Monday, September 14, 2015

Dusk on the Salish Sea

Salish Sea. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2015.

Let me tell you a story about a journey by ferry at dusk. Let me tell you about crossing the Strait of Georgia and the landscape rising out of the Salish Sea. I never tire of the ferry journey from Vancouver to Victoria. I traveled this time at sunset and stood on the deck watching the sky shift from orange to black-blue. Islands rise up from the sea in silhouette against the darkening sky. A tiny pinprick of light from a far off lighthouse shows up as a single bright pixel in my photographs. There's an ancient magic in the pine trees creating a jagged line on the horizon and the dampness of the night air.

I don't always feel quite at home in Vancouver. The city insists on maintaining a certain off-putting sense of self-importance. While there is much I enjoy about my life there, I still get a niggling feeling of uprootedness, a distance from people and culture, and disconnectedness from the landscape. That changes as I traverse the Salish Sea and leave the mainland behind. Only on the water do I finally feel a part of something majestic. I can almost feel the energy of wild animals lurking in the forests. There is a moment when human landscapes recede into the background and I briefly touch the wildness of the Gulf Islands. In transit between two of BC's major cities there is a swathe of the untamed. I look for Orcas among the peaks of small waves, but see none this time.

The ferry cuts a path through cold, deep water. I wonder at the people staring at their phones, missing what is certainly one of the most beautiful sunsets they could hope to see. The water and the sky are broken by the black bodies of landmasses, otherwise the sea and air might become indistinguishable from each other. How easy it would be to become lost out here. The mythic slips in through your widening pupils.

When the city overwhelms me I need to remember what lies only an hour or two beyond it--the strong pulse of the water rushing around the land.

Night from the Ferry. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2015.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Building a World

When you have a child you make a world. You create a whole new entity that wasn't there before--a small but growing planet with its own gravity and its own volatile weather systems. You have to learn to live all over again with this new planet orbiting around you. It's not you, but it affects you, it changes everything about how you thought the universe worked.

And there are days when I see that my son and I are building something together. Small things. Beautiful things. His creative vision is strange and unexpected. Three year olds don't yet have constraints on what they're allowed to see and where they can take their vision. A few days ago we were sculpting with air-dry clay. I'm not always sure what's going to come out of lump of clay. Clay has its own ideas about what it wants to be. I sometimes just play until a form is revealed, then I refine it, give it some direction and clarity. I built a penguin and then a baby. I built a polar bear and then a baby. As my son and I worked side by side I reiterated our two-ness in clay--one parent, one baby. One large form, one small. Similar yet distinct. My son hammered his clay into discs then poked holes in it with his index finger. He was in it for the textures, I was in it for the final revelation of recognizable forms.

I initially thought that his clay shapes had nothing to do with mine. All the clay pieces sat on the table for days drying and I didn't think much about how they went together. I assumed they had nothing in common. But today I wanted to use the dried figures in my mobile photography. I liked the smoothness contrasted with the roughness. I started arranging the figures, sliding them around and suddenly my son's pieces became ice. He had built a landscape and I had built creatures to live in it. You have to ignore that penguins and polar bears don't live on the same continent, but otherwise the whole scene suddenly developed an obvious congruity. My little boy's icebergs were things of beauty, though I initially dismissed them as uninteresting.

I think life with children is often like this. I don't always see how my life and my son's life fit together. I don't see where our vision of the world overlaps. He seems so alien to me, so apart. I struggle to understand him because I have lost the memory of being three. I have no point of reference. It's sometimes only in retrospect that I see how we're similar. Only upon photographing our casual project do I see that apart we made nothing of interest but together we made something I could dare to call art. My boy adds a new dimension to my life. He shakes me up and forces me to reconsider. I don't see through his eyes, but he makes my own eyes new.

Bears and penguins and ice

Friday, July 24, 2015

One Horrible Day with One Beautiful Moment

Yesterday was one of those horribly hard days. The ones that bring you to your knees, literally. The ones that reduce you to tears. When it comes to parenting I'm becoming well acquainted with my limit because my son tests it Every. Single. Day. And as my limit expands and I think I'm going to be okay, my son's capacity to stretch that limit grows too.

I picked up my three year old boy from preschool and brought him home at 1:00. He wanted a popsicle, so I gave him one. Eventually he had blueberry juice running down his chin so I went over to wipe his face with a paper towel. It's something I do a million times a day, but this time he flipped out. He didn't want his face wiped. I was watching a huge glob of blueberry about to roll off his chin and onto the floor. So I wiped it. And he went berserk. So I said that we should be done with the popsicle (there was only a tiny bit left anyway) until he could calm down a bit and so started a 45 minute tantrum. He literally screamed and cried "I want a popsicle" for 45 minutes straight with no interruptions. I held my ground. We were in an impossible stand off with no way out for either of us. I tried to distract him. I offered juice and milk instead. I worked very very hard to remain calm. And I managed not to blow up. At one point I went to take a shower to escape the screaming when nothing could calm him down, but he followed me. I showered to a litany of "I want a popsicle" reverberating around the bathroom. The screaming continued when I got out. It continued as I dried my hair. I resorted to humming some old Irish song that I knew just to keep from losing my mind. The screaming didn't stop. I went downstairs and got my son some milk, which he initially refused to drink then relented. He took frequent breaks to inform me that the milk wasn't helping but was "making him sad." The tantrum fizzled out, he watched some tv and seemed better after.

Until I gave him a bath and he became upset when I asked him not to pour water all over the floor. He dropped the F-bomb (something we're really struggling with these days) and I drained the water. New tantrum. This one didn't last quite as long as the one before. Again, I managed not to lose my cool.

Then there was an incident with dried cherries. He wanted some, I gave him some but said he could only have a small handful because it was almost dinner time. "Fine" he said. But as soon as he was done he began to freak out. Another tantrum, this one with a refrain of "I want more cherries."

Next tantrum is over dinner. I was making omelettes. I let him help me crack the eggs but then didn't have another safe job for him to do. He wouldn't be distracted. He wouldn't take the bait on any non dinner related jobs I made up for him. He wanted to HELP and was furious that I wouldn't let him flip hot omelettes in the frying pan. Another tantrum. This one with screams of "let me help!"

With dinner finally on the table he was still whining about something. I was still remaining calm. I quietly said that I just couldn't take any more whining and would have to eat my dinner alone in my room. At which point he stormed up to his room with his own bowl like a full fledged teenager. The term Threenager has been thrown around online and it's a very accurate description of this age. I came back down stairs, sat down at the table, and cried. Which is where my husband found me, sobbing into my omelette.

I was done. I was toast. I was completely out of patience and energy and the ability to disarm my own overwhelming emotions. And as I cried my son transformed. He came up to me and hugged me. For the first time in his entire life he said "Mommy, I love you so much." Then he said, "I'm sorry" and I started crying harder and hugged him like my life depended on it and told him I loved him too. I said we had a bad day and he agreed. I asked if we could both do better tomorrow and he said yes. He stuck out his little three year old hand and said "deal!" and we shook on it. He skipped out of the house to go for a bike ride with his dad.

It was a horrible day. Mostly. And I felt like a failure as a mom when nothing I did could provoke my child into appropriate behaviour. And yet...and yet...I am far from a perfect mother. I screw up all the time, but one thing I'm good at is apologizing. I make it my mission to own up to my mistakes and tell my son I'm sorry if I lose it. I want him to know that when you mess up, it's possible to repair the damage and that it's good to make amends. And it turns out that he learned that somehow. Somehow in the mess of day to day life he learned how to say "I'm sorry" and really mean it. He learned how to hug someone and tell them they're loved so they can feel better after a soul crushing day.

"Do you feel better if I give you a hug" he asked me. "Yes I do" I said. And I did.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On Milestones

It's Tuesday morning and I'm sitting, alone, in a local cafe enjoying a sunny spring day and a tea. There's an empty stroller parked beside me. Today is my son's first day of preschool and I'm sticking close to him at this coffee shop in case I get a call saying that he needs me, that he's melting down, that he isn't coping. I dropped him off at 9 am. It's almost noon and I have received no such call.

My son dropped his nap right after his third birthday. This sent me into a tailspin of desperation since I was no longer getting my daily break from parenting. Twelve hours in a row of intense three year old energy was enough to make me remember the early days of postpartum depression and a sense that I was in over my head. I started researching preschools and had a few panicked weeks when I realized that I had missed most of the registration deadlines for September admission. Who knew that preschool admissions are akin to university enrollment? I went to tour one preschool and found a line up of 25 families waiting at 2:00 for a 6:00 registration for the local nature preschool. Apparently some of them had been there since 8 am. I did not feel like I wanted to camp out on the steps of the community center in order to get my kid a preschool placement. When did childhood become so difficult? When did parenting become a competition in which the merits of early childhood education are hotly debated and preschool placements are assumed to influence a child's entire future potential? A comedian (I can't remember who) summed it up when he said: "Preschool is about singing songs and playing with blocks. How is it possible to get that WRONG?" And yet I have overheard tense conversations between moms at the playground discussing the enriched programming at various preschools. Is it Montessori? Does it provide music and dance education? Will the kids have access to second language education and reading? Will there be drama and yoga and sports and access to nature and gardening and water play and art lessons and healthy snacks?

 I have to admit that the preschool my little boy has started at does indeed have most of these things, though it's not Montessori. I toured a Montessori preschool and was confronted with twelve kids quietly engaging in independent play at desks and I just couldn't picture my insanely energetic and inquisitive boy fitting in there. I was told that at Montessori preschool the kids are not encouraged to interact, expect occasionally in pairs, because if more than two kids are working together on projects "things get too boisterous." These kids are THREE! I would think that a bit of boisterous behaviour would be expected and allowed. Montessori is probably a good fit for some kids, but I left feeling uncomfortable. I kind of thought preschool would be about playing and socializing. Whatever else is offered is just icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned. I'm convinced that Montessori has its merits, but it wasn't for us.

I eventually got a last minute spot at a preschool that one of my son's friends already attends. The ability to start immediately was a huge relief for me. He'll go twice a week until June and then ramp up to four days a week. When I dropped him off this morning for his first day he was over the moon with excitement. He practically pushed me out the door. I left the room and watched him for a few minutes through the window. He was already busy building a Lego tower with three other kids. He was going to be fine. My friend had to pick her son up early and called to report that H. is doing great though he was told to "settle down" a few times. Apparently he was confounded by the idea of quiet reading time, but otherwise he's having a blast. It's much as I expected. My kid is extremely outgoing and thrives in chaotic environments. I also received a video by email of H. sitting at a table with all the other kids at snack time, sharing cookies, and singing happy birthday to my friend's boy, who turns three today. H. looked so grown up.

I had a small moment this morning when I was packing a lunch for my son to take to preschool. Packing a LUNCH! It feels like yesterday that I was sterilizing bottles in a haze of sleep deprivation and now I'm putting cucumbers and oranges in little plastic containers and placing it all in a dinosaur lunch bag that H. carried to school by himself. I surprised myself by not crying. If I'm honest I mostly felt a deep sense of relief. Like, holy SHIT, we made it. We made it to preschool and I didn't die and my son is happy and relatively well adjusted (I think). We get to move on to a whole new phase of childhood and I know I'm supposed to be all sad that I don't have a baby anymore and I'm supposed to lament how quickly he's growing up, but it hasn't felt fast at all (more like an eternity) and I'm just so grateful that we made it this far when there were so many struggles to get here.

 And he was oh so ready to spend his mornings with other kids and teachers. I believe that he'll thrive in this new environment and I think that I might too, because suddenly there is a whole village of people looking after my child and there's just a tiny bit more room to breathe. And if H. learns Mandarin and French, if he learns his ABCs and does yoga that's great, but I don't think it's the most important thing. On his first day what I wish for him is a chance to gain confidence in his own abilities and to learn how to be part of a community. I hope he'll begin to learn what it means to have a friend and that he can choose to contribute to the happiness of others with his own kindness and effervescence. Good luck today H. I know you're going to shine.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Windowbox Children

I've skirted around this theme before--the idea that since giving birth I am sometimes more animal than human. I'm more rooted in physical form that I was before. It has something to do with the intense contact required between a mother and her child. My son literally crawls all over me all day. I'm always reminded of chimpanzee mothers with their young clinging to their backs. If my back was hairier my kid would totally do that. It sounds kind of nice actually. There we would be, climbing trees, swinging from the branches, eating bugs....wait...that part doesn't sound very nice. I digress...I think that giving birth made me more attuned to the seasons, the ground beneath my feet, the waxing and waning of all the earth's systems. Suddenly I gain pleasure from planting things. Not because I want to be lord over a variety of plant life in my garden, but because I want to be a parent to delicate plantings. Flowers are easy children compared to human babies, but they still require a certain amount of tender care, attention, and coaxing.

I've been reading a fascinating book by Stephen Harrod Buhner called Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. The book has given me insight into plant neurology that is completely blowing my mind. As it turns out, modern research is beginning to see that humans are not even close to being the only intelligent life on earth. Our definition of "intelligent" is, not surprisingly, extremely narrow and short sighted. If we expand our idea of what counts as a brain, for instance, we begin to see that trees are not so different from us on a chemical and neurological level.

Buhner illustrates, pointing to huge amounts of scientific data, that tree root systems, for instance, are very similar to our brains. Even the chemical messengers are the same and trees respond to many medications (like morphine) in exactly the same way we do. Buhner writes, "Our brain matter is, in fact, merely the soil that contains the neural net we use to process and store information. Plants use the soil itself to house their neuronal net" (Buhner, Stephen Harrod (2014-05-14). Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth (p. 121). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition). We tend to think that plants don't have a "brain" but with a small revision of what a brain looks like it becomes obvious that trees do, in fact, have a brain system that rivals our own in complexity, even if the tasks it performs are quite different.

All of this is to say that I don't feel so crazy now for feeling a maternal affection for the pansies I just planted in my windowbox. Their aliveness has been more apparent to me since having a child of my own. All summer I will be guardian of the windowbox pansies and I can leave the door open for a relationship to arise between us. I will give them food and water, they will give me purple streaked flowers to adorn my front yard. And if I chat with them a little, perhaps with Buhner's blessing, I can not be considered certifiable. Could it be that all my life I have failed to listen to the world properly, and with the right sort of attention, to receive a reply?

It scares me, sometimes, how detached we city dwelling folk are from the natural world. I know so little. It wasn't so long ago that indigenous tribes all over the world let plants and animals be their teachers. We've forgotten that lifeforms other than our own have wisdom to impart. I  have very little access to nature in my day to day life. My yard is postage stamp small. But I can plant eight pansy flowers and let them be my doorway into a world that my mind has forgotten but my indigenous  heart remembers. Shaman and teacher Martin Prechtel says in his book Secrets of the Talking Jaguar that each and every one of us has an indigenous soul that we have silenced and repressed. By this he means that there is something deep inside the ancestral memories we carry in our genes that hearkens back to a time when were original in some way and lived differently. When the earth was our home in a more symbiotic way, when we knew the names of the animals and plants around us. There's this internal whisper that reminds us that we are creatures of the soil and the water and the forest. I think that whispering gets a bit louder when you are in mindful contact with something alive, whether it's a pet or a domesticated plant or something wilder.

And so I tend the windowbox children. They don't always survive. The Impatiens I planted the first year in my current home didn't fare well. The begonias the second year thrived. This year I will see how pansies do, and hope that I can develop the skills and knowledge required to keep them healthy. It's a small task, a small piece of wisdom, but one that puts me in contact with a lost relationship to the natural world. I become just a tiny bit wilder with my fingers sunk into the soil, even soil caught in the contained space of a windowbox.

Pansy. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2015.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Coming into Spring

Winter doesn't get a grip on the West Coast very well. No sooner has the New Year arrived then signs of spring begin to emerge from the damp earth. This winter was particularly warm, with temperatures reaching as high as 12 degrees this past week. But the world still sleeps from October to mid January, and the West Coast is intensely dark in wintertime. The cloudy days bring the evening on earlier and by the solstice it's sometimes dark by 4:00. The damp gets into my bones and I feel cold in a profound way, even though the temperature remains above freezing.

So it's always with joy that I meet the first early signals of the coming spring. Already there are crocuses breaking the earth, blossoms opening, and snowdrops fully grown. I respond to these small stirrings viscerally. There's something about the first shoots of green testing the still chilly air that makes me want to break out into a run. It feels like we've all come through something. It feels important to have survived the darkest nights and the rainiest days. I wanted to touch each fragile blossom I passed on my walk home today. Goodbye winter. I pay homage to the necessity of the darkness, but look forward with joy to the light.

I'm reminded of Rilke's great fascination with the world around him and his desire to experience a kind of deep seeing. In The Book of Hours he addresses Nature:

Dear darkening ground,
you've endured so patiently the walls we've built,
perhaps you'll give the cities one more hour

and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor--will you let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,

before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name 
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they're worthy of you and real.

I want only seven days, seven
on which no one has ever written himself--
seven pages of solitude.

The turning of the season tends to remind me how quickly time passes and how brief my opportunity to truly see the things of this world.  I feel some of Rilke's intensity, and his desire to love, when I stumble upon the first tentative openings, and the hint of warmth in the air.

Here are some images that I took today of the very first hints of winter's decline:

Winter is on its last legs!
Snowdrops. January 2015. Copyright Andrea Paterson

Blossoms in January.
Blossoms in January. 2015. Copyright Andrea Paterson

Stirring. January 2015. Copyright Andrea Paterson

Monday, December 1, 2014

Coyote Visit

UBC Coyote
Coyote. Copyright Andrea Paterson. 2014

Winter is settling onto the land here in the West. We have snow on the ground today. A rarity that makes it feel like Christmas. I like the rawness of the air when the temperatures plummet to just below freezing. I like wearing hand knit wool sweaters as insurance against the cold. I like the way the work of my own hands can fend off the chill and I like the scratch of real sheep's wool reminding me of my own fragility against the roughness of something more purely animal.

The winter is a time for animals set against a canvas of blinding white—the iconic stag in the snow kissed forest. The white hare hiding. The red fox hunting. And, suddenly, the coyote loping. I keep seeing coyotes these days. Not a common sight in the city and one that makes my heart pound a little faster. In my car about a week ago I came to a stop-light near an open field. Just behind a bus shelter I saw a lone coyote set off across the frozen land. I thought it was a dog at first, but no, something else entirely, something distinctly wilder with a ravenous purpose.

At the University of British Columbia Rose Garden yesterday I was taking pictures when a coyote came down the path towards me. I had to leap aside, a part of me fearing for my safety. The coyote passed within three feet of me and didn't even bother to look my way. He was sick looking, with a wound on his back leg and a scraggly tail. Something is afoot, I thought. Something four footed. Something that sends a shivery thrill through my body and also makes me worried because the city is not the place for creatures such as these.

They are displaced things and some of my concern stems from the fact that I identify with them. I am a displaced thing too, not particularly well suited to city living. I suffer from senses that remain in a state of high alert so loud noises, congested streets, too many lights, and too many people quickly result in over-stimulation. The concrete hurts my feet. The constant drone of planes and cars and and sirens eat away at me. Aren't we all just wild things living in the concrete jungle? The coyote reminded me of the world beyond and how immersion in the city can lead to a certain sickness, a kind of ennui and dependence. The UBC coyote was in the process of forgetting how to live in the wild. He scrounged for garbage, lost his fear of people, became vulnerable to the easy appeal of civilization with its discarded fast food boxes and spilled soft-drinks. But he was dying it seemed. Or at least very ill. Civilization is not the place for a coyote. And though humans, perhaps, fare better, we have also forgotten where we came from. The coyote encounters of late sparked an ancient memory about being connected to the land in a way I can barely dream of now.

I hope the coyotes find their way home to a wilder place. I hope I can continue to find pockets of wildness to experience not far from the city. There are always places to go. A short drive up the Sea to Sky highway you can enter the Wildwood. Not without hearing traffic noise from the highway, but it's still something. It's hard to find the time to get away though, hard to find the resources sometimes. The coyotes reminded me that I should try harder to get there. Maybe this year is a good time to try snow shoeing. I relish the idea of walking silently atop the snow in a world muffled by ice. These small pleasures are within my grasp if I need them. Who wants to come with me? I have extra wool sweaters.