Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Fall is really here

September 30, 2008
Fall is really here

Yesterday after blogging I took Kenya for the first of the walks. We went about 2 ½ miles stopping every so often to cut wild flowers for a dark corner of the livingroom. They are all ones I hope can be kept dry, bull rushes, ornamental grasses, sprigs with red and yellow berries, an oak branch whose leaves are beautiful.

I discovered absolutely beautiful mushrooms along the road.

Flock upon flock of Canada geese flew overhead all day, streaming V's of loud honking below the clouds. I heard the last flock after dark when I took Kenya for her evening walk. Here is a small sample of one of the earlier groups.

I love fall but its colours are often dull until the leaves burst into flame. I wrote a poem about it a few years ago.

I'm Reminded

September flowers are mauve
like estrogen pills.

September leaves are shriveled
like our aging skin.

Some turn porous and lacy,
old demented brains or osteoparotic bones.

Last week sumac was red.
Today it reminds me of
dried up menstrual blood.

But some plants flare into life
like magic sunsets.

Dead embers exposed to air
for that last party.

Back at home I did some cleaning, and, as I washed the oil lanterns, realized that I quite like cleaning when everything else in my life is under control. And if I were cleaning someone else's house for money I might quite like the sense of creating order and beauty for them (and the money which might help me get my own house in order.) So I checked on the going rate and answered an ad in the local newsletter.

Then I shortened a pair of slacks I bought at Frenchie's this summer. They are a pair that would be perfect if I get the house cleaning job.

I talked to a few people during the course of the day ... Dirtwitch who is looking at a place with an extra house for me in the summer or after I leave the lake ... Claire who is doing well with her chemo ... Tamarack who is back from a weekend at a cottage ... and Linda who cleans houses for a living.

Linda was in a four car pile-up at the end of the summer and has had a real financial setback because it occurred in Quebec. With no-fault insurance you have no recourse if some idiot squashes you between two trucks, totalling your car and preventing you from working for a couple of weeks. Oh, your insurance company pays the going rate, but that does not equal the value of the car, and there is no recompense for lost work. She is philospophical if displeased. That seems to be all any of us can do, I guess.

Imagine how it must feel to be an American right now strangling in the mess that is the Wall Street failure. I hate my RRSPs so much I figure my best bet is to use the remaining ones quickly, accept that they have half their value, get out from under the financial load I am carrying, and forget about savings.

What I will probably do, instead though, is live today almost as if there is no tomorrow. I will file the house insurance bill due the end of October, pay Bell with a postdated e-payment, call the municipality to find out what their incomprehensible tax bills mean, write letters to a couple of friends, phone a couple of others, walk the dog, feed the cat down the road, greet Tango when he arrives, and feed the wood stove to keep the house cozy. Of course I will also continue to prepare for winter. There are boards and fencing to move, rosemary to pot and bring indoors, and summer chairs and boats to put away till next summer. I hate to put away the kayak till the last minute, but I have faced the fact that the ladder to the lake will serve no purpose till next June.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Hodge Podge

I have been busy for the past while, too busy to blog. Well ... not really too busy. More like too foggy to blog. Everything has seemed an effort. Maybe the weather? Maybe I am under it?

At any rate, today I am trying to get my life back on track, and that means blogging first thing.

Kenya continues to take her meds morning and night and is allowed out only under close supervision. That means more walks each day. Maybe that's why I am too tired to blog.

On Friday morning, I went to my second pottery class and loved it. After the first one where I produced several unrecognizable blobs I thought I might quit, but this one allowed me to forget everything and just let myself relax into the clay. I cleaned and burnished several of the blobs and began work on a coil dish. I doubt if these classes are to blame for my failure to blog.

It has been a more social week than usual, so perhaps that would account for my inertia. On Thursday Daughter #2 came for dinner with her new beau, and I invited friends on the lake who were moving the next day to join us.

Remi spent Friday with Kenya and me so that he wouldn't be underfoot during the move.

Saturday was the 40th anniversary reunion for Philemon Wright where I taught for 22 years.

On Sunday Pat and Mike came to do jobs around the house that would have been done incompetently or not at all. Now my towel holders in the bathroom work, I have wooden blinds installed in the den, and a shelf hangs securely in the front hall. When they come, they always bring skills, tools and irreverent laughter. Pat has been able to make me giggle since he was fifteen and in my grade ten English class.

Maybe I am simply exhausted because I am sleeping so little at night.

I spoke with a group of sixtyish teachers at the reunion. I mentioned not sleeping and they chorused. Oh, hell, who sleeps? If you put all the sleepless hours menopausal women spend tossing and turning to work on the economy and everything else, millions of women hours could be put to good use.

That reunion was an experience. One teacher greeted me with a question, "What books are you reading?" One of those questions you dread. Not it would have mattered what I answered because it was merely a springboard from which he could launch into a book review he'd prepared specially for this event. I expect he greeted all English teachers with this question. I escaped to the wine table.

An English teacher I knew well for most of my career greeted me with the news that she had just returned from a trip to Stratford. Only $650 and that included three plays, so really a deal. I found it hard to be enthusiastic, and mentioned that Stratford had lost a great deal of money this year, perhaps because $650 for three plays was likely beyond the reach of most people ... like me. She hurried away.

I met the first principal I worked with, now in his eighties. His memory was first rate; he gave me a large wet kiss in greeting, and told me he'd done me a favour once and had said he'd take a kiss for payment some time. Then he laughed and said it was a good thing he hadn't collected while we were working together.

Near him sat the school nurse who now uses a cane. She retired just a couple of year ago when the hip made it impossible to work. I think she is about the same age as the principal, and, like him, she still has all her wits about her.

One of the retired school librarians said he hadn't used his brain since he retired nearly fifteen years ago and is a much happier man as a result.

A very dear old friend, a phys ed teacher who has bone cancer and is in constant pain, said they'd discovered a lesion in the skull, and he likely would become even less articulate soon. I suggested that perhaps it would just make his conversations a little airier. I wonder if I would be able to joke if I were in his situation. Would I even bother to make the effort to come to something like this reunion?

This week I will be looking after a neighbour's cat and will have Tango, one of my favourite dogs, boarding for four or five days. I will attend another pottery class, and Marta and Henry may come for the weekend. It is shaping up to be a good week. And now I am off for the first of the day's dog walks.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Another Malaevolent Spirit?

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The Faerie ... obviously maelevolent

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A Not Very Good Day

It has not been a good day.

It started out fine. Sarah and I took the dogs for a walk in the woods and I photographed a faerie in a tree and a magical rock. But from there on things went downhill quickly.

First the dryer repairman arrived and said the problem was either something clogging the motor or the motor had died and I would have to be very unlucky for the second to have occurred. Most dryer motors last a lifetime. I'd had the dryer for less that 18 months and I'd used it for about 50 hours in that time because I prefer to dry things on the line.

Well ... turns out I am very unlucky. That bill was $387.00.

Then when he left, I heard Kenya yelping from up the mountain behind my place. My first thought was an illegal trap. I went straight up and discovered that she had cornered a porcupine.

I did everything possible to get her away short of throwing myself on top of the porcupine who was spinning in circles trying to keep his tail toward the enemy.

I went down and came back up, panting and sweating, with a Dentibone and the leash. She refused to be distracted.

I tried poking her with a stick and ordering her home. No luck.

I went back down and thawed some beef and brought it up the hill. Better diarrhea than more quills. By the time I got to the top of our own hill she was coming toward me, her face a mess of quills, and I didn't need to bribe her to come to me.

I put her in the car and drove to Sarah's thinking two of us might be able to get the quills out. But after the first couple she shied away every time. Her tongue was bleeding from one stuck in there ... likely one she'd attempted to remove herself.

I called the vet.

They gave her a shot and checked her heart and I put her in a crate where she cried piteously.

Then they gave me the estimate ... and I felt like crying piteously too.


Today an inanimate object with flaws likely made on a Friday afternoon near quitting time and a stupid stupid dog managed to cost me a total of $700 and change.

I feel a bit like Joe BL#$%^&, the little guy who went around under a rain cloud all the time.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Fall Outings

I feel renewed by the outdoors and yet I find it all too easy to stay inside. Kenya is a blessing in that regard.

Yesterday I drove to Wakefield for supplies and returned via River Road. We wandered along drawn to the purple masses of wild asters and the wild apples. Then the pine cones on the road demanded harvesting.

On the way back we walked down along the river with Kenya wading as I walked the shore.

We picked some apples for our pork tenderloin dinner and headed home.

Pat, Julie, Musasha and Siia came for dinner bringing books I had stored with Pat many years ago, a case of wine, a pear clafouti and Mauie, the most annoying card game imaginable.

It is, like the game devised by the rebel in A Separate Peace, a rule-driven game. The problem is that the rules are too numerous and complex for any newbie to manage, and they keep changing. Apparently US customs agents were introduced to this game in order to make them more sensitive to the problems faced by newcomers to the country. I wonder why Pat brought it to me? Perhaps as a kind of mental yoga to stretch the mind?

This morning Kenya lured me down to the deck with the Saturday editions of The Citizen and The Globe ... and my big mug of tea. It was glorious there in the hot sun, lounging, sipping, reading, tossing sticks and avoiding the cold water sprays when Kenya's shaking was too close for comfort.

Maybe that's it. Maybe you only get wakened up out of the comfortable stupor of daily life when you are shocked by a bracing dash of cold water or the discomfort of pushing yourself physically or mentally further than you initially want to go. Maybe we all need the surprise of discovering something we didn't expect. Maybe everyone can benefit from the occasional dose of Mauie or Kenya.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Burrs are not funny

Burrs are not funny ...

OW thought it would be a cute joke to leave a giant burdock looming in the side yard. Kenya was continually getting the green burrs in her feathers (yes, dogs have feathers ... lovely long silky ones in Kenya's case.)

I asked him to help me get rid of it when he came over. He chopped it down and then flung it down a steep slope into the wooded area. I said it would be better to bag it so it wouldn't spread ... his response ... "I don't bag" ...

A few minutes later, Kenya discovered a little orange cat and treed it. Of course she chased it right through the burr bush.

Last night I looked at the mess and contemplated the idea of cutting out the tangles but I really did not want to do that to her, so I spent a couple of hours combing out her tail. It must have been painful but she was very patient. This morning I did the feathers on her legs. All the hair that is normally long and sleek had become matted and kinky as it curled around and into the dry brown burrs.

Kenya is back outside again. I hope I can manage to get the burdock under wraps before she finds it again. And I have thousands of tiny seeds to sweep up everywhere she has walked indoors. Next year I will like have a bumper crop of burdock!

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Good Morning

I love waking up to a sun-shiny morning when the air is moist and cool and the wind blows long trails of lace past my place to the secluded rocky eastern end of the lake. Here, about two thirds of the way, I watch its progress until the sun burns it off and a new day begins.

This is when I drink my tea, read emails, and wake up. Kenya lies in the sun for a while until she decides it is time to come in for her Dentibone, a big drink of water, and breakfast. Yes, in that order. I know! I should have the tooth brushing done last thing before bedtime, not first thing in the morning, but bad habits are hard to break.

They are predicting rain but I am going to fly in the face of good sense and hang out a load of laundry ... and maybe go out in the kayak with Kenya before the weather proves the forecaster right and me too hopeful.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Finding Myself on an Unknown Trail

Yesterday I wrote the first of my Dear Miriam letters ... at least I hope it is just the first as we build our new-old friendship through letters, emails and visits.

Then I got up the courage to look at the 2005 tax stuff to see if I really owed the government money from that year. I didn't. They are wrong. There is no previous balance! Why do I always assume the worst? Why do I always expect I must be in the wrong?

Sarah called and we headed out for a 2 ½ hour hike.

We climbed a very steep hill to reach a wonderful spot where soft moss carpets big rocky places where you can rest and just enjoy the view and the freshness of the autumn air. The dogs, exhausted from chasing one another and intriguing smells through the woods, flopped down to rest.

We scrambled down hills, one so steep that someone long ago had set up a rope to hang onto. It went from tree to tree, but one of its anchors had since rotted and fallen, leaving the rope slack. I felt remarkably healthy as I scrambled about in the thick undergrowth. This is not a groomed trail, and the orange marker ribbons that the long ago person put up are often hard to find or have fallen off. Sarah said some people pay big bucks to have this kind of adventure, and here it is, right on our door step.

Trees have fallen across the ancient path and you often have to detour around, or crawl over or under them.

The dogs found a beautiful bog which looked like a pool until they waded around in its sludge and we were assaulted by the distinctive smell of sulphur dioxide. We expected the dogs to reek of rotten eggs, but, by the time we got home they smelled just like themselves again.

It was like being in another world out there, one untouched by human beings, except where they left helpful hints for the next people to find the trail. I prefer that kind of hiking to following more traveled trails. Is it something like the road less traveled, I wonder?

Seven Things I Learned as a Nomad

I learned some philosophical truths and important lessons about relationships of all kinds as I lived my nomadic summer, but I also learned seven very simple truths about more practical things.

1. I learned how to knit the Russian way which is also the European way ... but I still do it the Canadian way despite the fact that it is far less efficient and much slower. Ingrained habits are hard to change. But I am back knitting again after what feels like a century, so it was helpful to learn to knit like a Russian.

2. I learned how to felt, and so I am going to start using all the woollen sweaters I bought at Frenchies and other secondhand stores to felt tea cozies. Felting is fun, but these first tea cozies, like the first sweater I am knitting, are going to be worth a fortune because of the cost of setting up a new hobby.

3. I discovered Frenchies. Wow! It would be worth an air ticket to Nova Scotia just to tour the Frenchies outlets. Way better quality and price than Value Village or even the Sally Ann.

4. I learned that young women are all shaving entirely now. I am not sure I wanted to learn that, but one of the young women I know is extremely forthright. I thought it was to please the men, but I was told it was all about cleanliness. I am glad I am no longer a young woman. I like my natural fluffiness.

5. I learned that canoeing is much easier if both paddlers know what they are doing and can trust one another, and if they are not contending with a bratty thirteen year old whose mission is to embarrass her mother. I am glad my children are no longer thirteen.

6. I discovered Nova Scotian wine. The liquor outlet in Wolfville is barely stocked, and few bargains can be found, but there are wineries in the Valley, and one sells very good red and white wines. There are also no bargains to be found there, though!

7. I discovered that my son is a very good cook. He has an intuitive sense of how to put together different ingredients and flavours to bring out the best in them ... and everything he cooks is healthy simple food. I decided to get back to another old project of mine: collecting recipes made by peasants.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Monday Morning

Just a Morning Write

I have to work on my den on this dull dull morning ... and I have to mail the first payment to Revenue Canada.

We have just come through a blustery night that sent Kenya from my bedroom to her crate where she feels most secure ... sort of like a bomb shelter, I think. For some reason she is far more insecure here when the weather is miserable than she was before we left. Maybe she is expecting this to become just another stopping place where all her senses have to be on guard all the time.

I am still dealing with being home in an alien place, so I understand.

It doesn't help that I seem to be operating with half my usual number of brain cells. Before Kenya and I headed out for a hike between rain showers I turned on the dishwasher. We came back in drenched and I discovered the puddle of soapy water in front of the dishwasher. I must have used dish detergent instead of the dish washer detergent ...

After I cleaned up the mess I attended to the fire (in the wood stove) and then checked my phone messages. The technician who was supposed to work on my dryer tomorrow suffered an injury and won't be out till next Tuesday. Great. We will likely have rain from now till then so outdoor line drying is not an option. Back to the rack in front of the fire.

I received a series of phone calls that made me cry because they were all from people who wanted to say I really wasn't quite as alone as I thought.

My tear ducts are opening rather more easily than they used to. It seems to be a problem when I feel under the gun ... but as one of the callers said ... "At our age surely we must have figured out that things always do work out, and it is better to concentrate on what you can control than to worry about what you have no power over anyway." Another advised me to stop worrying about worst case scenarios. The third offered to help me figure out part of the morass, and, if necessary, speak on my behalf.

So, through tears, I am lucky to have people who care. I am also lucky to be living in a beautiful place.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Middle of the Night Despair

September 13, 2008
Blogging at 2:30 a.m.

Why would anyone be up at this hour blogging? Not from choice, I assure you, but what do you do when night sweats wake you up at 1 a.m. ?

My mind takes all my worries and scatters them around inside a maze and then chases each wisp in endless circles.

I got up and made camomile tea. Kenya followed me sleepily from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom to den, and is now curled up on one of her many beds scattered around the house. For the last hour I have been drinking the tea that usually puts me back to sleep while reading email.

A 99 year old woman sent Coffehouse for Writers the following quote: "Writing isn't all that hard. You just sit down at your typewriter and open a vein."

Writing used to be like that for me but lately the vein doesn't bleed, just clots and delivers sludge. I wish I could use writing as an escape from life's messes.

A friend who tried to commit suicide last year said that he only did two things well: he loved well and he produced art. Now that his partner was dead he no longer loved and the sadness prevented him from producing anything at all.

I understand his despair.

Yesterday I spent the entire day avoiding life. After another sleepless night I finally fell asleep at 5:30 a.m. and slept in till 8. Then I got up and made tea which I drank in a leisurely fashion while sitting at the computer. After a shower I made myself and Kenya poached eggs and fielded a couple of phone calls. Then we went out and walked five miles in the rain. Afterwards we were both cold, wet and tired so I made a fire and we zoned out. I watched Smilla's Sense of Snow and The Fugitive, kept the fire going, and ate off and on ... leftovers from yesterday's cooking. I phoned a friend, and then went to bed and read till 9ish. Oh, did I mention that I managed two chores? I did a load of laundry and dried it on a rack in front of the fire and I took the compost out.

Since my return I have learned that a friend is seriously ill, I have managed to get into a financial morass with the tax department, the dryer has conked out, and two of the exterior electrical outlets (including the one for the septic pump) have malfunctioned. And I have had a biopsy done that has caused an infection and resulted in these sleepless nights. I have been home for a mere 11 days. Life was a whole lot simpler when I was a nomad.

Tomorrow I am going to visit a handyman I know to get advice about winterizing the porch, and at noon, the electrician is coming. I intend to spend the rest of the day walking Kenya ... in the rain likely. I hope nothing else engulfs me or breaks down today.

Friday, 12 September 2008

A Sense of Place ...

I realized this summer that much of my happiness is derived from my sense of place. That is not to dismiss or denigrate the importance of the people I spent time with. They gave me a sense of belonging to family that I miss now that I am back at the lake living alone with Kenya.

I spent a great deal of time on Atlantic beaches this summer. I love Atlantic beaches. I love the variety. I love the rocks. I love the ruggedness. I felt happy exploring those beaches, but I didn't feel at home on them.

Kerry and I took the children swimming at the old water source for the town of Wolfville. It was just like Pike Lake, small, calm, surrounded by woods, an oasis of peace. There I did feel at home.

When I visited Rob I canoed the Clyde in a fund raiser for cancer, and the river was a lot like Pike Lake too. I felt at home there too.

In the Muskokas the river was a green place where we swam and the dogs played happily chasing sticks. One day we went for a five hour kayak trip, just five women in five kayaks. I felt at peace. It was not Pike Lake but I felt at home there as the forest slipped by and the water flowed past my paddle.

Yesterday I awakened to a beautiful misty morning here at the lake and instead feeling at peace, I felt a sense of dread. I have not been sleeping well since coming home. I lie awake worrying about all the things I fear I may not be able to handle alone.

The lake has made me realize the importance of place; this nomadic summer made me realize the importance of family.

I left here in July knowing that I would never be happy as a nomad. I came home wondering whether I can ever be happy as a hermit again. Quel dilemme!

Morning Mist on Pike Lake

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Wednesday, 10 September 2008

How toilets tell tales

The second story: about bathroom facilities in Outer Mongolia.

In Ulaan Baatar there are lots of indoor toilets. The ones in public buildings like the schools are unpleasant dirty places but at least they have flush mechanisms, and anyone used to traveling in the developing world gets used to carrying toilet paper, antiseptic hand washing solution and baby wet wipes, so they are not impossible.

Outside the capital the towns tend to be communities of gers (yurts) with very few permanent buildings, and farther still from civilization are the camping places where the nomadic people spend a few months at a time. In the countryside there are very few flush toilets; in fact very few facilities inside buildings of any kind.

When we needed to go, we were told that the best place was behind a bush. After using one of the pit latrines I understood why that was sound advice. The latrine was dirty and fly-ridden, and not very stable. And that was in summer. The very thought of baring my cheeks in winter made me shudder. Mongolia is the coldest place in the world.

I think that the students in one of the schools we visited had likely given up on toilets, indoors and out. I walked out of a classroom, turned a corner and surprised a male high school student pissing in a corner. It explained why there was that pervasive stench of urine everywhere in the building.

I remember my father making judgments about the relative cleanliness of other races. Once, on an international buying trip, he and the other passengers on a grounded flight were assigned rooms and expected to bunk in with total strangers. He said he was greatly relieved to be staying with a white male. There were blacks and Asians on the flight as well. If he had had to choose, he would have chosen the Asian over the black man "because they are cleaner" .

I don't know what he based that prejudice on, but my own experience with people and their washrooms around the world has been quite different.

I don't know if you can generally judge the personal cleanliness of people by the state of their washrooms, but I suspect it might be a start. The washrooms in France and Mongolia were about equally dirty and either would win first prize as the least appealing in my experience.

In one seafood restaurant in Bretagne, the toilet used by customers and staff had no sink ... so how could the cooks and serving people wash their hands before handling food?

In contrast, everywhere I have been in Africa I have seen crude structures but very clean people who bathe far more often than most people I know despite the fact that they have so little water at their disposal.

They insist on hand washing after using the toilet and before eating or handling food, and they use one hand for personal toilet and the other for eating just in case they are unable to find soap and water immediately.

Their children go off to school every morning in spotlessly clean, freshly pressed uniforms, and when they enter the school dining hall a monitor or matron pours water over their hands into a basin as they scrub with soap. Only then can they can get their food and begin eating. The same thing happens in restaurants where the waiters bring the jug, soap and bowl to the tables.

My father didn't get it right. Of course he never traveled in Africa or in the East. But I wonder if he ever stepped outside the prestigious hotels when he stayed in France.

Outhouses Around the World

I didn't receive a single response to my Alice in Wonderland outhouse story ... so I thought perhaps I would tell you an outhouse story from Africa.

In Kenya, there are two kinds of traditional toilets: the long drop and the pit latrine. The long drop requires a very deep hole and is the nicer of the options because the contents are further away from your bottom. The more common pit latrine is really just a ditch covered by a board on which one balances to do what must be done. Flush toilets are rarities and plumbers are unaccustomed to them, so they usually malfunction regularly, making the traditional solutions more palatable in the long run. Unless of course you happen to be old or infirm.

My first story is about the grandfather of one of the employees at ACCES. Anna phoned me to say that she would not be coming to work because her grandfather had fallen into the pit. All morning my mind kept returning to the awful scene. Imagine drowning in feces.

Then, at 11 she called to say she would be in that afternoon.

"What about your grandfather?" I asked.

"He's fine," she replied. "The villagers managed to get him out."

My mind still continues to play with the concept of NOT drowning in feces. Imagine having to help him out. Imagine going under for the third time.

I'd rather play in the imaginary world of Alice ...

In the Mongolian countryside the toilet facilities are even more primitive and less sanitary. I have a story from there too. Let me know if you would like me to tell you that one.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Ready for a Tea Party

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The Original Alice

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The Mad Hatter

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This Way to Alice

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This is Alice: the text

Alice is an outhouse. When my friends build their house it will have a lot to live up to. Right now they stay in an old trailer, and a tent houses guests like Kenya and me.

Alice was designed and decorated by an artist and built by a craftsman. Everything pertaining to Alice is beautiful and almost everything was created lovingly by my friend, the artist, and her husband, the craftsman.

One arrives at Alice by following the ferny path with tree roots underfoot by the sign. At night it is best to use one of the lanterns provided. One hangs near the wind chimes across from the sign. Another is just inside the door by one of the stained glass windows.

Inside are mementos of the original Alice, the namesake of this perfect little gem near the Muskoka River.

Every detail has been created with loving care. Seated, you can see a tiny doorway at mouse-eye level level that leads somewhere unknown. Another mouse perches on a pile of books, and the walls are hung with pictures of various scenes in Wonderland, and a poem written and illustrated by L after she read the book the first time. A collection of tea pots sits on a high shelf. Two stained glass windows face one another and high, high above, light filters in through clear triangles. The reading material is all inspired by Carroll's book, and extra toilet paper sits in a wooden holder decorated with more Alice-inspired decoupage.

After spending a week near Alice, I will never think of outhouses in quite the same way again.

This is Alice

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Sunday, 7 September 2008

Feeling Small

I had an experience recently that made me feel very small. It had been a long time since anyone made me feel that way, and I didn't like it at all.

I thought about the times I have made other people feel diminished and wish I could erase them. I know I made my older children feel that way when I noticed their mistakes instead of focusing on their achievements. I think I wanted them to be like well-trained dogs who never embarrassed me in public. I don't think I did that as often to my younger children and I know I didn't do it with my students.

How was I made to feel small? I wasn't allowed to help. I couldn't cook or wash dishes or help clean up. I felt as if I would be in the way. As a result I felt at first like a princess being waited upon and then like a huge burden. I began to question everything about my competency.

It didn't help that Kenya was in unfamiliar situations all summer and everything she has been encouraged to do to make our lives easier here on the lake didn't fit in, so by the time I got to this situation, I already felt as if my competency as a dog owner was in question. The dogs at this particular place were all city dogs trained to obey instantly. And the ones who hadn't completely got the message were disciplined so often it was annoying.

Dogs were never allowed to figure out their pack order. A human always intervened, whether it was necessary or not. I know there are situations in which humans must intervene because the dogs are not capable of recognizing some things. Rob's ancient and infirm dogs, for example, needed protection from Kenya's exuberance and loud voiced bossiness. Poor Chloe fell right over one time when Kenya yelled at her for eating her food. But these dogs were all young and healthy and quite capable of establishing rank order without interference. None of them, including Kenya, were vicious dogs who might inflict injury.

I value the fact that Kenya can think independently because that is what works best for her in our hermitage. I want a dog that barks when there are intruders of either the two- or four-legged variety. Once I assure her that she needn't worry about it, she usually stops barking.

It is important when you live on a lake that your dog think for herself and deal with new situations by considering things and then acting intelligently. A dog which responded to commands unquestioningly would be less likely to be able to figure out what to do when the ice was breaking up or when she was out of my sight. A dog that is totally dependent on people would not be much help in looking after other dogs either. I want a dog that can think for herself, but such a dog is not always obedient.

And in Kenya's case, because we look after other dogs, she is also very bossy. It is all sound and fury but such bitchiness can be misinterpreted.

I have never been able to train Kenya to come the instant she is called, and I doubt if anyone could without breaking her spirit. Here at the lake, she comes when I want her to, she always shows me where she and the other dogs are when I ask her to, and she stays on our property and keeps the other dogs with her.

But here at the lake she doesn't have to deal with busy streets or people and dogs passing by the house every few minutes. And she never has to protect her food bowl from the ravenous appetites of Labs.

I think this trip must have been really hard on Kenya, even though she was a great traveler who patiently endured hours and hours of driving. I think she likely felt small too because she was getting into trouble for things that had been accepted or encouraged all her life; because I couldn't allow her to use her strengths; and because she went from being a partner to being a burden who could embarrass me in front of strangers.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Back to Reality

I am beginning to settle in.

At first everything felt alien and I dashed from one job to another in the manner of hummingbirds or dragonflies, but faster, more erratically, like the skittering water bugs Kenya loves so much. Everything I touched led to another detour, another convoluted path. No task was simple. I had to perform three others before I could attack that one. I felt a bit like my granddaughter who informed me as she tidied her room that she needed me to stay with her " because I always became distracted, Oma."

Part of the problem was that it was hot and sunny and I didn't want to waste swimming and kayaking weather, but I was also being driven by the knowledge that winter was coming and I had to get the porch weatherproofed and ready to receive my supply of wood. I had to arrange with the plumber and electrician to install the boiler and set up the generator. I was also worried about the piled-up bills I needed to figure out and pay. I also had to stock up on food, make wine and go to a medical appointment at the Riverside.

Thursday night Kenya was driven by anxiety attacks that sent her onto my bed, and off again, and took her downstairs and outdoors. When I finally figured out that her craziness was caused by the wind and closed all the windows, she settled down and went to sleep for the night. It took me a little longer to get back to sleep.

When you consider the places I have spent all my nights for two months and compare them to my own supremely comfortable bed here at the lake, it is surprising that I have been more prone to insomnia here than anywhere else. I have slept in motel rooms, guest rooms, on an eight year old's bed, on a sponge on the floor, and in a tent. In many of the places I had to adjust to foreign noises like traffic or aircraft or ATVs, and, in one, the screeches of raccoons making lusty love or war a few feet from my bed. And yet, everywhere, I slept the sleep of the innocent.

On the one hand I feel more peaceful and at home here than anywhere I have been this summer, but everywhere I stayed I was part of a family unit and could relax my guard at night, safe in the knowledge that I was not alone. Perhaps, too, I was comforted by the knowledge that my life and its responsibilities were on hold until I returned home; that there was no point in worrying about such things as preparing for winter or fussing about financial concerns beyond my control, so I could push them aside.

I have also been doing a lot of thinking about my close neighbour who has been diagnosed with cancer and is very ill. Her first surgery was unsuccessful and she faces a battle with chemo and radiation before they will try again.

In fact I have been more concerned about her health than about my own. I had a biopsy done yesterday. It was a painful procedure, and not pleasant, but, despite the serious manner of the specialist, not fear inspiring. I seem to live in a kind of bubble regarding cancer. I think I am so sure I will be killed by heart attack or stroke like everyone on my mother's side, or by something going wrong with my digestive system like my father and my oma, that I can't even imagine that it will be cancer that gets me.

And besides, I am not afraid of dying. For a very long time I have contemplated the inevitable with equanimity. Of course it has always been in the abstract. I am not so sure that I would cope as well with the information that I had a cancer that required months of chemo and radiation; and that my chances of survival were only 30% if I subjected myself to the pain, weakness and nausea associated with the treatment. I can't even imagine facing all of that alone up here in the woods living my hermit's life with my dog.

At any rate, I am now back in the real world. My nomadic summer is behind me and my life at the hermitage resumes.

I need to settle in a bit more before I can write about my long vacation from life. I put 6000 kilometres on my little old car, and subjected Kenya to more experiences than she was comfortable coping with, but I discovered things I would never have learned staying here at the lake where we are both comfortable.