The Summer of Quiet Peace

Quite a few years ago I had an argument with my mother in which she accused me of not knowing how to be alone with myself. As a twenty-year-old social butterfly who went out four or five times a week downtown Toronto, I took great offense to her observation. How dare she impose her old-lady (not really, I was just mad at the time) sensibilities on me, when I was living the most fun time of my life? I wasn’t trying to escape solitude, but rather optimizing, and maximizing, my social experiences.

Despite my defensiveness, however, I’ve never forgotten her comment. And I’ll even admit now – seven years later – that she was right. I don’t regret all those fun nights out, but there is a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that I’ve now learned how to be alone with myself, and enjoy it. My life has changed a lot over these seven years, and now I am surrounded by constant company in the form of my two sons and husband. As a result, alone time is a precious commodity, and something that I look forward to because it contrasts so greatly with the incessant noise and movement of my daily life.

This summer has truly been a quiet, peaceful summer full of solitude, and I’ve loved every day lived at this soul-nourishing, relaxation-inducing speed. Spending long days at home with the boys, going for walks, lying on the sand at the beach while the kids dug holes and built castles, biking on the rail trail around town, getting up at the crack of dawn to do my daily posts for TreeHugger, preparing delicious meals with the incredible produce from our CSA share, preserving those same bountiful vegetables, listening to music, occasionally playing my violin, hanging out with my sister, soaking in the outdoor clawfoot tub on cool evenings while rehashing the day with my husband, and always reading, reading, reading as many books as I can get my hands on… it has been wonderful.

We went camping at Georgian Bay, where our 'romantic' picture got photobombed...

We went camping at Georgian Bay, where our ‘romantic’ picture got photobombed…

They played in water, a lot!

They played in water, a lot!

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We shared good meals and great company.

We shared good meals and great company.

And we all messed around in boats.

And we all messed around in boats.

There was a noticeable decrease in the number of parties I went to, the number of evenings spent on the patio eating greasy pub fare and drinking spicy Caesars with friends, the number of times I woke up in the morning feeling groggy and wishing I hadn’t stayed out quite so late or had that extra drink.

Sometimes I feel guilty about it, thinking, “Have I become boring all of a sudden?” Or, “Have I wasted this summer completely?” But then I remind myself that this is what I want right now. I traded in that psychological ‘noise’ for a sense of calm and quiet, and I’ve received a deep mood of mellow contentment.

So whenever anyone asks how my summer was or what we’ve done as a family, I don’t quite know what to say. We’ve done hardly anything exciting, other than a couple small camping trips, a few nice dinners, a trip to the zoo, and visits with extended relatives. In some ways, it’s been quite boring, and yet it’s been exactly what I wanted and needed. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

(N.B. I find it funny that the literal translation of my husband’s Croatian middle name, Tihomir, is “quiet peace” — a humorous descriptor for anyone who knows his fiery, stubborn personality. That’s what made me think of the title for this post.)

I think that I shall never see… the end of all this tree-cutting

The chopping team in action

The chopping team in action

It seems that my town has gone completely chainsaw-crazy this summer. Trees are being cut down everywhere. The high-pitched revving of the chainsaw and the accompanying rumble of the wood-chipper are the sounds of the season. Every morning by 9 a.m., I can hear them start up somewhere around town.

While I understand the need to cut down dead and diseased trees to avoid potential injury and damage to power lines, I have trouble believing that cutting down trees to this extent is really necessary.

When my husband and I bought our home three years ago, there was a row of four magnificent pine trees stretching down our street – one in front of our home, one on the lot beside, and two in front of the house next to the lot. Within months, the tree next to ours was cut down because that’s where our future neighbour wanted to put in a driveway. Then the neighbour two doors down cut off half the branches on her pine tree to improve access to her building site. Now it looks like a botched shaving job. This morning, I came home to discover that the fourth tree is being demolished. Our pine remains the sole intact tree.

Oh, the indignities that this poor pine must suffer...

Oh, the indignities that this poor pine must suffer…

Neighbours across the street just took down a magnificent old maple last week. While my son played at the playground yesterday, we watched yet another mature maple come crashing down. And all the trees on the outside of the chain link fence around my older son’s schoolyard have been cut down. Why? Liability reasons, I was told. When I asked if the Town was planning to replace the ones they cut, they said no – and seemed surprised at such a question.

Every time I see a tree cut down, I want to cry. It affects me intensely. Don’t people realize that trees are one of our greatest assets? Trees clean the air, cool the temperature, shade our homes, and reduce our dependency on A/C in the summer. They protect this town from the battering winter storms that come off Lake Huron. They hold moisture in the sandy soil, which means less wasteful watering. Trees are Nature’s playmate for curious children, offering branches to climb, leaves to jump in, sticks to wield, and shade to rest.

Last but not least, trees beautify and improve property values, which surely is something that even the town council can relate to. Houses built on bare patches of dirt are a dime a dozen, but homes on lots with mature trees? Those are rare, precious, and always expensive.

Few people, least of all myself, want to live in a town that’s bereft of trees. I really wish people would think long and hard before taking a chainsaw to their trees, and do so only if absolutely necessary. If only the Town would implement mandatory replanting policies because, with a bit of extra effort and incentive, this town could be spectacularly green and leafy in a few years, and everyone would benefit from that.

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You have to disconnect in order to connect

Exchange students in their iconic red Rotary jackets

Exchange students in their iconic red Rotary jackets, with my little brother in the middle. How has he grown up so fast?

My brother Graham is about to leave on a year-long student exchange program, sponsored by Rotary International, to Belgium. He faces the usual mix of excitement and apprehension. After all, this is his first long-term stay away from home. He doesn’t speak French yet, and has never personally met the families with whom he’ll live. It’s a big change in life.

I’m excited for him because I know what a tremendous adventure and life-changing experience lies ahead. But part of me also feels sorry for him. Ironically, the thing that makes me sorry is the very thing that many people think makes their exchanges more bearable — the Internet.

I did the same exchange program as Graham back in 2003 to Sardinia. The Internet was still fairly new and novel. I had an email account that I checked once or twice a week, and I recall having a handful of conversations over MSN with friends, but otherwise most of my communication with home was limited to a weekly Sunday afternoon phone call with my family and regular hand-written letters. I had no laptop, no iPhone, no Skype account. I felt cut off, disconnected, and very, very distant.

This wasn’t the case with all of the exchange students. Some were higher-tech than I was back then. One student I knew had her own computer and spoke multiple times a day with her family. But that resulted in (what I perceived to be) an inability to let go of the home country, get over the inevitable homesickness, and develop a healthy strong relationship with one’s host country.

My disconnectedness turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If I had been caught up in the teenage drama of home, or easily distracted by status updates and pointless photo albums and the seemingly more exciting going on at home — using the Internet as an escape mechanism for avoiding facing my loneliness — I wouldn’t have forged the irreplaceable friendships that I did out of pure necessity over the course of that year.

Graham has a unique challenge ahead. Instead of having to deal with that dismal sense of loneliness and disconnection from everything familiar that’s going on at home, he’ll have to resist the urge to remain connected. He needs to unplug voluntarily, turn off his beloved iPod, log out of Facebook, stop caring about what’s happening here, and focus on his surroundings.

I don’t want to sound like a technology basher, because I love the Internet and rely on it for my job every single day; but it’s merely a tool, and must always remain a tool. The Internet has created the illusion that it’s possible to live in multiple worlds at once, but I don’t think it is. Or, when someone thinks they’re managing to do it, no world / social circle / cultural setting is actually being lived to its fullest potential.

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Spring Reading

Yikes. I haven’t done a book review since the end of February. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading, although it has been harder with all my online writing. Here’s a quick overview of what’s been occupying my mind most evenings this spring.

MARCH

“The Mistress of Spices” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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I liked the premise of this book — a sorceress/magician who moves to modern-day California to help heal people’s broken lives using the power of spices. It reminded me of extreme naturopathy! The book itself, though, was hard to read and didn’t draw me in as intensely as I’d hoped.

“Bury Your Dead” by Louise Penny

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Though I’m not a mystery fan, I do love Penny’s fast-moving novels always set in French Canada. This one was the best I’ve read yet, set in a wintry Quebec City, full of history about Samuel de Champlain, the fascinating and mysterious ‘founder’ of Canada.

“Toxin Toxout” by Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith

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See my review on TreeHugger about this excellent book — all about how to detoxify our bodies and lives.

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“The Cider House Rules” by John Irving

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My aunt Jane recommended this book to me after hearing some established writer say it was one of the most influential books in their life. I have to agree, it’s a powerful read, all about women’s rights, abortion, and adoption. I think everyone should read this book.

“The Firebird” by Susanna Kearsley

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Talk about profound disappointment! I enjoyed Kearsley’s other books so much, but this one was awful. The storyline was horribly contrived, about an estranged couple who could communicate with their minds. The only reason I kept reading it was because I took it to Honduras and it was a library book, so I couldn’t just pitch it and buy another book in the airport! Don’t bother with this one.

“I Always Loved You” by Robin Oliveira

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There was a romance, apparently, between artists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. It was entertaining, if a bit slow-moving and stilted at times, but I do love descriptions of late 19th-century Paris, so I was content to finish the book.

“Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” by David Rakoff

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I certainly didn’t expect a novel in rhyme, but that’s what I got — and it was awesome! The storyline itself was a bit depressing, and while I understand that many modern authors want to depict ‘reality,’ I tend to read to escape and to be entertained and uplifted, which means I gravitate toward happier stories.

“All You Need Is Less” by Madeleine Somerville

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One awesome thing about writing for TreeHugger is getting free book copies to review. This one is written by a young women from B.C. who reminds me a lot of myself. You can read my review here.

MAY

“David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell

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This was the first of Gladwell’s books that I’ve read. (Listening to most of “The Tipping Point” on CD doesn’t really count.) It was very interesting, and I found myself recounting a lot of the stories to Jason because they were so intriguing. But I also found Gladwell’s writing style to be a bit repetitive. It seemed he kept beating home the same points about big guys vs little guys, over and over again. It became irritating, eventually. Did anyone else notice that?

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer

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My book club selected this one to read and discuss together. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of it. I don’t gravitate toward the style of writing that writes around the main message, leaving the reader to guess what’s actually being discussed. I prefer straightforward descriptions of what’s going on, not playing deciphering games, which I felt I had to do throughout this entire book. Oh, and I could never seem to remember the title.

“Longbourne” by Jo Baker

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This is “Pride and Prejudice” retold from the perspective of the servants. It was good, though not riveting. I expected more overlap with the P&P storyline, which was actually quite minimal. Still, I’d recommend it to anyone wanting a lovely foray into old Britain. It makes me miss my Victorian literature classes at university. There’s nothing quite like a delicious old novel…

In conclusion, I need something really good to read, something that engulfs me and leaves me feeling weak, emotional, and deeply satisfied. Any suggestions? Historical fiction is what I’m really craving these days.

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We don’t own our children

This past weekend, Jason and I attended a beautiful wedding. Many of the guests were good friends from our Toronto days. It was great to catch up and see how old we’re getting. Life changes so fast. In four short years, we’ve gone from partying to parenting – quite a drastic shift.

A theme emerged over the course of multiple conversations and glasses of wine. It seems that a lot of young couples our age have trouble with their parents, whether it’s unwelcome interference in their now-adult lives, or clashing personalities, or disagreement about whom the child has chosen to marry, or how grandchildren are being raised. The list goes on and on.

Parents react in all sorts of ways. Some have refused to attend their kid’s wedding; others won’t take help with grandchildren; some swear and speak harshly to their grown-up kids; others create tension by refusing to speak at all. I was left thinking, “What’s with these parents?!” The more people I talk to, the more I realize that significant family strife is more common than I ever imagined.

My mind went back to a stilted conversation I had in Spanish with a Mayan shaman/chiropractor at a centre for healing and alternative medicine near Cancun last month. Before beginning my treatment (which was part of the Maya Kaan tour that I was covering for TreeHugger), he asked what the ‘source of my pain’ was. The question baffled me, but because there was nothing physical bothering me, I went out on a limb, replying “emotional” and telling him about my miscarriage. It turned out to be a good thing. He spoke to me at length (and I even wept), but this really stuck with me:

“We don’t own our children. They are only on loan to us, and can be taken back whenever they’re needed. You must realize what a privilege it is to have them for the time that you do.”

Whether it’s spirits, God, or the way of the universe that might take them back, I keep thinking about his words. It’s so easy for us parents to develop a sense of entitlement toward our children, an attitude of expectation that kids will grow into the people we picture them as and want them to be. And yet, it never really happens that way. Our children are their own beings, wholly independent from us, with their own personalities and interests and dreams. How terribly selfish it is for parents to assume their children will follow a pre-determined path that pleases the parent.

Brothers and best friends - may it always be that way

Brothers and best friends – may it always be that way

I must never forget this as my little boys grow older. I must remind myself to use these fleeting years wisely, for this is the brief time in their lives that I do have a real influence over them, and to encourage them in paths that will ultimately make them happy and me proud. But, most importantly, I want to reinforce in these early years (and always) the fact that I’ll love them no matter what they do, who they marry, and how they choose to live their lives. Because I’m their mother – one of only two parents in the whole world – and just because I’ve given them life doesn’t mean I can determine who they become.

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