In church on Sunday morning we always start with a bunch of words that cleanse.Words that remind us that we can always start over. It’s never too late. We are not going to be forgotten.… More
Somehow Australia no longer seems so far away. I have seen the landscape, I have talked with folks who live there, moved among the eucalyptus trees, been wakened by the kookaburra in the wee hours, driven the highways, bumped along on the wrong side of the impossibly narrow roads in the mountains, had adventures. Aviva will call this southern continent home for a little while, even as she will call Canada home forever. We spent 3 blissful weeks together in Australia in June.
The sweeping vistas inland from any of the major highways between Brisbane and Melbourne are epic just like our big sky views west or east from Calgary. They make your heart feel like singing. The trees, however, on the Australian horizon often look as if they were plopped in place by a close Aussie relative of Dr. Seuss. Trees on our Alberta horizon look more like they were coaxed from the ground by an astral thumb and forefinger and are still reaching for their maker above. In either place, I am awed and comforted.
People in Australia love their coffee and their cafe’s. There is a hard-to-believe absence of drip coffee in Australia. But there is an abundance of milk infused options, my kind of coffee. I take a little coffee with my milk, which usually brings eye rolling here at home. Aussie cups are small, the price is high and the coffee is delicious. I brought my super huge, reusable, Starbucks travel mug and hid it far away in the bottom of my pack, didn’t take it out once. It made me look like I was from Texas and that was not what I was going for.
We rode bikes through the CBD, Central Business District, in Melbourne. CBD is downtown in Australian cities. We found cute little cafes to eat in once in awhile, often on the ocean. We bought chips at the petrol stations when we filled up our van along the highway, road trip food. They did taste different. It took a couple of days, but I eventually stopped feeling like we were going to have a head on collision at any moment, due to the left lane driving.
And then the language. It is my language. But oh so different, musical, smooth. And with many unfamiliar and sometimes funny words to learn. Quick lesson: abbreviate everything. I have a great memory of a ride in Aviva’s ute as we visited the chook farm. We needed our sunnies and chewy as we travelled the coast. We did some good bushwalking along the tracks of the Blue Mountains. And, if you go, you must take in a footy game. Now that’s fair dinkum!
I am back home in my beloved Canada. Travel brings us closer. Australia no longer seems so far away. It is a place that struggles with and celebrates the same things we do here, big world issues and small day to day matters. It is not so mysterious. It is not so strange. Nor does it seem so impossibly distant and clutching. My daughter is as confident and radiant on its soil as she is in our backyard. And I can talk to her every single day if I want to. For free.
So we sponsored this refugee family in September. A young Syrian family. When you come to a new country and you don’t speak the language, you need help. You look to the person who seems to be the most helpful, or at least to the one that you can understand the most easily, maybe the one that listens the longest or speaks the most slowly. Because you can’t really understand anyone at all, really. Everyone speaks a different language and all of them speak fast, too fast for you to understand. So you latch on to the person that you think you understand. I was one of those people. We developed a good rapport together and we seemed to be able to understand each other fairly well. Or at least we kept going until some kind of mutual understanding was arrived at.
This family lived in the city in a cute little apartment we had found for them, the young adult dad, his still teenage wife and their two beautiful one and three year old boys. It was a ground floor apartment, no stairs for the stroller, a tiny balcony. We lived 40 minutes away outside of the city. Our little family knew that we lived a distance away, they had even been to our house once for dinner with some other refugees, whose 14 year old son spoke passable English and reluctantly translated for us all night.
So the father in this new family called me one day at noon. I was in the north end of the city and had no plans to go visit them this day. It would have been a 30 minute drive across the city in rush hour, in the dark and winter freeways and I was bone tired, eager to get home to my couch and a glass of wine. He called in a flurry.
“Please, Marla, please come.”
“To your house? No I can’t today. I cannot come today.”
“No, please. We see you today. Very important. Please come. Please.”
There were still so few words we had in common. It was remarkable what we accomplished with 12-20 English words between us. But I just couldn’t figure out a way to be forceful about my schedule that day. He was very persistent. What could be so important that he would call and insist that I come. Usually they did not ask for things like this. They were very aware of the time we spent to help them, the hours of our life we gave to assist them in this new world. They did not ever ask for more. What could possibly be so important?
My stomach fell as I touched on the only thing I thought it could possibly be. She was pregnant. What else could draw this kind of request? What else? I knew that they had questioned this possibility a couple of times already. I knew that she was waiting to see her doctor about some kind of birth control. We had had that difficult and delicate conversation already and I knew that, in practical terms, they didn’t want more children because that would just complicate their already complicated life. But I also knew that children are important to them and that family planning often took second place to “what Alla wills” or not-family-planning.
My heart was heavy and I prepared myself for this news and for needing my happy face when I received it. The refugee committee would be flummoxed. Another baby would put English learning on a back burner somewhere for the very young mother. It would up the financial concerns significantly. This was not the news I had hoped for. So I prepared to drive over.
I arrived to the usual very loud “Hello! Welcome! Welcome! Hello!” The kisses on each cheek, the smiles, the nods, the hand over heart. She went into the bedroom, and he prepared me for her news, wearing a great smile. I sucked in my breath, put on my hopeful, happy, waiting face. And she emerged from the bedroom with the biggest poinsettia that I have ever seen.
“Marla, mom! Cadeaux, present, you, Marla, mom. Superstore!”
They had gone to Superstore in a taxi, purchased this super large red plant for me, a pre- Christmas gift. They were all smiles and anticipation and excitement.
I have never been so grateful for such a gift.
Sell my soul for a bit of sea glass.
Make it clear and soft at the edges.
Not a large piece, just small enough to shelter me from the breeze.
A bit of sea glass to turn me outward when my innards get to boiling.
Turn me to the open ocean and especially the big sky. Make me see out.
For in seeing out I will understand the inside better.
Give me a bit of sea glass to hold and caress as my fingers begin to crease.
Sell my soul for a bit of sea glass, I would.
I am meant to move forward, to seek, to see, to reach.
Give me an expanse of sand to sift through every morning, wandering and wondering what the night has left behind.
Small pieces of shell, tiny parts of tiny creatures, bits of glass from where?
Is my soul just tiny parts, all treasures?
Are my children just small bits of detritus from my own heart?
Where are they, how do I find them, all these pieces, gone?
Where shall I go when I can’t go home, won’t go home?
Who, if I stayed here in the sand, would come looking for me?
Leaving their own way to search for me in the sand, a bit of sea glass, soft at the edges, washed up by the rolling sea, wondering where I will end up,
who I shall be?
Life is full of miracles. I don’t mean the inexplicable things that are impossible and then truly happen, those things that saints have to do to earn sainthood. I mean the ordinary things that happen regularly in life but seem miraculous. Like spring.
Right now it seems to me that spring will be a miracle. For those of us who live north of the forty ninth, the joy of winter is wearing off. My pre winter mantra is “the more snow, the better”. Well, I’m completely over that now. Enough with the snow. And this relentless chill is making me crazy. I want to go out the door without layering up. I want to hear the drip of the downspout, the bird reunion in the evergreens, I want to smell the earth. I want to feel light again, and warm. I am claustrophobic with silent white and icy air.
So many of life’s moments are miracles. All of those blurred years of child raising and the result: three young adult children who function in the world, kind and loving and generous. This is miraculous to both Paul and I. How did this happen, particularly when the two of us still feel we are waiting for our own grown up selves to appear. It is a miracle, trivial but astonishing to me, every time a meal gets placed on the table for guests, without a serious explosion or some of it ending up thrown at the wall in desperation. Is not every single birth a miracle? Waiting those months while a child grows inside the womb and then, the waiting over, the miracle appears. Does the waiting make it more miraculous?
Four years ago we met Jawad. We waited with him until he was granted refugee status here in Canada. One year later he found his younger brother, Naqib, which was a miracle in itself. Now we wait for Naqib, his arrival in Canada and a grand reunion. We are in limbo. The more we wait, the more it seems that it may take a miracle to actually get Naqib to Canada. He has had the interview, he is only waiting for the visa and the ticket “home”. Everyday is another day to add to the months and months of waiting. Sometimes his existence in our lives seems like a dream we once had. Perhaps it is not real, maybe we have made this whole thing up. Is it possible that we have invested so much of ourselves in a story? But how do you explain the conversations we have every single morning across the ocean with this young man. These hopeful, positive, trust filled talks about what he has done during the day that has just passed in Turkey and what we will do during the day that is just beginning for us here in Canada. These are real conversations that always end with encouragement and hope. We have read so many books together out loud, through an online app, each of us using our own tablet, unseen by the other. Isn’t it time for him to be here, to hold a paper book across the table from us as we learn? Isn’t it time for the light to come back, for the cold to go, for the ground under our feet to dry out and be solid? We trust in the promise of a future we can’t quite see the details of. We wait for miracles, for the miraculous. We wait.
Cooper is gone. He is, we can imagine, cavorting among the fields with his dog friends in heaven, rolling and playing and running and nipping and barking to his heart’s content. He has found the endless river and the perfect jumping rock and is leaping from it with complete abandon and utter joy, into the cold water, forever chasing the perfect stick. He is pain free and clear minded and happy. He gets to eat cheese for every meal.
Wherever his soul resides, this picture of him in heaven is one that I love when I think of him now. It comforts me and I will stick to it. And now we are left with so many sweet memories of him over the 11 and a half years that he graced our lives with unbounded, unconditional love and loyalty and companionship.
Cooper, the ski dog, barrelling ahead, snowplowing his nose into the drifts with abandon, so loving the cold and the freedom of winter. It was winter ski trips that tore both of his ACL’s in recent different years.
Cooper, the running companion, every morning watching carefully which piece of clothing I reached for first thing in the dark, hoping fiercely that it was running clothes and that together we would welcome the morning with a good run.
Cooper the swimming dog, who would jump off of anything into any kind of water – glacial lakes, roaring waves, rushing river. If a stick was thrown he was going to get it and he was overjoyed.
Cooper the barking beast – not his best quality, but one we will remember every time we look out the front window at someone walking by and hear no announcement.
Cooper the untrustworthy neighbor – he needed careful watching and some serious training as a middle aged, territorial and somewhat grumpy, growly dog.
Cooper the opportunistic foodie – he would eat anything from anywhere and would employ great stealth to this end. I think that much of his mind was occupied with plans for food nabbing. He would wait until we walked away and take whatever was on the kitchen counter. He would politely ask to go outside, having assessed – I’m sure – that we were busy, that there was unwatched food in the garage and that the garage door was open. He once ate a whole potato from somewhere outside that almost cost him his life and us our children’s inheritance. Many things ended up in his stomach that should have done him in and would nearly empty our bank account.
Most of all, Cooper the companion – what he wanted, at least close second to food, was to be with us. He loved road trips, he loved coming along on walks and hikes and skis. He loved our attention, he loved each of us, he loved his life with us.
Dogs are sometimes only important to their owners. The mystery of our love for our dog is often hard for some to understand. And yet, if you know someone who is loved by a dog, you know that this love fills them up and shows them every day how worthy they are, how needed they are and what it is to know unconditional love. Thank you Cooper. We shall love you always as you have loved us.
A little light isn’t a bad thing
I had a significant encounter with a chair the other night.
In life, I put a great deal of value on independence – being able to do things by myself, figuring out how to solve the problem without help, adapting. This seems to include doing things in the dark when it is the time for darkness. I slip down the stairs to get coffee at 6 a.m. in the winter morning, darkness still over our part of the earth. I refuse to turn on a light. Turning on a light would be harsh and unnatural. I pretend that I don’t have to give in to the darkness. And so far I have not fallen to my demise on the stairs. I know, however, that this is not something I should feel proud of, only extremely lucky.
Back to my fight with the chair and the small but significant bright red scab on the bridge of my nose. In one last bit of clean up after a dinner party, reaching down to pick up something on the floor, at the edge of the pitch black dining room, I encountered the back of a very stationary chair at a fairly high rate of speed. It hurt a lot.
And it made me think that perhaps a little light isn’t a bad thing. Darkness will not be conquered by stealth or by strength of character. It can only be banished by light, and often just a small bit of light. Light helps us see the obstacles in our way and navigate around them. Shedding a little light on a conversation, through honesty or patience or just outright real facts or feelings, usually brings better understanding between people. Bringing a smile with you to the seniors home or the meeting at the school or along your way in the mall is like shining a little bit of light. It’s a good beginning. Light brings people together. And perhaps turning on a light as I start down the stairs in the dark morning, or reach for something in the dark room, is not giving in to the dark but rather saving myself from a lonely, scratched up existence.
A little light is a good thing.
There isn’t much I know of that isn’t made better by wine or coffee. Mostly coffee. Just the thought makes me forget my troubles and go to a happy place. I think it comes from my grandmother. She drank copious amounts of it, strong and black, black as tar but not thick. Black as night, but hot. Black as liquorice, but not sweet, never with sugar. Just coffee, right out of the pot, all day long. And she seemed to grin, knowingly most of the time. She always expected someone to come over. Like my mother, she always had home baking on the counter. Not having homemade goods was not an option. In life you never went out without clothes on, you relieved yourself in a toilet and washed your hands afterwards, and you had home baked goods on the counter. Or, at the very least, in the freezer. She was not a busy body. She was not desperate or lost. She was calm, solid, welcoming, expectant and in charge. When I stayed overnight, I would crawl out of a hospital-cornered bed, hear the kitchen radio and smell coffee in the pot. Both would be on all morning long. Latte was a foreign word. It wasn’t even a thing. Milk? What for? When my brother Paul and his wife Val come to visit they rise earlier than I. Much earlier. When I come downstairs they have already downed a 10 cup coffee pot (which is really more like 5 mugs of coffee) and read a book or two. And discussed some intimate and important details of their lives or the lives of some long dead theologians. This is part of grandma’s legacy. Even my bastardized cup that is half 2% milk and half strong coffee is, perhaps, a habit I could not have avoided no matter how late in life it came to me. It was inevitable that I love coffee. I am Scandinavian. I am Sartison. Also Stolson, Moe and Olsen. I bet they all drink it still. It is as natural as thinking.