumps of ice as if the whole lake was churning and a big freeze came and put an end to all that movement. It’s quiet and sunny and the pup follows the scent of coyotes. This way and that, she smells the snow, the air, she sniffs at sunshine that carries smells though to us it’s but a storm of bright air that moves cold and swift over our faces. So much sunshine.
Reeds are frozen from the waist up and we wind our way through, around an island that sits just as frozen. The wind stops pinching our cheeks. Boys and pup tussle in the snow, small hands turn red and itchy and the trek has to end soon or else. It’s been a long morning of many steps through snowy woods where traps of dead-fall lay shamelessly thick and cumbersome at times.
We woke up early because early morning often turns drafty and cold in old cabins, when the fire decides to snooze some too.
The boys were snuggled up in the loft for half the night. Then the air got too hot. Nighttime crawling with sleeping bags is but part of it all. They snuggled with us and pup, close to the stove; there were whispers and shushing and pup barking at times because the woods are never silent at night and she knows that better than us.
We had played games before bedtime and candlelight was sweetly enveloping us with soft light but it was hard to see the pieces and writing on cards. So we turned to stories; some were spooky, some had tiny pups and adventures in them, some had rhymes and laughter and continued all the way until we all stepped outside, pup too, and stared at a sky that had stars exploded all over it. Every time we find ourselves under the night sky where numbers lose their meaning, we’re in awe and silent, aware of the privilege of seeing it all and together. The moon was a bright crescent, a scythe that harvests heaps of magic for us to hold in thick, heart-filling bouquets. Forever may exist after all.
We put out the candles when words turned lazy and slow. The fire was still on in the stove and we curled up with sweaters and jackets for pillows, and the pup allowed to nestle next to us. Loaded with hugs and giggled, the boys crawled up into the loft, and their whispers became soft breathing and neither of us could tell who said what last because somehow all became quiet until the pup stirred and growled softly, which was in the middle of the night when all is but shadows and whispers of dreams. We were safe, we always are. Togetherness has something to do with it.
The thing is you never get to say goodbye the right away or at the right time. There is no such thing. Not when you’re trying to chase growing up kids. It’s like trying to capture that gaze of wonder on their faces just to have the camera be always a second slower than their sudden turn of the head…
Today is Tony’s first day on his first job. Allowance stopped yesterday and childhood is leaving wet footprints all over memory lane. He has a bank account and a card that needs to be activated over the phone and it’s no longer me making the call; he has job responsibilities and yes, a paycheque at the end of the month. The road ahead is real and boys become men as they take one step at a time.
Doubts, celebratory smiles and a barely audible sigh as I watch his childhood cling like a wet leaf to a window only to be swooped by a whirlwind of now before I have a chance to say ‘OK, hold on for just a little longer…’ That’s not how it goes. All I can do is wonder if I did it right so far? Is he ready?
We see the smooth parts in our children and the self-congratulatory music blares victorious, and then we see the sharp bits, more painful to feel and look at and our gaze skids sideways, scrambling for justification of why and how the ugly bits came to be. We ask for a second chance when there is none, we promise to do better starting now and we oscillate between thinking ‘it’s no big deal’ and ‘oh, goodness, how could I do that, I messed up my kid…’
Did I do it right? Is he ready?
This is one of the forks in the road towards becoming the bigger version of himself. He turned 14 not long ago and no, age does nothing to me in dictating the next step and yet now it does. He can have a job. His first.
I drove him to the end of the first block of today’s first route. He steps outside, big canvas bag bursting with papers on his hip. It’s sunny and cloudy and the shreds of doubt can’t hang on strong enough. His gait is brisk and reveals the growing man inside. I park under a big tree at the other end of the block waiting to take him to the next route.
Bittersweet it is and I know the taste. I watch leaves tapping against each other though the mid-morning breeze twirls them all in the same direction. Some resist and that’s where I find my answers. All the scraps of memory behind…
I miss the mornings when the sofa was inundated with books and the two of us would share silly laughter over Dr. Seuss’s tongue twisters and bouncy rhymes. I will miss the rainy walks and his small boots filled to the brim with puddle water, muck and all, baby teeth grinning white and happy as the raindrops licked his little face. The snails that had to be counted every time we passed the wall that now reaches his hips and will never again reach higher than his head, them too…
Would I do things better if I had another go? Nah, it’s a wild game this one. We raise ourselves as we raise our kids, becoming better at simply being, learning that it’s not about asking for second chances or for burying the ungracious flight fragments. It’s about soaring and dropping under skies that turn grey and heavy when you least expect, and it’s about finding your wings as you’re about to hit the ground.
It’s about the whispered prayers that you put out there wondering why God would listen to you since you’ve already broken so many promises, and yet you hope the ones you make today won’t go poof into thin air because you put them together from shards of hope and hope is precious.
The radio fills the car with beautiful music. I make a note to remember the name. Ben Caplan, yet another perfect homegrown voice… It happened before, the right music at the right time. I pretend to read but my mind wonders as I spot Tony in the distance. He walks confidently, the list of delivery addresses in his hand, bag hanging loose as he pulls out the last papers. My heart swells and I know he knows that. He smiles before crossing the street.
I smile back. It’s not about wondering I’d do it better if we were to start again.
It’s about gathering all that I’ve learned since the day I held him for the first time, putting it all in a big pile, throwing some tight hugs for good measure and saying loud and clear ‘There you go, I tried my best, even when I stank and we both sulked and I thought “unfit” should be tattooed on my forehead.’ Love patches the gaping holes that let the cold breeze in. as a mother you’re broken many times and put back together, every time a bit better, every time proudly letting the joined pieces show. A story of sorts.
Love is the big secret. The ups and downs that help build the complicated and necessary geography of the soul that speaks of the deepest pits of grief and of the sparkle that sits on the highest peaks where the sun dances and sings… so I’ll say ‘here you go, you ought to have them both and the in between wonders too. Gratefulness is where it’s at, for having had the chance to build it like this so far… and more’s coming.’
Hanging on is where it’s at. He hops in and we drive to the next route. I sit and wait and when he hops back in he smiles and shows me his hands all black with ink. I fall in love with the miracle of the growing boy’s smile yet again. There’s no point in ever thinking that starting again would help us fare better. It’s sunny and cloudy and there is but one whisper to remember to let out every now and then.
Happy 14, lil’ no longer growing boy, and many more coming. It’s going to be alright. You somehow seem to know how to take yourself there. I’ll be cheering you on, as always, whether the road takes you upwards or downwards. Really, you should know the big secret now: it’s what you make of it, so carry on. Don’t forget to smile.
Time is a game played beautifully by children (Heraclitus)
There are a few things that can be said about our yard. An English garden it is not. Prim and proper either. What would we do with all of that? Could an English garden accommodate a –build-your-own castle? A clay mining operation (which is needed for the castle of course) or a jousting arena? I doubt it.
Granted, the castle in the back yard is in ruins. There were two at some point but they morphed into one. Why two, you may ask. Well, because two (little) people at some point in time thought to lay siege on each other’s castle by catapulting stones. When you’re a boy in love with the knight times, it makes all the sense the in the world.
Then, there’s jousting. It takes place in the vicinity of the castle, and it is done with much gusto on a bike instead of a horse and against a tin garbage can donned with a shield and a waiting lance. Noblesse oblige. The laundry line gets in the way but then again, no knight can become a proper one without a few good challenges. Such as clothes lines and mom’s raised beds.
Speaking of raised beds and gardening. There’s remnants of both, despite dogs and knights. How many gardeners can brag about finding knight-in-training hand prints among emerging bean plants? Or a puppy with a tell-tale dirty nose? Honestly, I think the beans are going to lose. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The tour continues with the clay mine site. It has a ramp leading into the ‘processing area’ and back in its heyday the mine cart was bustling up and down the small hill with an enviable clickety-clack. Alas, the cart is now a relic of the old flourishing days of backyard mining. Strangely similar to some area of British Columbia if you think about it.
That homeschooling allows for unrestricted exploration of preferred subjects such as British Columbia history in particular may have had something to do with the boys’ mining forays too. The gold in our case was muck though. Lots of it.
If it means boys playing for hours though, knee deep in both muck and joy and laughing all the way to the sky and back, so be it. As for life beyond muck, there is lots of it. There are shelters being built, expeditions being carried to corners of the world (umm, yard) you’ve never heard of and on sunny crisp morning there are reading snuggles. Ants crawl on our feet, ticklish and curious, and we do not mind because they have just as much right to be there as we do. Possibly more.
In the front yard, the big tree (a silver maple we suppose) fulfills its many duties with utmost dignity. It holds a swing that has taught the boys more about gravity than any manual could, it invites to climbing and bird viewing, and it reminds us of the seasons. Gratefulness and time measured in leaves falling to the ground in the fall and buds bursting in the spring. An ideal time keeper.
As for the garden… It may or may not make it this year. Much of it this has retreated to large pots because of the waves of enthusiasm and creativity sweeping through the yard at any given time. I am not about to stop any of it though. You see, all of this happens but once in a lifetime and if I let it live as it might, the boys will stay just as they are for a while. Just boys, silly and covered in muck, never mind the foot prints on the kitchen floor. Backyard (and beyond) adventures await and if enough adventures happen then there is no need to ever say ‘Mom, can I stay a kid forever?…’ Because they will.