Autumn

Autumn is my season. There is nothing I dislike about it. The colours, the smells, the holidays, the promise of cozy nights ahead….

I was courted by my husband during this time of year. I have vivid recollections of that time. Shamelessly in love, sitting next to him on the front seat of his old Chevelle, his hand on my neck. Rain falling on the windshield, a wet leaf clinging on despite the wipers as we drove the back roads.

We got married in the fall as well. A small gathering in the country; cold wind and champagne.

“You are my autumn”, he said. These words, spoken to me recently on the anniversary of our marriage, mean more to me than my husband can imagine.

A stroll across my property is magical. Apples trod upon underfoot send up the sweet and sour aroma of damp earth and decay; little rubies partially-hidden in grass that needs to be cut but was left to grow in expectation of cold weather. Leaves are still falling: golden ochre, reds, pinks and brown are littered across the ground. Piles are made and jumped in and left to scatter in the wind. Dying grasses, thistles, burs and plants breathe new life into the landscape and rustle with the wind. The air is crisp despite the hot sun and blue sky above.


I lift my face toward the light, eyes closed, and give thanks. It’s hard to imagine the change in weather on days like today. We are well into October, and while the nights are cold, our days have been sunny and warm. It feels like summer doesn’t want to leave quite yet. And who could blame her? This time of year is spectacular to behold!

The change of seasons in the country is always incredible to witness. Subtle at first, and then one day you are startled by the harsh transformation. It’s hard to imagine winter is coming on days like today. I am drawn to the outdoors. Soon, winter will be here and my strolls through the property will become less and less. The geese are busy, flying in loud gatherings overhead. Flocks of little black birds – sometimes in the hundreds – burst out of the long dried corn stalks in beautiful precision. I am saddened by the report of gunshots in the distance, which signals hunting season. We don’t hunt and I always worry about the animals on our property. Last year, we saw a beautiful elk bull that had found his way to the neighbour’s field, and spent his days grazing with the cows. He was magnificent. Silver and black, with big antlers. He had managed to make it to full adulthood. Our neighbours watched in fascination until hunting season opened. Then they shot him.


I confess, I am anticipating the cold weather. Our winters can be harsh so I face them with mixed emotions. But like most things, I’m inclined to romanticize the season. There are things about winter that I love: that feeling of stepping out of the cold and into a warm house; the sudden relief of warmth on your frozen cheeks. The smell of cooking or baking in my warm kitchen. The flicker of candlelight when the evening comes early. The cozy blankets to snuggle under and big socks to keep your toes warm. The fire in the wood stove flickering bursts of light in the darkness of a quiet house, wood cracking and popping in the silence; kids asleep and cats stretched out in every chair of the living room.

Our mornings come early and it’s always dark and freezing when we wake up. I have to stoke the embers in the wood stove and get the fire roaring to chase away the chill. It is a challenge to drag myself out from under the warmth of my duvet and into the cold air. My son will sit in front of the fire and have his breakfast, or on my lap, wrapped in my sweater. I love this. He curls his little body around me, pulling all the heat from me with his cold little fingers. I breathe him in, my face buried in his hair. Weekday mornings are rushed so we can catch the school bus, but there is always time for a quick snuggle. I drink a cup of coffee, letting the hot mug warm my fingers, sometimes even lifting it to the tip of my nose to warm it up. The sun is just beginning to rise by the time we have our winter gear donned and are out the door to catch the bus. There are some mornings we have to trudge through knee-deep snow to get to the top of the lane. Our little bus shelter will keep the biting winds at bay while we wait for the bus that always seems to be late on these bitter cold mornings. Better yet, the buses will be cancelled and we get a snow day!

The chickens and turkey are still let out of their pen in the winter, but they don’t stray too far. They will find a patch of sunshine and burrow down under the overhang or outside my living room window on the front porch, looking at me. If the day is dangerously cold, I will let one in. But don’t tell anyone! It’s usually Henrietta, and she goes straight for the cat dish and then sleeps in the basket by the stove. The horses seem impervious to the cold. Their shaggy coats and horse blankets keeping them warm.

Today though, winter still feels far off. I am heading out to finish piling the wood that will heat our house for the winter. I’ll enjoy this autumn day. I am autumn, and I am filled with nostalgia.

– EKR Schlegel

 

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Perspective

It’s that time of year once again. That mad rush of after school extra curricular events is winding down; the months of hurried dinners, shuttling children from place to place, long arduous hours ticking by in echoing waiting rooms whilst the kids slice through water, kick balls, chase pucks, or whatever it is that your children do, are finally coming to an end.

While I am grateful that my kids have the opportunity to participate in these things, come this time of year I am so over it.

The frantic last-minute searches for missing equipment, unwashed jerseys, hair pins. The countless drives through rain, snow or blinding sunsets to get them there safely. The hurry-up-and-wait bane of my existence….

One by one, the extra curricular demands drop and, in some cases, such as ours, the year culminates into the madness of-recital time. I have more than a few of these dance recitals under my belt now. And I hate them.

During my own dance life many years ago, we had recitals, too, of course. One recital. A singular event held at the end of the year. We would costume-up for our class performance, our family would arrive to watch on the designated evening, and after an hour or an hour and a half, the show ended and all was well. This seems manageable in contrast to today’s recitals that have become week-long productions. Dress rehearsals, competitions, three days of performance (including two shows in one day!) and here’s the clincher: each performance is THREE HOURS LONG. Every child in the school – dozens of them – performing multiple dances, act after act, a never-ending parade of bad lighting, outrageous outfits and repetitive choreography, for THREE HOURS STRAIGHT!

This year, I bought a single ticket for myself at the back of the auditorium on closing night so I might close my weary eyes against the sequined glare without offending anyone. I arrived cloaked in feigned anticipation with flowers to present my girls after the show. I didn’t invite the grandparents (they can’t be expected to sit through a show that long) or bring my six-year-old (he won’t sit that long) and upon finding my seat, I steeled myself for a long night.

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Emma, circa 2008, waiting on stage for her cue during dress rehearsal.
I was well into the first hour when my purposefulness began to weaken. I remember the precise moment, actually: a young girl in tap shoes had found her way to center stage. The performance itself began as expected. It was glittered and unimaginative. With hands upon her hips and a top hat pitched askew, her feet were flying to the rhythm of the music. What stood out for me was the absolute void of action from the waist up. It was mesmerizing; her utter lack of expression. I began to feel drawn in by it, as if I were in a David Lynch movie. It sounds absurd, but her blankness awoke me and I began to see what was really happening here.

These children, these babies and preteens and young teenagers; this was their moment. This was occasion for them to understand what it is to accomplish something. To feel the reward of working hard and the empowerment of facing ones fears. All those nights when I had to drive and sit and wait, they were passionately dancing their little hearts out in the studio. And all of that hard work so that they could get up on that stage, in front of assholes like me who have the audacity to judge them!

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Working hard in the studio.
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And sometimes, not working hard. This is Ava in timeout at the National Ballet in Toronto.
My perspective changed instantly. The young girl with the blank face spoke to me. She said, “I’m focused, I’m trying hard to remember my steps so I don’t mess up. I want to do well. I’ve worked so hard. Please like me.”

I was transported back to when I was a young dancer and the memories washed over me.

I remembered the mad scramble backstage of pulling on tights and costumes, pins flying out of buns, hairspray thick in the air. The excitement of lining my eyes with kohl, rouging my cheeks and applying bright red lipstick (when I was never allowed to do such a thing in real life) was intoxicating!

Tears and laughter. Butterflies and anticipation. Waiting in the wings for my cue. Catching a glimpse of the other dancers and their performances for the first time. Feeling important in my beautiful costume. Absorbing the thrill and magic of the theatre. Sensing the audience from under the heat of the blinding spot lights but not really seeing them. And, most importantly, knowing my family was out there somewhere, just for me.

I may not be centre stage anymore but I was suddenly acutely aware of the importance of my starring role as the proud mother, and that these nights of sitting in the audience to watch my children perform were fleeting. How many more? One, two? Three?

With my new-found perspective and under cover of the dark theatre I brushed away a rogue tear and sat tall with my eyes and heart wide open. This is special, and I am blessed.

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Stage door.

Careful what you wish for

Back when my husband and I were contemplating uprooting our family from city to country, I was cognisant of the danger of losing the idyllic side of our farm, which was essentially our cottage at that time. Would moving in full-time transform our magical get-away? Would the realities of the daily grind steal the magic away? Would the feeling I get when I pull into the laneway, there at last, disappear? Would walking the grounds still bring me close to tears of gratitude on my morning strolls? Would I lose appreciation for the beauty that surrounds me there?

Four years have passed since the moving truck wound its way up my lane leaving me standing alone in wonder. My life here has been a roller coaster of emotion. Moments piled upon moments; a twisting path of discovery. At times I am gripped with an emotion I can’t identify. Looking around me, fully immersed in the “daily grind” of life in the country, it feels as though I’ve misplaced something. It’s a feeling I can’t quite define; like the nagging feeling of a forgotten chore, a memory not quite fully grasped. It’s elusive, and mildly stressful.

I’m not sure what this is, or what it means. It just “is.” Has the magic gone? I can’t say it has, but maybe it’s different now.

A glance out my window as I write this takes my eye to the pasture fence and the lolling stroll of our horse, Charlie. This grey day begs sadness from me, but I can’t fully muster it in the face of such beauty outside. Beyond the pasture, snow covers the west field and beyond that, the hedgerow of trees. Bare of leaves and standing tall and black against the back drop of white, they offer me a sense of protection. All of this observed with one look out of one window.

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View from my window

It isn’t easy, though. I struggle every day with the kids: the bustle of activity, the work, the fighting, the tears, the insane laughter and the immense love that fills these walls consumes me. It’s cluttered with toys and books, projects and dishes, cats and dog constantly underfoot. The noise, the unending chaos speckled with moments of calm and quiet contentment…life. It is my life.

“There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you were meant to be.”

– John Lennon

Perhaps that grip of emotion I feel is my mind whispering to me and reminding me to acknowledge this great life. “Listen,” it whispers. “Look,” it urges me. “Don’t let this magic pass you by. Don’t wake up years from now and realize that this was the time of your life and you didn’t know it. This is the magic you’ve been searching for….”

It is my life.

 

 

 

Living in the now

It’s been a steady decline these last few years.

Watching someone you love slowly slipping away isn’t easy, particularly when you can’t quite put your finger on what you’re losing until it’s gone.

My mother first started showing signs of dementia when her brother died in 2007. He was the baby of the family, and it hit Mom particularly hard. At first, we blamed grief on her altered state. She was repeating stories, forgetting details…all things a grieving mind might present. However, it didn’t take long for us to see that this wasn’t just a phase of grief.

Shortly after my uncle’s death, she stopped driving. She never explained why but I think she was afraid. I remember her getting lost around that time. She had somehow become disoriented in an area she had driven in for years. That must have been frightening.

By the time she retired from work a few years later at age 70, the writing was on the wall. We couldn’t ignore the signs anymore.

And yet, we did.

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Mom, just before her brother’s death.

Instead of insisting she get help, we accepted her excuses. We tip toed around the issue, afraid of insulting her. With her many moments of lucidity, we would doubt ourselves and think (hope) that maybe, we were wrong.

Time passed and now, after a horrible experience with shingles (I could write an entire article on that topic alone), her mental health declined along with her home situation to the point where we were forced to put her in nursing care (something else I could write an entire article on).

It is something we (meaning my sisters and I) never really considered having to do. We believed she would always stay in her home, surrounded by her beautiful things, until she passed away. She is so out of place in her new “home.” The horrid fluorescent lighting, the institutional décor, the smells and sounds permeating the entire environment seem undignified and unsettling. She is given a bib to wear at meal time. It’s such a cruel turn of events.

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Early days at the nursing home. Her bed was not next to a window, so she would pull up a chair on her neighbour’s side and sit in the sun.

 

In her little corner of her shared room, a few of her things have found their place. A slipper chair, some of her art, a lamp on an antique side table and some framed photographs. These few belongings have survived. After a lifetime of accumulating things, this is what remains.

In my grief, I wanted to throw everything I owned away. “Pitch it all!” I insisted. “What’s the point?” My husband managed to shift my perspective, but it sure got me thinking about what truly matters. The truth is, those few things that surround her in there are more for our comfort than hers. She seems surprised that she painted the paintings, she can’t see the photographs, and doesn’t seem interested in her ‘things” at all. But, with everything we have lost, those few belongings are a lifeline to when we felt we were on dry land, not being tossed about on rough waters. They symbolize a little taste of home.

What I cherish about my time with my Mom now is her ability to live in the present; she’s like a child now in so many ways, feeding off the immediacy of her experiences. It has become a narcissistic “this tastes good, I don’t want that, I need you, let’s go here” type of existence. Her memory being what it is, she really has no choice. But it occurred to me just how liberating it is. It’s an enlightened state. Buddha would encourage us all to “be in the moment” whenever we can. Has Mom inadvertently found a way to achieve this?

She rarely thinks of the past, can’t remember what she just did five minutes ago, and doesn’t seem to think at all about what is to come. And surprisingly, there’s something very healing and refreshing about this.

We have been having good visits, my Mom and I.  Quality time spent, enjoying our “moments” one after the next. I’m the one haunted with memories. Trying to manoeuvre my way through my own loss; navigating this new reality. I’ll strive for enlightenment, but for now, I’m so grateful for the memories and those moments we share together now.

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Sharing a laugh and a much needed hug, two things dementia can never take away.

Untitiled

It was not my intent; I hadn’t planned it. If I had known, I would never have done it.

A few months ago, I cut the baby right out of my child. With one fell swoop of the electric razor across his scalp, layer by layer, my baby landed in light downy tufts around wee pink feet. Blond curls and tats falling one atop the other in soft piles. Piles of my baby!

This may sound dramatic, but anyone who has ever done this will surely understand. It was all done in the name of efficiency. My four-year-old son’s hair seemed out of control. It was long and unruly and I struggled daily to keep his bangs out of his eyes. I tried and tried to comb the rooster tail out of the back of his head – something I was never able to do without a fight and a few tears. Surely by giving him a nice, neat trim, I was making a bad situation better.

On a whim one evening, I stood him up in the empty tub and with my husband’s electric razor, I buzzed the long locks off.

Initially, I was quite proud. Despite being shorter than intended, with different attachments to the razor I was able to style his new hair into a little buzz-cut. We all gathered in the bathroom and marveled at what we saw, as if looking at him for the first time. And in fact, we were.

With the loss of that hair there emerged a new child; an older child. A child that seemed wiser, more capable and more defiant. As if on cue, the clothes in his drawer no longer seemed to fit. His pant legs were not long enough, his winter boots were now too tight, sleeves too short….

His blondness was gone as well; his hair taking on a more brownish tone. I had identified him as blond for so long, and now it was gone.

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Cal, before the cut.
In some cultures, the hair is considered to have a soul of its own, and when the hair is cut there is a ceremony performed. A burial. It’s a funeral and they are burying an important part of themselves. Mourning and cutting are closely related in many cultures. I was struck by this memory a few days ago when I became aware of the transformation in my son. By cutting away his long hair, I managed to (unceremoniously) bury a part of him. And I was mourning the loss of my baby!

Fortunately, I have a piece of his hair that I kept. A small lock of sunshine curled into a cloth. This burial will be a different one.  It will be buried away in my cabinet and every now and again I will come upon it. That piece of his early blondness will flood me with memories of the baby in him.

I will show it to him when he is older and we will wonder at it together. “You used to be blond,” I will say.

Then, I will bury it away again until I need a little sunshine.

Playing god

This was written this past April. Patsy died peacefully and was buried in a spot that I can see from the back window of my house. It was raining heavily when we put her in the ground. Her grave is topped with wild lilies and fieldstones. I learned yesterday that tombstones in cemeteries all face the east. While her pile of stones doesn’t find preference in any particular direction, the morning sun does shine on them, and Patsy loved her morning sunshine.

This morning I will be taking my 17-year-old cat to the vet to have her put down. She is not in pain, still has her eyesight and hearing, and is still eating. She can jump up to the windowsills and down again, but there is no doubt she is struggling.

Her moments of meowing loudly in distressed confusion combined with some incontinence issues has led me make the decision to put her down. Better now than later, I muse. Why wait until she is sick or in pain? What am I waiting for anyway?

Today, it has become startlingly clear to me why I’ve been waiting.

It was a lifetime ago that my younger self and my charming boyfriend (now my husband) found her one night, a wee kitten, crying underneath his 1966 Chevelle. It was late, after midnight actually, and while he coaxed her out from under his parked car, I had already named her Patsy – after Patsy Cline and her famous song “Walking after Midnight.”

My boyfriend and I had just started living together and in the foolish way that younger couples in love are, we agreed to take Patsy in and love her together. In a way, she was our first child and in that instant, our family was born.

Patsy in her early days as a frisky kitten
Patsy in her early days as a frisky kitten
From the moment she came into our lives that summer night so long ago, she’s been with us through thick and thin. From our small town apartment, to our big apartment in the city. From our childless days of freedom and languid weekend mornings sleeping in, to the birth of our first “human” child and the chaos that ensued. From the city apartment to our first home, then the arrival of another baby, then another move, and another baby, and another move….

Through all these major changes and milestones in my life, there she was: Ever-waiting to love me whenever I had a moment to spare.

Years have passed. That silly young girl in love, that first time mother, that young woman juggling her career and her home life; she’s gone, too. And I can’t help but feel I will be burying that piece of me beside her today.

As I face the harsh reality of my own ageing, of the vulgarity of time that seems to be stacking up behind me; of elderly parents and loved ones I will lose someday balanced on the brink of my horizon, and all the loss that time brings, I am afraid of losing her, my old cat. I am afraid.

But today, all I can do is honour her. She is a symbol of a time in my life that may be gone, but that is monumental nonetheless.  I won’t leave her side when the end comes, and I’ll thank her for being my constant companion all these years. I will bring her home with me and bury her here on our country property, somewhere special. I will plant flowers and pile stones. I’ll find peace, knowing she was loved and never suffered. And as the years go by I will remember her, and in doing so, pay homage to my ghosts.

 

Ladies night

I have added two more chickens to my flock. I have a soft spot for the traditional “brown hen” and am channeling my inner Beatrix Potter.

The brown hens are historically good layers, and they’re so pretty to look at. On a more practical note, I have family coming for the summer, and could certainly benefit from some more egg production.

A neighbour has kindly offered me two of her hens. And this is where the fun begins!

The plan:

Like a thief in the night, I will be infiltrating their current home and snatching the chickens while they sleep (if you’d told me a year ago that this is the stuff I’d be doing living on the farm, I’d have laughed). I know my neighbour has at least one rooster in her hen house, and with my new fear of roosters thanks to the epic cock fights between Henrietta (girl name, I know) and I in the barn, (picture the rooster lunging at me with his big neck feathers and talons sticking out and me kicking and screaming over and over again until my foot finally makes contact with his head and he backs off…), things might get a bit hairy.

While I fancy myself to be brave in most situations, a strange hen house in the dead of night, with roosters and only a flashlight between me and god knows what, I have some trepidation as to how things will go down. Maybe I’ll bring my daughter along for bait….

The thinking behind this midnight abduction is that, if the chickens are moved while they are sleeping, when morning comes and they find themselves in new surroundings, they just think that they’ve been there all the while. Are they really that dumb? Quite possibly, me thinks.

With nervous giddiness, I await nightfall.

To be continued….

So that was not scary at all. What I wasn’t expecting though, was how sad I felt. At nine o’clock last night we all traipsed into the dark towards the hen house, flashlights in hand, the element of surprise on our minds. The little roost was quiet until we opened the door and shone our lights inside. Inside, the rooster and his girls were all perched for the night and obviously rather displeased at us bursting in and disturbing them.

My neighbour picked up the first hen within reach and plopped her into the waiting carrier. Then, the next one followed. The birds were obviously unnerved, and I felt terrible! And while, logically, I can’t compare our actions to those of some dark, clandestine subterranean strike force, there was something disturbingly deceptive in our actions. I know: they’re just chickens. But still….

We drove home and wrangled them out of their cages and up onto the perch next to their new family. We closed the coop door, sad but determined to do our best to help them along in their new home.

This morning, although they’re roaming the property in two distinct groups. “The ladies” – my existing brood – are coexisting in relative harmony. Henrietta, the rooster, is a bit out of sorts, running from one flock to the next like, well, like a chicken with its head cut off! He is trying to sort it all out, and has his hands full with two new additions that seem to have fallen from the sky.

Meanwhile, life goes on at the farm. I have one eye on my dishes and the other on the ladies. The kids are fighting over their choices of names. The dense fog that we awoke to this morning is starting to lift, and coffee is brewing.

Life is good!

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A windy day! “The browns” finding their way around their new home.

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