ARTFUL ANTICIPATION

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Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th 2015

Right after Halloween, it started. Christmas decorations up in every shopping centre. Lots of bling. Christmas music—not that many traditional carols—playing in endless loops.

The usual.

My work schedule picked up a lot in November-December. Days just whooshed by. And then suddenly, it was the second week of December and I had done almost no Christmas shopping. Hadn’t put up a single decoration in the house.

With Christmas just a few weeks away, I felt like a beat up old winter tire: half-frozen, half deflated.

It’s right about then that my son Simon arrived on the scene. With his glad tidings. Or to use 21st century language: with his irresistible, upbeat energy and effortless joy.

In no time at all, we were on a focused and fun track.  We were on a mission. First, there were the recipe searches. We sat together on a Saturday afternoon and looked through the magazines I’ve collected over the years that are stuffed with proven recipes. We surfed online, stopping a long time on Nigella Lawson’s website, hoping to pay homage to my son Christian’s year in London by making some smashing British Christmas puddings and cakes.

Then came the marathon cooking/baking weekends. Two of them, in fact, that caused us to STOP all of the work we normally bring home and pore over for far too many unpaid hours (we are both teachers), and instead, make things happen in the kitchen!

 

The tree in the heart of Pointe-Claire Village. December 28th 2015
The tree in the heart of Pointe-Claire Village. December 28th 2015

We cooked and baked till our backs ached and our hair and skin smelled of it all: mini-tourtières, ragoût de boulettes, shortbread, gingerbread, Nigella’s chocolate fruit cake (to die for—thanks, Nigella!), jam-filled butter cookies, chocolate hazelnut mocha balls and cinnamon roll cookies…

We did it all with my laptop next to us on the table where we rolled out all of our dough, drinking gallons of tea and listening to The Great British Bake-Off (Simon’s idea, with Christian’s tech support). We got through seasons 2 and 3.

 

 

When we were too tired to cook, we shopped.

This year's tree
This year’s tree

A week before Christmas, my husband, Christian and I got the tree up and decorated.

I lost track of lots of things (house cleaning among them), and it didn’t matter.

And some time, in the midst of it all, it occurred to me that this, in fact, is what anticipation is all about. And that anticipation can be a very good thing.

As part of the yoga practice that I’ve been developing for the past two and a half years, I’ve been working on mindfulness, and on learning to be more centered; more in-the-moment. There’s something to be said for pushing out the anxiety that wants to build and build, as pressure from both the outside world and my own mind swirls around inside me.

And there’s something important about turning away from the expectations that my mind manufactures constantly; the mental check-lists of what my life should be.

But it also occurred to me—with a bit of coaching from Simon and Christian—that pushing things out of my mind to keep stress at bay also prevents me from feeling the joy of anticipation.

In Pointe-Claire, QC.
In Pointe-Claire, QC.

All anticipation is, really, is the ability to see the joy in every part of a process, in every step of a journey. Regardless of its destination.

Time will pass, we will move through it, inevitably, so let’s mark every moment of it as we discover where it’s leading us.

Some people seem to have a natural talent for joy and understand the value of artful anticipation.

What Simon never loses track of is why he’s doing all of the things he undertakes at Christmas time.

Full moon on the rise, on a snowless Christmas Eve, in Pointe-Claire, QC
Full moon on the rise, on a snowless Christmas Eve, in Pointe-Claire, QC

It’s for love. Love of life and of his family and friends. That’s what makes the planning and the doing fun. Joyful. Even when things don’t quite go according to plan. Even as plans change.

This year, for instance, winter forgot to show up in time for Christmas. With temperatures rising to weird numbers like 17 Celsius on December 24th—instead of a more familiar minus 5 degrees C—it became obvious that we were definitely NOT going to have a white Christmas. People shopped in t-shirts instead of parkas.

 

 

On Christmas Eve, a friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

« This Christmas is all awkward… There is no snow…,my boys don’t believe in Santa anymore… So no halfway eaten cookies and milk under the tree…no letter from Santa…no hiding wrapped gifts

Another step farther from childhood…

Anyways
Happy holidays everyone! Wish you all health and happiness and all the best! »

 It was such an honest post. There were personal elements in it: her sons growing up, the wistfulness of small traditions being abandoned, the fading of a phase of her family’s life.

But there was an unease that we could all relate to: strange, unseasonal weather that left us feeling «off». That felt ominous. Weather that echoed the feelings and fears we have about change in our lives. About Christmas, like so many things, becoming undependable, or unrecognizable.

All the more reason, then, to live in the advent of important moments.

Home on Lakeshore Road, in Pointe-Claire.
House on Lakeshore Road, in Pointe-Claire.

This is what I realized this year. And it changed everything. And my three Christmases—one with my in-laws (about 30 of us!) on the 24th ; a quieter Christmas day at home with family and a dear friend; and a third, on the 26th, with my mum, family and extended family—were the happiest in years.

Because everyone showed up. Full of cheer. Because we were sincerely glad to be together.

There are people who have a special kind of gathering energy. They are the ones who bring everyone together. My mum and son Simon have that energy. They change things for all of us. They make things happen. And that’s okay. All we have to do is cooperate. Jump on board.

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A house just around the corner.

My son Christian cultivated the art of anticipation by planning and effecting his gift purchases  months in advance. He was just bursting to finally give them to us.

I found myself responding to the lights that are hung everywhere at this time. So I went off on foot or in my car photographing my freshly dolled-up home town and neighbourhood, when I had a few free hours.

We went together to see Star Wars: the Force Awakens, which my sons have looked forward to for years!

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Simon, Christian and my husband, at the Kirkland Cineplex. The Force Awakens!

My granddaughter Penelope, who is 3 ¾ years old, took at look at the season’s first snowfall and exclaimed:

« I love the snow! It makes my heart beat faster! »

That’s anticipation.

Penelope and her brother Graeme, playing under the table, on December 26th
Penelope and her brother Graeme, playing under the table, on December 26th

 

THE HUMAN FLOCK

Just recently, I found myself at a small company located in a commercial-industrial zone of Montreal that sits under the flight path of Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport. One of those ugly, boxy single story brown brick buildings with flat roofs that cause nothing but trouble in our snowy climate and all look the same from the outside.

I was there to evaluate a group of men for French classes.

It’s always fascinating to find out what goes on inside these places.

In the conference room. Photo taken by me.
In the conference room.
Photo taken by me.

The company makes molded plywood seating products. A dozen men came to see me, each in turn. They work as machine operators. Most were close to the end of their shift and covered in a fine powder that looked like sawdust.

They divided up pretty evenly into three groups: Filipinos, Armenians and Sri Lankans. This often happens. Through networks that most of us know nothing about, new arrivals to the city—people who have no contacts and who have very little money—are funneled to companies like this one. Maybe it’s better to say that they follow trails left by compatriots and transmitted by word of mouth.

Many were brought by a supervisor to the door of the conference room where I sat waiting. I could feel their unease. This wasn’t their environment.

One of the first people I saw was an older Armenian man. He, too, was covered in dust and flecks. It was in his hair, in his mustache and stuck to his skin. He was a big, fleshy man but not, I think, a big strong man. He had a large, round face and sloping shoulders. And sad eyes.

He spoke no French at all, and barely any English. Just enough to tell me that he had been here for three months and that he had a wife and an eight-year-old son, which surprised me and caused me to recalculate this man’s age; he looked too old to have a child so young.

He also told me that four weeks into his new life here, there was a fire in the building he was living in, and he and his family lost everything, including all of their papers, I.D, his old drivers’ license …everything. Everything. And I thought: is it possible to start lower than from scratch?

Then I learned that he had come from Syria, fleeing Aleppo. I marveled that he has made it this far, and wondered at what cost. He seemed so weary. I thought of his heart beating in his chest and wondered if it’s strong enough.

Ceiling fixture in the conference room Photo taken by me
Ceiling fixture in the conference room
Photo taken by me

Not all living creatures are migratory. I’m not. I grew up just a short distance from where I now live. In the same town. At this moment, my three sons and their loved ones are all close by. But that has not always been so, and could change again.

This is the way the world works and has always worked. Our migratory patterns are determined by opportunity, history, necessity and urgency. For some, there’s also a sense of adventure.

Three days ago, Anna, a former student of mine who’s now simply a friend, sent me a link to a piece by Helen MacDonald in the New York Times titled «The Human Flock». It’s a stunning, poetic piece.

Anna introduced it with the words: «Cranes flying south for winter evoke the people seeking refuge below. »

The starting point of MacDonald’s essay is the annual southern migration of Eurasian cranes from Russia and Northern Europe through the Hortobagy region of northeastern Hungary, which she has witnessed and which attracts hundreds of tourists; an experience which mirrors the murmurations of English starlings as winter approaches, and the mass migrations of Canada geese over much of the autumn skies of Quebec.

MacDonald is fascinated by the movements of flocking birds and her depictions of these are exquisite. So, too, are her descriptions of the human emotions this phenomenon evokes: wonder, joy and fascination, certainly, but also something at times overwhelming and fearful.

And it’s in those darker feelings that she makes a true connection between the avian and human worlds, saying:  «No starling wants to be on the edge of the flock, or among the first to land. »

There is apprehension on both sides.

And of course, the reader immediately sees the parallels with the Syrian migrants on Hungarian soil, facing a cold and angry welcome and gripped by a fear of fearful people.

Canada geese resting in the safety on the grounds of a vacant property in Vaudreuil, Québec. Photo taken by me 08/12/15
Canada geese resting safely on the grounds of a vacant property in Vaudreuil, Québec.
Photo taken by me 08/12/15

 

Canada geese resting safely on the grounds of a vacant property in Vaudreuil, Québec. Photo taken by me 08/12/15
Canada geese resting safely on the grounds of a vacant property in Vaudreuil, Québec.
Photo taken by me 08/12/15

 

Me photographing the Canada geese.
Me photographing the Canada geese.

MacDonald ends her piece by saying that the moment individual beaks and wings and tail feathers become distinguishable among the flocks, the dizzying, rushing patterns of the migrating birds begin to dissolve. Nothing seems as chaotic or confused.

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There is a beautiful symmetry in my friend Anna’s thoughtfulness: a former student of French drawing my attention to the plight of potential future students.

Anna and the cranes have reminded me how important it is to bring as many human migrants as I can into the centre of the flock—to safety.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words for November

The month of November tests the resolve of most Northern populations.

It feels like a slow and relentless withering away of life and light.

This morning, for instance (November 30th), the sun rose at 7: 13 a.m. and will have disappeared by 4: 12 p.m. A scarce nine hours of daylight in which to go about the business of living.

Which is why we wait for the snow and its moonlight & sunlight-reflecting whiteness and sound-dampening cover ; and for the festivities and gatherings that buoy our spirits.

Since November 13th, many are also living in a state of «What next?» wondering what can possibly follow the horrors of the Paris attacks.

November sunrise in West Vancouver, BC (photo courtesy of Marie Payette-falls)
November sunrise in West Vancouver, BC
(photo courtesy of Marie Payette-falls)

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2)

These words are read every year, at this time, by Christians and Jews alike, and are familiar to many more.

But it was thoughts of millions of refugees, worldwide, that just brought them to mind. What must it be like to exist in a state of anticipation so acute and so desperate that it leaves almost no room for living?

Here are some of the quotes I gathered this month. They all touch some part of my personal credo. In some way, each shrinks the distance that separates me from the world around me. They evoke passion and compassion.

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a) «In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks.»- Ceridwen Dovey, «Can Reading Make You Happier?»

(From: http://www.newyorker.com/…/cul…/can-reading-make-you-happier)

 

Gaunt bookstore, London, UK.
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Inside Gaunt Bookstore

b) From Eduardo Galeano’s Children of the Days

«DECEMBER 20TH

 The Encounter 

The door was closed :

            «Who is it?»

            «It’s me.»

            «I don’t know you.»

And the door remained closed.

The following day :

            «Who is it?»

            «It’s me.»

            «I don’t know who you are.»

And the door remained closed.

Then the following day :

            «Who is it?»

            «It’s you.»

And the door opened.

—From the Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar, born in 1142 in the city of Nishapur»

c) Rachel Elizabeth Griffiths,  Excerpts from a PEN.org interview:
language« Every time I sit down to write I dare the universe. I dare my own death. I dare my 26 horses into syllables and we take off. I’m aware of the risks—everything that my silence would keep hostage rears before me.»

« Language is such a fire. It’s difficult and necessary and maiming and magnificent. I don’t have its wings, but through literature  I have experienced  flight over and over. Words and vocabularies also graze my body with wildfires that have taken years to extinguish.»

d) From Voltaire:

« Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers. »

e)  Dang Thuy Tram :

«Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.»

 

A fiery November morning sky over my neighbourhood.
A fiery November morning sky over my neighbourhood. The trees are leafless.

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f) From Eduardo Galeano’s Children of the Days: 

«OCTOBER 12th

This World Enamored of Death

Today, International Day of Nonviolence, let us recall the words of Dwight Eisenhower, who was not exactly a pacifist. In 1953, as president of the country that spends the most on weapons, he acknowledged:

«Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.»