Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Life Well Lived

One winter, the peasant woman from up the road decided to help me out. We were living in an 250 year-old stone house with our four small children. We were very happy: it was a life well lived. But my husband and I were sleeping on old foam mattresses on antique metal bed frames.


Angelina suggested that she and I spend our winter evenings making a mattress.  My husband could build a frame in the springtime, and then we would have a new bed. We got to work. First, she obtained five sheep fleeces from who-knows-where. Then, we arranged them on the ground in front of our house, and we washed them with the outside tap I usually used for washing my chickens. More about chickens later. We put the fleeces on the ground fleece side up and we shampooed them to get them as clean as possible. Then we hung them to dry. When they were good and dry, we got to work

A very fine house

Our house was huge. The animals used to live on the ground floor, but we didn't keep large mammals. This floor would become a beautiful farm kitchen, with a fireplace at one end, two large French doors looking out onto our land, and a wood stove that I cooked on. There were iron rings attached to the stone walls, and a large cantina in the back of the house which was cool enough to store wine, fruits and vegetables.

For the first few years, though, we lived on the second floor, which had a large kitchen, with a fireplace, and two small bedrooms on each side. One bedroom was for me and my husband and the baby. The other one was for the three other children until the baby was big enough to move in. Then the four boys slept together in the tiny ramshackle room. The third floor was beautiful and spacious. The roof leaked though, so we didn't go up there until a few years later when my parents moved in for a few months of the year.

Teasing the fleece

Every evening Angelina would walk down from her house, with her cane and her flashlight. We would drag the fleeces out from where we stashed them during the day, and she and I would sit and chatter while we teased the wool from the fleece.

A fleece is the wooly "hair" of the sheep that is sheared from the live animal. It is not a dead skin like, for example, the hide of a cow. It is often very, very dirty, because the sheep has probably lived a life dragging their coat through brambles, other plants, mud, and everything that nature provides for animals to live in. We wanted to get that wooly fleece as clean as possible, so we took the wool, handful by handful, and "teased" out the seeds, pieces of mud, plant debris, and the who-knows-what, night after night, for months. We put the cleaned fleece in to pillow cases and I stored them until they were needed.

Peasant life

What did we talk about? Angelina told me stories about her life. She was old. She'd lived through the war, and a bad husband. She taught me about peasant life: how to cook, take care of animals, plant and care for a garden, a fruit tree, a vineyard. She was uneducated, a little ignorant. But she had a big heart and she was happy that I was happy to learn from her. I would tell Angelina about my life: my family, Canada, city life. But I don't think she really cared.

We would start when the children were still awake and she would continue teasing the wool while I put them to bed. Then we would go on a little longer and she would leave, walking back up the hill to her house. Every evening, I would be left with my pillowcase of cleaned wool, the dirty fleece that I would hide away, and a pile of debris to sweep up and throw  onto the compost.

One fine evening we were finished. After a few days, Angelina showed up with a gigantic pillow case made of striped ticking. That evening, we started stuffing the mattress. The children were very excited. We stuffed all of the cleaned fleece into the mattress bag: then came the hard part. Fleece was everywhere. We had to close the bag and make sure the fleece was equally distributed throughout the mattress.

Making the mattress

Angelina had a huge needle and thick thread, and she sewed the top together tightly with big stitches, then we made nicer-looking seams with smaller needles and thread. She threaded the big needle with thick cotton thread and we pulled the thick thread right through the mattress, at even intervals about six inches apart all through the mattress, from top to bottom and side to side. We tied tight knots in the cotton thread on each side, and these kept the wool inside the mattress even and firm.

Our mattress was ready! My husband built us a huge bed out of chestnut wood, and the work was done. The bed is still as solid as ever, but last week we finally got rid of the mattress, after 25 years. It smelled funny, and it was a little lumpy.

A life well lived

Those years on the farm created a foundation for my life and the lives of my children that on the one hand has given me the sanity and the strength to try to live well. On the other hand, I had an insight into a life well lived, by which I mean a life that is connected to our material reality, and so when I contrast that with the life I witness here, in the city, on the social media, in peoples' appetites and dreams and lived lives, I am profoundly disappointed and confused.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" (Yeats, The Second Coming).

No, I am not talking nostalgically about going back to the middle ages, when disease and superstition were rampant, and infant mortality made mothers immune to sadness. But I am definitely talking about returning to a human centre for our lives; a human centre that is connected to the material world in a way that is not a fleeting commercial exchange, or a limp handshake. Instead, I am talking about a connection that helps us to take the good, the bad and the ugly of this world and live fully conscious of our choices and actions. That connection can only come with a return to the physical in our lives: cooking food, walking, fixing things, sewing, knitting, mending, gardening, making things.

The birth world

I worked in the maternity care field for about twenty years of my life. Now, there's an interesting place to start looking at how our culture has on the one hand made tremendous advances that should be celebrated, and on the other hand has created a culture of fear that has had truly paralyzing effects. We have reduced infant mortality by leaps and bounds, just over the past couple of centuries. Science has given us the opportunity for transformative care for women and babies. We can cure heart defects whilst the baby is still inside the womb, and we can prevent life-threatening diseases during pregnancy, and save mothers and babies with quick and effective surgery and drugs. These are wonderful advances.

Fear and loathing

We've also become afraid of living life to the extent that we've been giving drugs to women and their unborn children that may not be the best for them, for us and for our future. What are the real effects of synthetic oxytocin on the unborn child, and on the mother? No one knows. What are the links between a 90 percent epidural rate for first time mothers (one drug in the epidural cocktail is often Fentanyl), and the modern Fentanyl addiction epidemic? No one knows. Some people choose to jump outside the whole system. Is this a good idea? Again, no one knows.

We are chasing our tail; we're afraid; we are separated from our basic, physical existence. Our society has created children so terrified to be themselves that they need expensive drugs (that also have not been thoroughly tested), and surgeries (ditto) to re-create an image of themselves that they can feel comfortable with.

Scary mama

Every month or so I would put a certain red woollen hat on, tuck my pants into my boots, and cut six strings of the same length. I would make sure the youngest was happily watching his favourite movie, sharpen my knife, and head down to the chicken coop. The birds would know. It was a little later than usual to open up; I was wearing my red hat, and instead of opening the door I would come inside the coop. My ladies would chitter-chatter amongst themselves. I picked the six oldest, or the bad-tempered ones, or the ones who weren't laying enough. I would grab them by the feet, tie them up, and take them outside. Oh, before I tied them I would give them a little vag exam. If there was an egg coming down the chute I would let them go.

Once outside, the door was left open so the other birds would come out and strut around, happy they were not tied up. The six selected for dinner over the next few weeks would be strung up on a post and killed. I killed them humanely, cutting their jugulars quickly and effectively. Then I would pluck them, clean them and freeze them. On those days the kids would come home from school and have fried gizzards, hearts and livers for lunch. Yum!!!

My kids grew up knowing that if you choose to eat meat, it comes from a live animal that you have to kill. They saw me being as gentle as anyone could possibly be if someone had a boo-boo or a small chick was being hatched. But they knew I could also be Scary Mama (okay, fucking terrifying mama) and take away the life of a living creature, if I wanted to serve it for dinner.

Chop that wood. Carry water.

And, yes, I went down to the spring every day and hauled back my 20 litre container of water. Drinking water was good from the spring; our tap water came from the pond which was gross. We heated our house with wood: a fireplace and two wood stoves. Yes, we had electricity. I had a washing machine.

We made our own bread, provided food from our land, drank wine from our vineyard. We were terribly poor. The kids didn't have opportunities so we came back to modern life to provide them with more. Was it worth it? Yes, a million times yes. Our lives have been enriched in so many ways by the experience of living a life on the land. Our relationship to each other, to the outside world, to food, to the houses we live in, to travel, is rooted in our unusual time together on "the farm".

A good idea

None of our kids has chosen rural poverty as an attractive option, as we did when we were in our twenties. But all of them know how to cook, and all of them could kill a chicken if they had to. They could all stay alive in a forest if they got lost, identify what herb could stop a nosebleed (yarrow: stick it up the nostril), or know what mushroom can kill you. And I believe that this type of knowledge is fundamentally connected to the ability to be tolerant. Not tolerant in a flimsy kind of liberal limp-handshaky way. Tolerant in a way that comes from a sense of "well, the world is such a bizarre, messed up, beautiful, paradoxical, contradictory, overwhelming place" that I might as well agree to disagree with that asshole. Even if he clearly doesn't agree with a word I have to say.

I have a good idea: bake a loaf of bread and invite someone you really don't agree with to come and eat it with you. Or better yet, make a whole damn meal, four or five courses, and invite a bunch of people you are sure will upset you, just to sit at your table, eat, and share the oxytocin.

tribute to Anthony Bourdain June 25, 1956 – June 8, 2018

"It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn. Maybe that's enlightenment enough - to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go."

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Five Reasons to JUST SAY NO

Yes, it is possible to JUST SAY NO. But why would you want to?

Here are five good reasons why we, as humans who want to achieve and maintain sanity, should learn the delicate art of saying no. I'm not talking here about those times when, obviously, you're not going to say "Oh, yes, for sure, that sounds like a great idea!" Like when someone suggests you have another drink when you've had enough, or when someone in anger suggests you go jump off a cliff.

No, I'm talking about those occasions when it is in your best interest to say no. When, yes, you could say yes, if you juggle around your schedule, self-esteem, people in your life, your alone time, work, sleep, or just plain your own moral compass. Yeah, you could say yes.

But here are my favourite five reasons to JUST SAY NO:

1. If you don't want to do something. It might be fun, but you just don't want to do it. You might feel that the person who wants you to do it will be hurt, or angry, or lonely. Then your squirrel mind starts suggesting other options: really angry, or suicidal, or depressed for three months. But anyway, don't do it. Just say no. One of my friends has been wanting me to visit forever. It's just too complicated to make it work. I'm sorry but ... no. Just no.

2. If you need to spend time by yourself. It is important that we recognize how alone we are. Like, I mean existentially alone. You were born alone (unless you were one half of a Siamese twin) and you will die alone. That's just the way it is. And it is really important to make sure that you have time to spend alone. So, sometimes, you have to say no. No, I am fine just doing my long run on my own this week. I need the two, three or four hours to sort out my shit. Ya, we can run together next week.

3. If you are trying to beat an addiction. Obviously. The only way to do that is to JUST SAY NO. Frankie knew that.

4. If you need healing. You have to stop the bombardment of everything so you can have some time to sort stuff out for yourself, every once in a while. Otherwise you will become a spinning plate amongst many other spinning plates. Nope, I do not want to be part of your women's circle. No, I don't want to bare my deepest secrets to y'all. Nope, I am not doing volunteer work any more, sadly. Sorry guys, this event is cancelled.

5. If you have to avoid something because, even if you want to do it, it will hurt you. Damn, this is the hardest one!! You have an injury? You can't race your half marathon! You're a great midwife but you're not allowed to work? Hey, sorry, you can't go to births! You want to eat chocolate but it's bad for you? Sucks to be you!

And when should you JUST SAY YES?
  1. When you want to.

  2. Anything to do with love.

  3. When your heart tells you to.

  4. If the choice is something a little scary but extremely rewarding.

  5. If you're already doing something, like running a marathon, and every part of you is trying to say no, but you need to JUST SAY YES so that you can complete it.