Reap What You Sow

I started my pandemic poems—written with a Sharpie on scraps of building wrap and posted on the fence out front—to keep myself sane and connect with the new neighbours I’ve never met while we were in lockdown. Forty-nine days, forty-nine poems.

I wanted all the poems to be positive—a more difficult challenge than I’d hoped. Some days I wrote half a dozen poems, only to reject every one because they were grim and dark reflections of my mood. I would write until I found the light of good thoughts … sometimes I thought the positive poems would never come.

But they did. And by forcing myself to focus on the positive, I began to feel it.

And the neighbours must have felt it too. They stopped and read them silently to themselves. They read them aloud to their children. They laughed. They came by every day specifically to read the next instalment.

And I listened to them from the shed and smiled.

On Saturday I took them all down—symbolically freeing us from lockdown.

On Sunday I found this lovely note pinned to the gate. I’m still smiling.

They say you reap what you sow. Well, I’ve harvested two months of smiles from those silly poems. Almost makes me want to go back into lockdown and do it all again …

Or maybe not …

Appreciating the Small Things

The cat has settled in and seems to enjoy the stacks of furniture.

So far I have ignored the elephant in the room in my blog posts. I’ve focused on the little joys—canning vegetable soup, baking cakes, making pasta. It has been a struggle to do so, some weeks, and today, hours from New Zealand’s total lockdown, it is impossible.

Today our house sale was finalised. Today we officially moved to our new home. Except our new home sits unfinished in the midst of a muddy, rubbish-strewn construction site. It will likely remain so for some time. We have crammed ourselves and all our possessions into the shed we built on the property last winter (when we foolishly believed we might have a new house by February). 

As you can imagine, it is cramped, a bit smelly, and very cold (last night was down to 4ºC). We had hoped to alleviate our stay in the shed by going out for dinner a lot, traveling a lot, spending time visiting fun places. That won’t be happening now. I had planned on doing my laundry once a week at the laundromat not far from work. That won’t be happening either. Today I hauled the washing machine to the back yard and hooked it up to the garden hose and an extension cord in order to wash a load. Every meal will be cooked on a camp stove outside.

We will spend the entirety of our lockdown essentially camping as we edge towards winter.

Much of the time it will not be fun.

And yet …

Nearly thirty years ago, my husband and I lived in rural Panama with no running water, no electricity. To get to the nearest phone took a half hour of walking and an hour’s bus ride. Our roof leaked, and and the cockroaches and rats living with us in our one-room mud house were legendary in size and number. I washed clothes in a 20-litre bucket, and used the same vessel to carry water to a small palm-leaf-and-stick stall for bathing. We cooked our meals in one pot over a three-rock fire. We dug our own latrine. The weekly shopping run took an entire day. By the end of each week, we were down to eating nothing but rice and whatever vegetables were coming out of the garden. In the evenings, I would write letters to family back home. Sometimes the letters didn’t make it to their destination, sometimes they were delayed by weeks. If I was lucky, the letters took a week to arrive, once I’d managed to post them. A full conversation could take months, and was usually irrelevant by the time the first letter arrived.

All of which makes months living in an unheated shed during a global pandemic seem like glamping, rather than a real hardship. Rather than thinking about what I don’t have, I’m enjoying what I do have—a vermin-free home with a concrete floor and sound roof, electricity (even if it is limited by what we can do with an extension cord), instant communication with loved ones far away, nearby grocery stores for when the rice and vegetables run out, and a mobile bathroom with a real shower and flush toilet.

And that is how I intend to pass every day as I navigate through the chaos of the next 12 months or so—thinking of what I have, counting my blessings, being thankful for those little things.

Fixing Mistakes

Last week I started making a new pair of trousers. Because I used a tried and true pattern, I didn’t test the fit until near the end.

That was a mistake.

I couldn’t zip them up, they were so small around the hips. 

That can’t be, I thought. I’m still wearing the last two pairs of trousers I made with that pattern. What have I done wrong? They needed extra fabric in the side seams. But I’d installed a welt pocket over one of the seams, and I’d trimmed all the seam allowances—there wasn’t enough fabric there to let out the seams.

I thought about all the hours I’d put into them—how carefully I’d set the fly zip, how beautifully the welt pocket had gone in, how I’d only bought just enough fabric, how much I really needed a new pair of pants.

Thoroughly discouraged, I nearly chucked the garment into the bin. 

But I didn’t.

I put everything away and made myself a t-shirt instead. Then I made a lovely button-down tunic with slightly quirky buttons. Then I sewed a new laundry bag. 

Finally, I was ready to face the trousers again. There had to be a way to salvage them, if only I was creative enough.

I remembered my first pair of zip-off pants, in which I didn’t allow enough ease for energetic hiking. They’d had pockets over the side seams too. I’d split the legs right up the front and back from waist to knee and put in long triangular gussets that ended up looking quite sporty.

Maybe I could do something similar with these trousers. I drafted several inserts of various shapes. I didn’t like any of them, because they all destroyed the look I wanted. But the alternative was to throw the garment away.

With nothing to lose, I carefully sliced my beautiful trousers into pieces. I tried not to worry about why I’d made such a bad mistake in the first place, but to focus on making the fix as perfect as possible.

To my relief, the adjusted trousers fit. To my surprise, the inserts don’t look bad at all. 

It reminds me of how far I have come since my youth—an easily frustrated 20-year-old me would probably have tossed those trousers in anger (in fact, I can recall doing just that to more than one garment). But I’ve learned that most mistakes can be fixed once I let go of the frustration and move on to the problem-solving. It’s probably a good lesson for the rest of life too.

Time Travel over a Cup of Coffee

I had every intention of blogging something cheerful about springtime this week, but when I sat down in my usual cafe to write the week’s blog, I was confronted with my future … still hopefully many years away, but it reminded me to appreciate today and make the most of every day.

I ordered my coffee and tucked myself into a seat, determined to get some writing done.

Seconds later, she sat down at the table next to me, appropriating my attention before I’d even pulled out my pen.

How her hip hurt her! Up at three AM with the pain. Cup of tea to help her get back to sleep. Lemon in her tea, not milk—she wouldn’t drink something that looked like dirty dishwater. But, then, you know what happens after a cuppa. Up an hour later to pee, and then, well, you may as well get up.

She rattled on for twenty minutes—a live blog post of the worst kind—rambling, comprehensive and incomprehensible, exposing her loneliness, her sense of purpose lost in deteriorating hips and retired life.

She grasped at relationships—her neighbours who looked after one another, as all neighbours need to do.The old woman at the grocery store who needed help with her bags. But she needed no help, not yet, while she watched her friends fail.

Her friend in a nursing home who had a wee flat, complete with bathroom and kitchen. Had I seen those before? She had no idea homes had flats. She had only ever seen single rooms.

She visited her friend in a nursing home. Younger than her but needing help. She had a wee flat, complete with bathroom and kitchen. Had I seen those before? She had no idea homes had flats. She had only ever seen single rooms.

But when she’d visited her friend in a nursing home, she’d had a kitchen. It was like a wee flat. Had I seen those before?

A scratch in the vinyl record of her memory—she skipped like an old 45. By the third repeat, I saw the despair deep in her eyes. How much longer could she fool herself, her children? How much longer could she cling to autonomy, freedom, purpose? How long before she joined her friends in the incarceration of age?

Lessons from a Stone Plant

It was a silly little gift, perched at the top of my stocking on Christmas morning—a tiny stone plant. It wasn’t much to look at—a few fleshy leaves and that was it. I put it on my office windowsill, where I could watch it grow.

But it didn’t do much—just sat there looking like a pebble.

In March, it grew two new leaves, and I expected it to get bigger, but two old leaves shrank in time with the new ones’ expansion. A month later it looked exactly as it had before.

I’d nearly given up on it ever doing anything interesting, when a bud emerged from the centre of the plant. It was different from the new leaves that had sprouted earlier. The sprout grew into an unmistakable flower bud, and I wondered if the stone plant’s flower would be as unassuming as the plant itself.

Then it opened. It was only one, but it was spectacular, coming from such a nothing of a plant.

It reminded me of some people I know—unassuming at first, but capable of spectacular things if nurtured and given time. A good reminder to always be patient and nurture those around us—you never know what they may blossom into.

Footstool Everlasting

Few items from my childhood survive today. No surprise. At age 49, having moved nearly a dozen times as an adult, and ending up half a world away from my hometown, it’s surprising anything remains.

My footstool, however, not only remains, but is still in daily use.

I don’t recall how old I was when it was given to me, but I don’t think I could have been more than four or five.

My grandmother painted it, and I seem to recall some other family member—a great uncle perhaps—had built it years before. So it wasn’t new when I got it, only newly painted with my name and one of my favourite animals. I doubt Grandma ever suspected I’d grow up to get a master’s degree in entomology (and chances are she wouldn’t have encouraged it had she suspected). But I was clearly already headed that way as a preschooler.

I remember using the stool as a table, back when my legs fit neatly underneath it. I remember setting up tea parties on it, doing artwork on it, turning it upside down and pretending it was a boat, setting it on its side to form a battlement for some imaginary fortress.

When I was a teen, it served to give me access to the top shelf in my closet and as a handy homework table.

The stool moved with me when I left home. My husband has employed it in the bottling of beer, and my kids remember standing on it to work at the kitchen counter or workshop bench. Today, I’m the only one in the family who still needs a footstool, but it continues to come in handy as a low computer stand for those of us who like to work on the floor.

After more than fifty years, the footstool is as solid as ever, and just as functional as it was the day it was built. The paint is sadly worn, gone completely from the often-banged edges and corners.

But someday, when I can no longer sit cross-legged on the floor to work on the computer, perhaps I’ll repaint it for one of my grandchildren, so it can have another life as a boat, battlement and art table.

A Bird in the Bush

bellbird

photo: Sid Mosell (CCBY2.0)

Last Thursday was frenetic—I had a challenging work day and then ran errands in heavy afternoon traffic. By the time I arrived at my husband’s work to pick him up, I was tired, and my brain restlessly analysed the day’s events.

The day was warm, and I sat in the car with the windows down waiting for my husband. Time to catch up on my e-mail …

Twee-dle … A lone bellbird called lazily from a nearby tree, cutting through the sounds of the city and the clamour inside my head.

Twee-dle

I pocketed my phone and closed my eyes as the sound transported me to the bush where I lay in a tent listening to the forest wake up. The clamour in my head stilled. Somehow my email no longer seemed important. The conundrums of the day lost their urgency. My shoulders relaxed and I took a deep breath.

Twee-dle

There was time to savour. No need to worry.

Twee-dle

Trouble could wait. I needed a few minutes in the bush.

Twee-dle

All I needed to do was listen.

Wear Your Hair with Pride

“Why do you have white hair?” asked the young girl, impertinent as only a seven-year-old can be.

“Because I’m getting old,” I replied.

“No, I mean why don’t you dye it?”

“Because my white hair is beautiful–it’s actually silver and sparkly.”

She wrinkled her nose. “It’s not silver. It’s white.” She snorted and stroked her own hair, brown and straight. “When I get that old, I’ll dye my hair.”

There was no point arguing with her. Silver hair is a beauty a seven-year-old can’t possibly appreciate.

But even beyond the fact that my silver hair has come in with body and curl that my youthful hair never had (it sat on my head like a wet dish rag), my silver hair is beautiful for what it represents.

Like ANZAC poppies that remind us to never forget those who died for our freedom, each silver hair is a reminder.

Lest we forget the struggles over which we have triumphed:

• As a parent, the screaming newborns, toddler tantrums and teenage rebellion
• Mental health lows
• Physical pain and illness
• Emotional pain—loved ones lost, relationships shattered
• Natural disasters and those made by humans
• The acts of violence against ourselves, against those we love, against our neighbours.

Every silver hair reminds me I have not only survived, but thrived. Every silver hair is a badge of honour, a challenge met, a goal surpassed.

Dye my hair?

Why would I ever hide my hard-won medals?

Strength.
Bravery.
Perseverance.
Patience.
Sheer bloody-minded stubbornness.

I wear these badges of honour with pride—my silver sparkling medals that streak my hair and remind me what I’m made of.

Knickers for Posterity

I visited the Otago Museum a few days ago. Among the many artefacts on display, two in particular caught my eye.

The first was a jar of elastic, saved for reuse and donated to the museum by one Jane Barker-Eames. I immediately thought of my grandmother. Every day for at least fifty years, she’s had the paper delivered to her doorstep. Every day she’s taken the rubber band off the rolled-up paper and carefully saved it. By my calculations, that’s over 18,250 rubber bands, dutifully saved for reuse. No doubt many of those rubber bands went on to perform useful tasks elsewhere, but they added up, filling multiple coffee cans (reused, of course), and forming small drifts in kitchen drawers. 

When Grandma recently moved into a rest home, my mother threw away her large rubber band stash (don’t tell Grandma!).

I suspect Jane Barker-Eames was the daughter of a Mrs. Barker, careful re-user of elastic, and that at some point, she faced my own mother’s conundrum—what do do with Mum’s stuff?

Maybe she didn’t even know that jar of elastics was there, tucked inside a sagging cardboard box in the attic along with a dozen empty thread spools, a moth-eaten sweater, and a small tin of safety pins—the entirety of Mum’s estate was packed off to the Otago Museum. Maybe they could figure out what to do with it.

And upon passing through the museum’s doors, Mum’s stuff was instantly elevated from rubbish to artefact, never to be used again.

I think Mrs. Barker would be disappointed her elastic stash wasn’t used in a new pair of knickers.

And speaking of knickers, the second item that caught my eye was a scrap of woven textile identified as a loincloth. It made me think about the pair of underwear I recently tossed out—the elastic had failed and they no longer stayed up (Where was Mrs. Barker’s elastic when I needed it?). I wondered if the loincloth in the museum had been similarly discarded at the end of its useful life. Little could its wearer have imagined that their dirty old knickers would someday sit enshrined in glass to be ogled at by thousands of people, most of whom would be mortified to have their own underwear similarly on display.

It made me wonder if, someday, my underwear might be displayed alongside Mrs. Barker’s jar of elastic as a lesson in frugal living—for want of a piece of used elastic, this poor 21st-century woman went bare-bottomed. Mrs. Barker, on the other hand, always kept her knickers firmly in place.

Hang on to your elastic, ladies.

The Ghost of Christmas Trees Past

Growing up, my parents had an artificial Christmas tree. It was hauled out of the attic the weekend after Thanksgiving and assembled and decorated, ushering in the Christmas season.

I remember one year having a real tree—I loved the smell in the closed-up winter house.

When my husband and I married, we spent a few years finding our Christmas tree tradition. For the first two years, we had an eight-inch tall artificial tree in our mud house in Panama. After we returned to the US, we wanted something bigger. So we spent months making a six-foot papier-mache tree, binding on raffia needles and painting bark on the branches. It was a labour of love, and we used it until we had to move across the country, and knew it wouldn’t survive the experience. 

Then babies happened, and for a few years, our Christmas trees were real trees—there was no time or energy for creativity in those early years.

By the time we moved to New Zealand, we were settled into the parent routine enough to be creative again. And summer Christmases invited creativity. We fashioned trees out of driftwood, dead branches pruned off trees in the yard, an old fishing net, fencing wire and flax stalks, copper plumbing, live runner beans—most trees were inspired by what was lying around the property at the time.

Last year, we fashioned a DNA strand as a Christmas tree. Elegant and simple.

This year, we went for crazy, creating an architectural monstrosity from cardboard boxes.

You might wonder what the point is—wouldn’t it be easier and more, well, Christmasy to do a more traditional tree? Yes. But what is a Christmas tree for?

I view a Christmas tree as a focal point—somewhere for family to gather. Our trees have always been decorated with ornaments that have a history—maybe they were made by someone special, or given by a friend, or came from an exotic location. Decorating the tree has always been a time to celebrate the family stories behind the ornaments.

Why shouldn’t that family activity extend to making the tree itself? This year’s tree took a lot of time to make, and we spent several evenings as a whole family working on it—making a tremendous mess of the living room, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company and creativity. That’s exactly what Christmas traditions should do.

So, perhaps our trees don’t meet the traditional definition of a Christmas tree, but I think they embody the spirit of the season.