Henry and I have both started school this week, and it's been a huge transition. We have been home together for the better part of four years, and while both of us were more than ready for school, it's definitely a big adjustment. I may be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome a bit. I have been held captive for years, but now that I have been freed from my tiny dictator's tirades and demands, I miss him terribly. I miss my backseat driver, my constant companion, my little sidekick. It's been terribly hard to hand him over to strangers, even as I welcome a bit of a break. I now have more time on my hands than I have ever had, given that I have returned to work part-time and Henry is at school more or less full-time. The bees will get my extra attention now, as will my father-in-law, my writing, my community projects and maybe even myself.
I hadn't planned to go back to teaching. I love teaching, but having been denied a much-needed transfer for several years, I was ready to walk away. The hour-long commute was not going to work for my family and my sanity, and I had decided to resign. But then the transfer came through, and it was such a sweet deal that I couldn't possibly turn it down. So, after a lifetime of being an Elmira District Secondary School Lancer, I am now a proud Galt Collegiate Institute Ghost. I have landed at GCI, a mere 22 minutes from home, where I am now thrilled to be working for one period each day in the Student Success Centre. I spent years working with at-risk students and I am so grateful to be back in that position, supporting the kids who need it the most. And I am able to throw Henry on the bus in the morning, harvest honey in the afternoon and still pick him up at the end of the day. Also, I work in the most beautiful old building. It's a castle, really. I am teaching in a castle, for just a wee bit each day, having my cake and eating it too. We are all going to do well with this arrangement after the craziness of the first week is over.
As I have headed back to teaching this week, and have been trying to get my head around starting all over again at a new school, I have been thinking about my dad. He taught for so many years, in different subject areas, to different age groups in different cultures and countries.... and yet he was always so consistent. It's not hard to be consistent if you are being true to yourself. As a teacher, he was his authentic self, the best version of himself, and I am proud of the example he was for me and for others.
My dear friend Ken Reid is one of many friends I will miss this year, when I am no longer teaching at Elmira high school. Ken and I have shared initials, mailboxes, podiums, jokes and hugs for many years as co-workers at EDSS. When we needed someone to speak from a colleague's perspective at Dad's funeral, he was my first choice. Ken has a tender heart, a keen intellect and a beautiful way with words. I was eager to hear what he would have to share about working with my father at our hometown high school for so many years. Ken Reid (who, by the way, has the best of all possible names for an English teacher) did not disappoint when it came to paying tribute to my dad. His words were so lovely that I asked if I could share them here. So, as our family heads back to school in all its varying configurations (Russ and Rachel to university, Isobel and I to high school and Henry to JK), I want to remember my dad's example and also be reminded of what it means to be the best version of yourself, wherever you spend your days.
A few words about Bob Raymer - by Ken Reid
Being asked to say a few words about Bob as a teacher is an unexpected honour for me. Unexpected, because I am not in the math department, and I never saw Bob interact with students in a classroom. In fact, I really know so little about what Bob did once the door of his classroom was closed, that in order to even begin to get my thoughts in order I had to set aside the idea of Bob as teacher, and instead think about Bob as a presence in the halls of EDSS. That is something I saw, and I am pleased and honoured to tell you about.
Bob and I never had long conversations about what he thought or believed about teaching or anything else. Our paths crossed first when he volunteered to help with the volleyball team I was coaching. Later, at the end of his career and beyond, I leaned heavily on him when he offered his van to me to drive students into the wilderness for canoe trips that we couldn’t have offered without the vehicles to get them there. In between, it was all casual conversations, a minute or two before a staff meeting, or a quick catch up in the hall between classes. In some ways that isn’t a lot to go on.
Yet I consider him an inspiration, and admired him deeply. Because in some ways, I have a whole lot to go on.
You see, while Bob was downstairs, doing his mathy thing on the first floor, I would have been up a floor, teaching my students essay writing. And one of the essays I taught has a line in it that I want to read. The author, George Woodcock, says: “We do not develop principles merely for the luxury of enjoying their possession. To give them meaning we must act in accordance with them.” In other words, we are not what we believe; we are what we do. Granting a little room for human frailty, if you want to know what a person believes, just check out how they act. I like that, I really believe that is true, and with that in mind, I don’t need to have had a ton of conversations with Bob in order to know what made him tick. I just watched him for a decade or so.
And this is what I saw:
I saw him offer contrary opinions during discussions in a quiet voice, respectful of the person whose opinion he may have just crossed. And so I know that he believed in the power of gentleness and graciousness.
I saw him going about his behind the scenes business setting up and taking down volleyball nets and doing the annoying paperwork involved in running a volleyball team. And so I know that he believed in kindness and goodness, and that acts of kindness and goodness don’t need to draw attention to themselves, are not done for recognition, but for the sake of kindness and goodness.
I saw him speaking warmly and encouragingly to students in the halls, and so I know that he believed in the dignity of all people, and the importance of being God’s grace to all people.
I saw him faithfully attend meetings at which he was expected, and meet obligations which were placed upon him. And so I know that he believed in the importance of responsibility and faithfulness, and in giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
I saw him lend a vehicle to the Outers club not only for the years that his daughter helped me run the trips, not only for the rest of his career, but for several years after that, until the van had to be sold, at which point he actually apologized to me for not being able to lend it anymore! And so I know that he believed in generosity of spirit, and, if he was asked for his shirt, to give his coat as well.
I saw him smile at all who passed him in the halls, and so I know that he was a man deeply acquainted with joy.
I began by saying that I had never seen Bob in action in a classroom, and it’s true. I never saw it, but I can tell you with confidence what it would have looked like. It would have been fairly quiet class, where he managed the behaviour not by yelling and threatening, but by communicating how much he valued each student in the classroom. The students who struggled would have known most certainly of all of them how much he respected them, and they would have tried their best in response. He would have taken his job seriously, so there would have been an efficiency and focus evident, while still maintaining a palpable warmth. And he would have smiled. He usually did.
In fact, as I go back now and look over the list I have just created of what Bob was like as a presence in the halls of EDSS, I realize that it bears striking resemblance to another list from another book that meant a great deal to him, and I will close by reading that list:
From St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
That was Bob Raymer as he appeared in the halls of EDSS. I suspect it was exactly as he appeared wherever he went.
Last spring, we happened upon Devon Acres Organic Farm when we put the call out for new spots to situate our beehives. It was a match made in heaven – our bees would have a safe, pesticide-free place to live and, in turn, would provide pollination services for the farm. Little did we know, at the point, that we would become part of the Devon Acres CSA family and that it would be far more than just a place to put some bees.
For those of you who don’t know, CSA refers to Community Supported Agriculture (not Canadian Space Agency) (although that would also be a cool club to join). Becoming a member of a CSA involves purchasing a share of a harvest before the season begins, which provides the farmer with capital for up-front costs like buying seeds and new equipment. Then, as the season progresses, you receive a share of what’s available each week. For those who really like to get involved, you can even get a working share where you get your hands dirty for a few hours each week in exchange for a discounted price for your share. That way, you can be a part-time farmer and really feel like part of the process!
Anyways, it’s mid-summer now and although it's early in the week, I’m already looking forward to Thursday, our pick-up day. There are so many reasons to love being a part of a CSA and I thought I’d give you my top seven. So here we go – the top seven reasons why we love our CSA at Devon Acres Organic Farm.
CONNECTION. Firstly, we love being more connected to our food. It’s the way our ancestors got their food, but we’ve come a long way from that farming way of life and are happy to reconnect through our simple participation in the CSA. For example, we pay attention to the weather, and wonder how it will affect our crops. There is risk involved in belonging to a CSA. There are no guarantees of harvest and return on investment. We take on the same risk as the farmer, which I welcome as a meaningful act of solidarity and connection. You know how you feel about the precious tomatoes you grow on the back deck? When you are invested in your food, you cherish it and you want to know everything you can about it. We walk the rows when visiting the farm, ask tons of questions and learn something new every time. Our farmers are also our friends, and we are grateful for the beautiful food they provide. When the food is beautiful, and you’ve watched it grow, and you’ve seen it plucked from the earth by kind people who take pride in producing such loveliness for you – well, you certainly begin to value your food in a whole new way. Robin Kirby and his family are interesting, kind and hardworking people and I am so glad to know them. I am also grateful that they have provided such a perfect home for my bees, and that I get to spend extra time out at the farm each week. It’s as close as I will get to having a farm of my own, at least for now.
EDUCATION. Our child is learning about food and agriculture. Henry is a picky eater, and I can’t say there have been any miracles in terms of his vegetable consumption, but he is learning. He is curious about food and where it all comes from, and the farm has been a wonderful learning opportunity for him. The eggs he eats come from the chickens and ducks he follows around the farm. He loves to help select a head of lettuce or bunch of kale, and he can’t wait for the tomatoes to ripen. In the late autumn, we take our spent jack-o-lanterns out to share with the sheep. Pumpkin-chucking will become an annual event for us! A drive out to Devon Acres is always such a delight for him and I know that will pay dividends down the road, as he gains an appreciation for sustainable farming and an understanding of where his food comes from. If I can’t give our child a farm to grow up on, going out to Devon Acres is the next best thing! When I see him running through a field, or hear his shrieks of delight as he chases a kitten or comes upon the ducks, my heart smiles. It’s the kind of wildhood I want for him.
DIVERSITY. I used to buy romaine lettuce at the grocery store. Romaine hearts in a plastic bag. Every time. If Russ went, he brought home leaf lettuce. Every time. Now, on any given Thursday evening, I am washing and storing away half a dozen different kinds of greens. We love the diversity of the food we are now consuming. Who knew there were so many kinds of kale?!? I had never had tomatillos before, and now look forward to them because I discovered a fantastic recipe for chicken and roasted tomatillo stew. You can find that recipe here. SO MUCH FLAVOUR! My salads contain so many tastes and textures that I may never buy a package of romaine hearts again. Even my salad dressing is more flavourful, after I made pesto with all those garlic scapes. It’s my go-to flavour-enhancer now and it is delicious.
NUTRITION. Membership in a CSA has definitely changed how we eat. We consume far more greens and other vegetables than we ever did before. Our bodies are thanking us for this valuable shift in consumption. Even still, it’s a challenge to use up all the vegetables before it’s time to go collect the next week’s share. It’s a bit of a game to figure out how we will get through it all before Thursday. But if we don’t, no worries. Then, I love squirrelling away food, like a pioneer woman. The freezer is full of chopped kale to add to winter’s sauces and stews. The pantry contains baskets of garlic and onions. Portioned bags of grated zucchini sit waiting in the freezer, and I will sneak them into muffins once Henry goes back to school and needs snacks in that lunchbag. Our food is real and our diet is healthy and we owe that to our CSA.
iSUSTAINABILITY. The folks at Devon Acres Organic Farm are doing things right. Their sustainable methods ensure that the food is safe and the land is nurtured and protected. At Devon Acres, they don’t even use tractors. Food is produced with the help of a few strong work horses and many hands in the field. We love knowing that we are getting organic food that has been cultivated with care and in a way that honours and protects the environment. I also love getting our eggs from Robin, because I know those chickens are happy and healthy. They are pastured chickens, and they love to come over and supervise me while I work with my bee hives. I reward their curiosity, occasionally, with bugs I find beneath my hives. We look forward to ordering beef next. I feel way better about buying meat from Robin than from anywhere else. And I can only assume that the proof will also be in the flavour.
FRESHNESS. Our veggies are so fresh that I now just shake my head sadly when I pass pathetic, plastic-wrapped vegetables in the grocery store. All our vegetables are just so crisp and full of flavour. For instance, nothing beats fresh, locally-grown garlic. Those perfect packages of garlic from China just make me nervous, and they have so little flavour compared to the stuff we get here. When we arrive to pick up our share on Thursday evenings, Robin or Aerron will head off to the field to pick my greens. They don’t want them to sit even for an hour if they can deliver them to us fresh from the field! Our vegetables come right out of the earth and right into my Kenyan market bag. One day recently, I was just leaving the farm, having spent the afternoon working in the hives, when Robin chased me down to hand me a bunch of garlic through the window of my car. Now that’s some fresh food drive-thru! I can’t promise that he will do that for everyone. I might just be his favourite.
COMMUNITY. The community aspect of our CSA has been a surprise benefit for us. Each week, we cross paths with the same gang of people, who like us, value the food and friendship they have found at Devon Acres. Robin was the one to introduce me to Jeremy from The Kitchen restaurant, where they now use and sell my honey. Henry loves to run and find Aerron’s young boys, who will lead him around the farm and show him something new and wonderful every week. Russ loves to chat with Robin, about anything and everything. You’d be surprised to know just how much in common they have, as farming and biochemistry intersect in fascinating ways. If I see Bree, we chat about how our bees are doing and what we will do to treat mites this year. Other CSA members are curious to learn about the bees and will follow me back to the yard to watch the bees shooting out of their hives, still busy gathering nectar in the twilight hours. In the fall, we gathered together one weekend for a harvest potluck and it was a magical evening of food and laughter, singing and exploring the farm together. The kids ran wild until we struggled to find them in the dark and it was time to head home. We had all come together, to gather around tables under the tangerine sky and savour the food that had come from the fields around us. It was meaningful and beautiful and the way it is meant to be. I loved that evening so much.
So there you have it. So many reasons to love our CSA. I hope you can find an opportunity to participate in one yourself, because there are so many benefits. It’s one way that we can re-establish a connection between ourselves and the food that nourishes us. And it’s a way to support your local organic farmer who is struggling to do things right in an era of efficiency and short-cuts and heavy competition. If we don’t support those who work to feed us, we will lose our local sources of food altogether. There is too much at stake not to come alongside our farmers and participate in their efforts to produce safe, quality food for us. So check out your local CSA! I promise that you will love it.
Beekeeping is an ancient art, full of tradition and wisdom passed down and down and down. For thousands of years, humans have worked with bees to earn a claim to the sweet honey the bees produce. But despite all the advancements in scientific research, we still don’t know much of anything about the bees. To keep them requires an ability to simultaneously take charge and let go, to research everything and admit to knowing nothing, to humbly accept that there is little you can do but much you must do to help the bees work their magic. Mostly, it’s both an art and a science, that requires a combination of information and intuition, hard work and humility. I barely know the first thing about bees, and it’s my fourth year in. But one thing I did know, was that when my sweet dad died, I had to tell the bees.
“It fell to me to tell the bees, though I had wanted another duty”
(Telling the Bees, by Deborah Digges)
Tradition holds that you should tell the bees everything. I talk to my bees all the time, although I daresay it’s as much for my own benefit as it is for theirs. I can vouch that the bees know me, know my mood and are impacted by my energy on any given day. Like any animal, they are sensitive and reactionary and they KNOW. Our sweet dumb dog Murphy knows that Russ is almost home, a solid three minutes before his car pulls into the parking lot at any time of day or night. Perhaps he’s not so dumb after all. Animals know more than we ever give them credit for. And bees are extra special and extra sensitive. So, in medieval times, it was common to tell the bees of any important news in the family. Most importantly, bees were to be informed when someone died. It was thought that they would leave if their keeper died, and all the hives would be lost. So it was a family member’s job to go tell the bees, to share the sad news, in hopes that the bees, in their grief, would remain. It was a solemn obligation, a sacred duty – to tell the bees. And then the family would choose another person to carry on the keeper’s tasks and life would continue to have the sweetness afforded to it by the honeybees. One old English tune soothed the mourning bees with the lyrics "The master's dead, but don't you go; Your mistress will be a good mistress to you." And so I, as their mistress, told the bees that the master was gone. I told all of them, in their various bee yards, and they seem to have agreed to stay. And now we move into a new season, together.
It’s been a strange spring for us. In the midst of our sorrow, we’ve found tremendous comfort and joy in the company of those who have surrounded us and sustained us. We are blessed in so many ways. And I am grateful that we lost our Dad just as winter came to an end. I’m told that those who grieve do much better when they suffer their loss in the springtime, as opposed to the autumn. It would have been a long, cold, dark winter ahead for us, had Dad succumbed in the fall. Instead, each day is brighter and with spring comes light and life and newness and beauty and fresh starts and all things optimistic. Things are so good at Bishop Family Bees right now and I am eager to let you know how things are moving forward.
First of all, the bees survived. This was the first year that our bees survived the winter. Twenty out of twenty hives survived and Dad was thrilled. He didn’t get to see another honey season, but he did get to celebrate our success before he left. Their survival was the fruit of our autumn and winter efforts to keep those bees safe and warm and well-fed through the winter. The bees not only survived – they thrived. My mentor tells me that they will all need to be split to prevent swarming. Swarming is the natural way that the hives reproduce. If the hive is large and strong, the queen will leave the hive, along with at least half of her colony, to take up residence somewhere else. And the remaining bees will make themselves a new queen with the eggs her majesty has left behind. And so the cycle continues. It’s natural, but it’s not good news for a beekeeper when a hive swarms. It’s a setback in terms of honey production and it’s not great for public relations when townsfolk encounter swarms. So, we will plan to split our hives (an artificial swarm of sorts), but will then have more bees than we know what to do with. Luckily for me, and not so luckily for him, my mentor suffered terrible losses this winter and is in the market for as many bees as he can get. So, he will purchase my excess bees and that will cover the costs of equipment I need to bring our twenty hives to a nice even thirty. And so a season of loss also becomes a season of growth.
Many of you know that we started with one hive, then two hives, on our second-floor porch here in Paris. It seemed logical at the time, but it was really just a hassle to deal with a lot of bees in that small space. The commute to the hives was short, and we enjoyed peering out at our “bee-rometer” to see what the bees were up to in any given weather. But it was a tricky scenario, particularly since they weren’t exactly legally situated. I have spent at least a year thinking about how I was going to get those bees down off the porch before I got busted for having bees up on the porch. Who was going to help me make this happen? A bucket truck? A firefighter? Some sort of pulley system or ramp from the roof to the ground? It has confounded me for far too long.
Well, my baby brother Jamie came to visit from BC on Easter weekend. He needed to come home and be sad with us. I needed to put him to work. It was win-win. And then there’s my dad’s best friend Tom. He is just as sad as the rest of us, having lost his best friend and his Saturday fishing buddy. You may remember that Tom came and worked with the bees last summer and fall, when Dad was weak and his friend was willing. Tom has a beautiful energy and a level head and is an ideal beekeeper. Dad may be gone, but I still have Tom and I won’t let him go easily! So, Jamie and Tom and I made it happen. We moved the porch bees late in the evening on Good Friday. We had to wait for them to all come home and settle in the hive (some missed the bus, so to speak, and were hovering sadly around the porch the next day). I sealed them up tight, we lashed them together, and the guys hauled them off the porch, through our bedroom, along the hall, down the stairs and out the front door to the truck below. Two hives, each with 30,000 or so bees and weighing at least one hundred pounds, were safely carried through the house and driven to their new home in the country. In all my planning, I had never imagined it going so smoothly. In my head, those hives tumbled and bees filled our home. I lost a lot of sleep imagining that scenario! But, it went perfectly and I am so grateful for those two guys who don’t know a lot about bees but have a whole lot of common sense and courage. They just got the job done. Wow.
And while we are missing our lovely porch hives, I am happy to report that the bees are settling into their new surroundings, perched atop a cliff overlooking the Grand River. Some lovely folks had contacted me earlier this spring, asking if I’d be willing to put some bees on their property. They were looking for a project and I was looking for some help and it’s a match made in heaven. Paul and Sandy have cleared and leveled some land along the river and we plan to add some hives from another site, as well as new splits, to bring this new bee yard to ten hives. Sandy has already spent an afternoon out with the bees and me, and she is a natural! She's got a good eye and a steady hand, and most importantly - she doesn't freak out!
And so we are doing okay here without Bob. Of course, being busy helps. There are so many plans to be made and so much work to be done, that there is little time for feeling sorry for myself. I feel overwhelmed a good deal of the time, but it will all get sorted out. So many people in the community have offered help, and many have suggested that they would like to come and work with the bees from time to time. I’ve ordered several new bee suits and bee jackets, in all sizes, so that folks can come and learn from the bees. Let me know when you want to come and spend an afternoon with the bees! I love the idea of having community involvement in this endeavour. It makes it all the more sweet for me. The bees, having agreed to stay, will learn to love some new people. And life goes on for all of us.
“Place a beehive on my grave
And let the honey soak through.
When I'm dead and gone,
That's what I want from you.
The streets of heaven are gold and sunny,
But I'll stick with my plot and a pot of honey.
Place a beehive on my grave
And let the honey soak through.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
We said goodbye to my sweet dad this past week. I thought I'd post the obituary and tribute here, although I've already posted them elsewhere. This blog has told his story all along, so it's fitting that I should share these final bits about my Dad in this little corner of the web where I sum up the stories that make up my life. This marks the beginning of a new normal for us all.
Robert William Raymer (August 26, 1945 – March 9, 2017)
It’s with sadness and relief that we share news of Bob’s passing at the age of 71. He lost his fight with cancer but triumphed in the end. After months of suffering, he died peacefully at home in Elmira. We held his hands and sang him home. He was surrounded by love and was ready to go, with no regrets.
Bob was predeceased by his parents, Rev ID and Ada Raymer. He leaves behind his beloved wife, Marilyn, and his children: Kari and Russell (Bishop), Jeffrey and Christine, and Jamie and Lynda. He will be lovingly remembered by his eight grandchildren: Rachel, Isobel, Evangelina, Emma, Ridge, Oakley, Kesler, and Henry. He is also survived by his siblings: Don, Bonnie (Sawler), David and John.
Bob lived a life of adventure and service. Although born in Truro, Nova Scotia, he headed out into the world at a young age. Teaching was, for him, a calling. He spent 41 years investing in young people - in Canada’s North, Waterloo Region, Kenya, Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong. With his calm demeanor and love for mathematics, he impacted students all around the world. But he and Marilyn considered Elmira home and raised their kids there. After his second retirement, he worked at Floradale Feed Mill where he found tremendous satisfaction in his role as health and safety officer.
Bob loved to work. He never stopped working, thinking, learning or helping others. He loved fishing with his buddies, playing cards with his friends, traveling with his sweetie, joking with his grandchildren and dreaming with his kids. Bob played a mean accordion, navigated the stock market brilliantly, took up beekeeping and was still playing tennis, and winning, at 71.
Bob’s faith was, above all, the driving force in his life. He loved and served God, and lived an abundant life as a result. Bob was loved and respected by so many people. He chose to die as he lived – with grace and humour and integrity, and with the absolute certainty that all was in God’s hands.
Bob received wonderful care during his illness. The professionals at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre were as kind as they were brilliant. The doctors and nurses of the local palliative care team made it possible for him to live in comfort and die in peace, at home where he belonged. And at every step of the way, his wife Marilyn was his very own compassionate caregiver – qualified, competent and so very steadfast in her care of him right until the end.
So, we celebrated my sweet Dad's life on Sunday afternoon, and it was a really good funeral. My face is sore from all the smiling and talking, but it was so good to hear so many stories about my dad and the good he had done with his time on earth. My dear friend Ken had warned me that I would feel unexpectedly elated by the visitation and funeral, and appropriately devastated in the days and weeks to come. I think he was very right.
I jumped at the chance to say a few (a lot of) words about Dad. I thought I'd share them here, for those who couldn't be at the funeral, or those who are curious about this man that I have been sharing about over the past few months. I called it "Ten Things You Should Know About Our Dad". My brother and my mom both spoke eloquently and earnestly about Dad before I did, and mentioned several things that I had planned to share. In fact, there was a beautiful consistency to all the tributes shared about Dad - a testament to the truth of our stories and summations of him. Anyways, here are a few things you should know about Bob.
He was a Musician
Dad grew up in a household that valued music and he had a gift. He had a beautiful voice and could harmonize with anyone. He could sit down and play any tune by ear on the piano. He could comfortably accompany someone on the organ. I even remember him playing the guitar at one point. And he could play a mean accordion. We called him Silent Bob long before he lost his ability to speak. He was never one to waste words. But he would use music to express himself, most often to my mom. He would play “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill” on the piano to serenade her in the mornings. Maybe some of you saw the video I posted a few weeks ago, of dad playing “Have I told you lately that I love you” on the accordion for my mom. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. He’s been playing that song for her for 48 years. And in these past few months, the other song that he has played over and over again has been “Til the Storm Passes By”. He played it to encourage others and he played it to remind himself. He played it because when you have song in your soul, you keep on singing – even if you have lost your voice.
He was an Investor
Dad loved the thrill of playing the stock market and he was really good at it. For those who were willing to listen, he was always eager to share his strategies and tips for making sensible moves and solid returns on the stock market. But nothing thrilled him more than investing in people in general and his kids in particular. He was the brains, and often the money, behind all of our endeavours. He would get so excited. It didn’t matter what kind of outlandish plan we proposed to dad, he would always say the same two things: “Go for it” and “How much do you need?” He has been ridiculously generous to us and many, many other people who needed a little bit of help along the way. It wasn’t charity or handouts to Dad; it was always investment. He and mom have several sponsor children and Dad followed their progress with delight. He wrote them letters of encouragement and support, because he believed that it was important to invest in them beyond just the financial contributions to their wellbeing. He bragged about their accomplishments as if they were his own children. He was a very wise investor.
He was a Peacemaker
Dad is pretty new to the Anabaptist scene. Pacifism isn’t something we grew up talking about but it is something Dad lived out in many ways. He wasn’t passive, but he was someone who could pacify the angry and build bridges where there was division. He was a peacemaker who made peace simply by being his quiet self. His calm, cool and collected demeanour brought peace into tricky situations. Many teenagers found peace and safety in his classroom when their lives were so chaotic elsewhere. He also provided a safe space for many kids who stayed at our house over the years, for short and long periods of time. Our home was always open and available for those who needed sanctuary. He served as Staff President at the high school, where he advocated for his colleagues and diffused difficult situations. His was always the cooler head that prevailed in any negotiations. Now, for the record, I would like to point out that for a long time he was taking medications for his blood pressure that prevented him from getting worked about much of anything. We called them his “happy pills” and it was very clear when he had forgotten to take them. I used to joke that it wasn’t so much the Fruit of the Spirit as it was beta-blockers that made Bob such a cool cucumber. But the truth is, Dad was a peacemaker all his life. He brought peace to all kinds of situations.
He was a Seinfeld Fan
I was always surprised that Dad loved Seinfeld as much as he did. He was so very different from those despicable characters. I think maybe he just found them so interesting, and funny, because they were the very worst version of themselves and he never allowed himself to be. Maybe he saw the potential we all have to be like them, and found it amusing to watch it all play out. Anyways, he loved Seinfeld and often quoted the show, hoping that someone, anyone, would notice and play along with him. He would often randomly shove me across the room, saying “Get out” just like Elaine on the show because he thought it was so hilarious. And then there was the car rental. I kid you not – he and I were renting a car in an airport, somewhere, and after the agent had gone over all the extra costs for insuring the rental vehicle, dad leaned across the counter, and said so very earnestly, in his best Jerry Seinfeld voice – “Just so you know, I’m going to beat the hell out of this rental car”. I was flabbergasted. It was the first time I had ever heard him swear, if that even counts as swearing. He was so shocked at himself, he immediately ducked down behind the counter, laughing uncontrollably, and he was too embarrassed to get back up. The guy at the desk was not impressed. He said he was sick of that stupid joke. But dad, he thought it was hilarious because he loved Seinfeld.
He was a Fast Walker and an Early Leaver
It’s silly how fast Dad walked. When I was in high school, I used to walk to school with my dad; it was our time together. Really not cool to walk to school with your dad, but I did. Well, it wasn’t really walking. I ran alongside dad as he walked to school. He is one fast walker. My poor mom has been jogging behind him for decades. I filmed him one day last summer, ten paces ahead of me, bolting down Bloor Street after getting off the subway in Toronto. I thought mom might appreciate that very familiar view in the years to come – the back of Dad’s head, always decked out in his Floradale Feedmill ballcap, his back pack strapped on and his legs just a-pumping. During his years of teaching at EDSS, he always walked home for lunch. It was 2 km each way. So on his lunch hour, he managed to walk 4 km, have lunch, watch The Price Is Right (he was an expert on all those prices, and knew all those ladies by name) AND have a nap. Every day. Fast walker. He was also an early leaver, from everything. He’d put his hat on and mom would start reluctantly saying her goodbyes. Seriously, I remember as a child, leaving Blue Jays games at the 7th inning stretch SO WE COULD BEAT THE TRAFFIC. We had to listen to the rest of the game on the radio, including what would invariably be exciting overtime innings. He always left early so he could get home sooner than expected. If he went somewhere for two weeks, he’d be home in ten days. When he went fishing for a long weekend, he’d be home by Sunday evening. He always left everything early. Dad left us way too soon, but honestly – not nearly as early as I expected him to. He was always homeward bound, and I am grateful that he lingered as long as he did.
He was an Advisor
My dad had the gift of wisdom. He always knew what to do. It was always the smart thing and the good thing and the right thing to do. My dirty little secret is that I am not actually smart. I am just a girl who listened to her dad and always did what he told her to do. Dad told me to go to University of Guelph, so I did. Dad told me to be a teacher, so I did. Dad told me to buy rental properties, so I did. I have always just asked Dad what to do and found success in life by doing so. You wouldn’t believe how many times this past week I’ve thought “why are we discussing this – just ask Dad’. The other day, Jamie called me because he didn’t know who else to call to ask about buying a new trailer. Funny thing is that I need to buy a new trailer too, and I was also at a loss. Dad loved to tell the story about the time I was living away at university in Guelph and I called him in the middle of the night because my house was on fire and I didn’t know what to do. He was just my go-to guy when I needed answers! We have relied on our wise Dad to advise us in everything for a really long time. And we are all a little bit lost right now. And I know we aren’t alone, because there has been a steady stream of visitors to the door over the past couple of months – people who wanted to let Dad know how much he meant to them and how much they valued the advice he had shared with them over the years. He was so very wise and we all benefited from his advice. Hopefully we learned enough from him too, so that we can keep moving forward, stumbling forward, without him, together.
He was a Server
Serving was Dad’s love language. He didn’t say much, but he DID a lot. He loved to help people and solve their problems. Dad was happiest when he was working on a project of some sort. He and I would never in a million years have met to get together for coffee and just chat. We spent time together working on things. He helped me renovate two old houses in the summers when they were home from Hong Kong. A good day together always included a trip to the dump with piles of junk from my place, and we’d always come home with more junk we rescued from the dump because someone might be able to use something and he would have it when they needed it. Most recently, he helped me set up my beekeeping enterprise. It was a beautiful project that we could work on together and that was what he loved most about it. Even when he was sick, he was still thinking about the bees, ordering supplies, planning for the next harvest that he wasn’t going to see. He was always a hard worker and eager to help everyone. You had to be careful about saying too much around him. My colleagues used to joke about that. “You couldn’t mention that your furnace was broken, for example, because Bob would show up the next day with a furnace in the back of his truck and instructions to meet him at your house later so you could install it together”. I said on the phone “Dad, so do you think I should sell honey dippers with my honey” and ten minutes later, there was an email from Amazon saying that my CASE of honey dippers was on its way. Mom couldn’t think out loud and say, maybe we should hang a shelf over there, because she’d come back from the store and find one installed. Dad loved to help people solve things, fix things, move things, build things, find things, sell things, burn things – whatever. He was happiest when he was helping people and working hard.
He was an Adventurer
For a calm, level-headed math teacher, Dad was pretty adventurous. He felt secure in God’s will for his life, and then felt free to live out his dreams. My mom was the perfect partner for him, eager to join him on the adventures that would punctuate their life together. From the Arctic to Africa, and from Papua New Guinea to Hong Kong – he lived a life of exciting opportunities – a life less ordinary. And this was our childhood – he gave us this gift of travel, of adventure, of cultures and of wonder – a magical childhood. We used to burn stuff for fun, and swing from ropes Dad hung in the trees. We swam amazing reefs, climbed volcanoes, went on safaris and saw the world. He was always up for another trip and another adventure. But you had to keep up, you had to carry what you packed, and you had to know that we would probably head home early.
He was a Teacher
Dad was a teacher. It was a calling for him. He believed that God had called him to be a teacher and that it wasn’t for him to desert that calling, even when other lucrative offers came his way. So he kept on teaching. His father before him had retired from full-time ministry to go and work in full-time ministry overseas, and dad did the same thing. He retired from full-time teaching here in Canada, only to go and work as a full-time teacher in Hong Kong. And when he retired from there, he went to work at the Floradale Feed Mill, where he continued to teach about health and safety. I always knew he was about to teach me something when he started with “Now Kari….” and I listened carefully. He taught us about integrity, about honour, about service and truth. He’d also push me to learn new things. He said “any idiot can get a Math OAC” so I did, and I had to take an extra course just to make sure the math mark didn’t count towards my university admission average. He said “any idiot can change a headlight” and I figured it out eventually. He said “any idiot can install a dishwasher” and I made it happen, with just a little bit of help. And I think maybe the biggest thing he taught me was that people can change – when even my immovable Dad began to think about things differently as he aged and considered other viewpoints. He was learning, even as he was teaching. Dad had a pretty good idea of what was most important in life and he wanted to share it. Even though he was really quite introverted, Dad could speak to a group like this with no difficulty. He could preach the truth like any good missionary, but that’s not how he shared his faith. He lived his life in a way that provided evidence of God’s goodness and demonstrated what it meant to live in the light. He wanted to use his experiences to teach others. When he got sick, he told me to write about it. He wanted me to share the stories, the good and the bad parts, so that people could learn from our journey. That was the educator in him. A good teacher always makes the most of those teaching moments and Dad was a really good teacher.
He was an Example
From what I hear, Dad’s been making other guys look bad his whole life. He’s always been a really good example of a really good man. He lived with integrity and grace, wisdom and conviction, humour and courage. And he died the same way. He had never really suffered in his life before this year. He had never learned to suffer, and he had to learn quickly. He had lived well and he wanted to die well and he wanted others to see that it was possible. Dad had watched his friend Wally die and said that if he could do it half as well as Wally had, he would be pleased with himself. I think most will agree that Dad died well. The day before he died, he was up and sitting in the living room visiting with a friend. When we left that afternoon, Henry said “Bye Baba” from the front doorway and Dad surprised us all by shouting “Bye Henry” from the living room. Those were the last words we heard him say. The next morning, Mom called to say that he was really struggling to breathe and that she had called the doctor. He went downhill very quickly. I rushed in from the bee yard, picked up Henry early from daycare and sped from Paris to Elmira. Dad was blue when I got there, and so much smaller than he had been the day before. He was gasping for air, heavily sedated and ready to go. I know that he waited for me. He squeezed my hand and I told mom we should sing because he had asked me to sing for him every time I had climbed onto his bed in the past few weeks. So, we held his hands and we sang him home – with It Is Well With My Soul. And by the end of the song, he was gone. It was a good death and he deserved it and we were so glad that his suffering was over. Dad was an example right until the end – an example of light and love and a life less ordinary. Exemplary. That was our Dad.
I am a pretty private person. For all my sharing on my blog and social media, I am not likely to cry on anyone’s shoulder. When it comes to sorrow, I am just not that expressive. Sad movies don’t make me cry. I won’t quiver while telling a particularly heartbreaking story or weep about things that truly break my heart, like the suffering of families in Aleppo. But if you want to reduce me to a sobbing mess, here’s the secret: do something kind. I can’t handle it. Kindness will set off the ugly crying in seconds. And every time I think about that kindness, that moment where someone chooses goodness and sacrifice, I will cry again. And if I try to tell others the story, I will be a trembling pool of tears. Loving kindness is my kryptonite.
My beloved dad is dying. And I cry all the time. And it’s not because of the weight of it all. It’s not because I am already mourning the loss of my sweet dad. I’m not crying for myself or my mom or my little boy who really didn’t get enough time with his Baba. I cry all the time because people are being ridiculously kind to us and I can’t handle it.
I don’t have enough words to share all the ways that people have loved on us over the past six weeks. But I can tell you that folks just keep showing up in the best ways. Casseroles arrive, perfectly timed. They never pile up. They are just miraculously there when they are needed. And when mom doesn’t have a house full of family or friends here to say good-bye, there are single-serving casseroles – tiny little meals created for my mom who won’t cook a meal just for herself. There are the people who have dropped off incredibly generous gift cards for local restaurants so mom can host guests outside of the home. Some come to visit dad for a bit and then stay to play cards with mom, filling the otherwise silent house with laughter and companionship. There are those who shovel snow or help move furniture. Others show up just to sit with dad while mom goes to church or to get groceries. People have sent beautiful flowers for mom, and for me – I have never been so spoiled. Dad’s friends are asking more and more questions about beekeeping, intent on helping me as needed this season. Over and over again I hear from people, friends and neighbours, who would like to help out with the bees in any way they can this summer. And then friends here in town have blessed me in all sorts of way, without even knowing my dad, because they know things are hard for me right now. Some have provided childcare so I can help my parents without Henry on board. A book club friend brought over some fun, light reading after I said I couldn't handle any heavy, sad books right now. One friend even showed up to install the dishwasher that dad gave me as a gift but couldn’t install for me (I cried a lot later that night). The kind words and messages of love and support keep coming and I am reduced to tears over and over again. I do not think I have been kind enough in my life, come to think of it. I am being taught important lessons by all these wonderfully thoughtful people in my life.
While I hate seeing my dad suffer, I am glad that he didn’t die of the heart attack we always thought would take him from us. This way, he gets to hear all the stuff that is usually only said at the funeral. We've had a steady stream of visitors coming to the door, just to tell him what he has meant to them and how he has touched their lives. A good, good man like my dad deserves to hear those things after years of serving and loving on all who crossed his path. It has been so beautiful to listen to those stories, and to read the cards and emails that have arrived. What a wonderful reward for a life well lived.
When it seems like the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, I would like to remind you all that good people are still doing good things. Credit card customer service representatives are making me cry with their surprising compassion. Colleagues I haven’t worked with in years are making me cry with their kind notes of support. Customers are making me cry with their heartfelt best wishes for my dad when they stop by to purchase honey at my front door. At a time when people talk about the ills of social media, the outpouring of love we’ve received via facebook, from friends around the world, is making me cry. And those people who keep showing up in person to love on my folks - those people are turning me into a blubbering fool. If I’m crying, it means there is still much goodness and love to be found in this world. That’s a wonderful thing, right?
When I was a little girl, my dad took me snorkeling in the South Pacific. This was the kind of childhood I had. And I loved it. A life less ordinary. Anyways, dad took me snorkeling on one of the world’s most beautiful reefs and it was amazing and it was terrifying. I was so overwhelmed that I just froze in the water, afraid to move amidst all the teeming, colourful life under water. Dad, sensing my fear, held out his finger to me, and I grabbed onto it. And I was safe. To me, to hold my dad’s finger was a lifeline, a touchstone, a safe place. I will never forget that feeling.
Twenty years later, Dad and I found ourselves bored after Christmas, during one of these school breaks where you end up with lots of time after the important days. Everyone else had gone back to work, but we were still off and itching for something to do. So we spontaneously went to the Bahamas for a few days, just the two of us. And we went snorkeling. And as a joke, Dad held out his finger to me, and I grabbed onto it. And I was safe and happy and nine years old again. We laughed about it, but it also still meant something to me, even as a grownup, to have my dad as my lifeline, touchstone, safe place.
So, over the years, it’s kind of been our thing. When I am clearly overwhelmed or panicky, my dad holds out his finger. For instance, when the bees are crazy and I freeze, and I don’t know what to do, my dad holds up his finger and I pause, breathe, and continue working in the hive as the bees buzz all around me.
The other day, after spending some time canceling his credit cards and dealing with other banking questions while sitting with Dad on his bed, I said my usual goodbye. You take your goodbyes very seriously when someone you love is dying. We should always take our goodbyes seriously, I guess, but nowadays they hold extra meaning for us. So I hugged and kissed my dad, told him I loved him and headed for his bedroom door. I turned to say goodbye one more time and he put his finger up. And I paused and savoured the moment. I got a little teary-eyed, thinking about my wonderful Dad and the memories we had made together. I wanted to hold this image in my mind, because no one else was ever going to do that for me and Dad wasn’t going to do it much longer. I am losing my lifeline, my touchstone, my safe place. I smiled, thanked him for the gesture, and he did it again, with more urgency, looking me straight in the eye and pointing that finger heavenward. Again, I sighed and smiled and took it all in. And then I realized it. This wasn’t the meaningful moment I thought it was. He just wanted me to turn off the overhead light. Sheesh!
I told him that story the next day and we laughed so hard the bed shook. Now he keeps holding up his finger just to mock me. And sometimes he lets me hold his finger while he snoozes and I read on the bed beside him. I shared the story with my dear friend Tanya, and she both cried and laughed with me about it. And she told me that she had dropped off a fingerprint kit at my Mom’s so that, if we wanted, we could take a mold of his fingerprint. Our artist friend Heather, at Sway Silver, creates jewelry with fingerprints of loved ones and Tanya thought I might like a necklace with my dad’s fingerprint. So wonderful. So, soon enough, I will have my pendant with my dad’s fingerprint so that I will still have some sort of lifeline, touchstone, safe place in those moments when life is overwhelming. I am so grateful for such a lovely, thoughtful gift.
For now, I still have my dad to hang on to, even as he slowly fades away. This journey is hard, but also beautiful. We’re doing okay.
This guy, right here. This guy is the best dad a girl could ever ask for. We have had so many ridiculous adventures together, both here in Canada and abroad. I am who I am because he is my dad. He has been my father, my colleague, my adviser, my protector, my guide, my friend and most recently, my beekeeping partner. He is the best. And I know that a lot of you have followed our story this year as he received a cancer diagnosis, under went some intense surgeries and then weeks of radiation.... and as he kept on showing up for the bees throughout it all. Even this week, in the midst of some pretty awful pain, he was telling me that we need to get out and check on the bees while it's mild. He is the brains behind Bishop Family Bees and our partnership in this wild endeavour has been an absolute delight for both of us. Many of you, when you stop by to pick up some honey, have asked how he is doing. We love that you care enough to ask, and we are grateful for your kind concern.
The very sad truth is that this week we learned that dad's cancer has returned with a vengeance and that it is terminal. He had a lot of pain over the holidays and the diagnosis did not really come as a surprise. There is unlikely to be any treatment and he does not foresee being here for another honey harvest. He has been sharing this news with family and friends over the past couple of days and gave me the go-ahead to share it with you too, because so many of you - complete strangers- have followed his story and cheered him on and sent your blessings during this battle. And we do feel blessed, in spite of the sadness. Ridiculously blessed.
In Dad's own words:
When looking back over the events of this year, gratitude is the first word that comes to mind as we have much to be grateful for:
I'm sure I'll have lots to say about this guy, and this new chapter, in the weeks and months ahead. But right now I am short on words. I am only just beginning to process what it will mean to live in a world without this guy, my dad.
I’ve been thinking about water a lot lately. It’s something we so take for granted here in Canada, even though I am well-aware that for many communities in our country it remains a struggle to have access to clean, safe drinking water. When you have water, you assume you will always have it and when your water is safe, you assume that it will always be safe. And so most of you probably give very little thought to the water you drink.
I’ve lived in places where water is always on your mind. As a child in Papua New Guinea, I remember helping my dad tap tap tap the water tank at the side of the house with a stone to determine just how much water we had left to get through the dry season. In Haiti, we received municipal water through the pipe into our cistern for just one hour each Sunday morning, and then we had to hope it would last the week. We recycled water to use in the toilets. And if a good rain fell, we ran for our shampoo and headed outside for a good long shower under the downspout. If the water in the cistern ran out, we did without until Sunday, or we paid for a “camion de l’eau” to bring us a truckload of water to fill up our cistern. In Kenya, I boiled and filtered all water for drinking or use in cooking. Actually, in all those places I lived, it was never safe to drink the water without boiling it. But boiling typically did the trick and dangerous water became safe to drink. It was just part of our routine, to have to question the safety of our water all the time. I guess you get used to worrying about water when you live in developing countries.
Weird thing is, the most dangerous water I’ve consumed has been here in Canada.
When I was a teenager in Elmira, we were suddenly informed that some pretty toxic chemicals had ended up in our groundwater thanks to the local chemical company. Suddenly, we no longer had access to safe drinking water. Concerned citizens groups had been trying to raise the alarm and most people ignored them or dismissed them as raging radicals. Even the company and the government admitted that they were shocked at the levels of toxins that had found their way into our water but could not deny the evidence once proper testing was done. No one had believed that the threat was real until the ‘highly unlikely’ occurred. It was front page, national news and everyone suddenly cared. The news cameras would pan across our sweet little downtown, always managing to include a horse and buggy or two. Reporters would ask us how we felt about our poisoned water. Many experts weighed in and tried to figure out what to do about the problem. How could this happen here? Why weren’t they stopped? What was the solution now that the water was contaminated?
For them, it was a political issue. For us, it was very personal. And it was very immediate and there was no undoing what had been done. We had been consuming the toxins for a while and now, suddenly, it was unthinkable to drink that water. We had to go to the fire station to pick up water that had been trucked in for our use. There were water coolers set up in the halls of the local schools. We were even concerned about showering and skin exposure to the toxins. Eventually, a pipeline was built to Waterloo because our local water could not be reclaimed. They say it will still be another few DECADES before Elmira's groundwater is safe for human consumption. In Geography class, we still show the ‘Nature of Things’ episode about Elmira's water as part of the curriculum. It's a cautionary tale. But here’s the scariest part: we are always waiting and wondering about the long-term effects of our exposure to those chemicals. We are waiting to find out just how many of us end up with those rare cancers that really aren’t so rare when everyone in the neighbourhood knows someone who is suffering from the same illness. That chemical company still operates in Elmira (under a different name), still provides employment in Elmira, still pollutes and harms the people of Elmira, and still makes profits in Elmira. And decades later, the people of Elmira still cannot drink the local water because the groundwater remains contaminated with toxins. This is where I am coming from when I say I am thinking about water.
Right now in Paris, we are fighting to keep this from happening to our town's water source. We have one last chance to save our water from being polluted by dangerous toxins, and so we (a group of freaked-out moms called the Rabblerousers) are trying to mobilize our neighbours to show up and show the tribunal chair that this is not okay. The Ministry of Environment has granted a permit to take water to a local gravel company, despite the recommendations of experts who say that there is a very real threat that the chemicals gathered from the gravel and concentrated in the washing pond will find their way into our aquifer, just one metre below the pond. Concerned citizens have been fighting tirelessly to ask for more testing and for limits on the operation. And it has come down to this appeal of the Ministry’s decision. A tribunal chair will decide if the company can go ahead with plans to endanger our water source in exchange for the extra profit earned from washing the gravel on site. We are asking that more testing be done to ensure that it is safe before the water is put at risk. Our children should not be lab rats, used to determine safe levels of toxic chemicals in our drinking water. I find that a lot of my friends and neighbours are hesitant to get involved, or to even comment on the issue. I guess, for them, it’s still a political issue and they just aren't into that sort of thing. And what I want to tell them is that it is insanely personal. Miscarriage after miscarriage is personal. Having a chronically ill child is personal. Cancer in the family is personal. Coming to grips with the fact that industry and government do not actually have your safety at the top of their list of priorities is personal. And waiting until after the damage has been done to find your voice is just tragic.
A book has been written about what happened in my hometown. Called ‘No Guardians at the Gate: The Elmira Water Crisis’, it explains the saga in this way: “The Elmira story sometimes has been cluttered with legal manoeuvering, appeals, and science that isn't easy to understand or explain. But, at its heart, the story is about a company that knew a lot about making chemicals, not much about protecting the environment; a provincial government that didn't have the teeth, manpower or political will to enforce its laws; and residents who were prepared to do whatever it took to protect their community.” That’s sounds a lot like what is happening here. I never want to relive that story, and I hope we don’t have to here in Paris. But I do hope, at the very least, that we are remembered as residents who were prepared to do whatever it took to protect their community. Decisions are made by those who show up. Changes are made by those who show up. History is made by those who show up.
My hope is that if you are reading this, and you are close enough to do so, that you will show up. We are asking people to bring their friends and family to Council Chambers here in Paris on January 11th at 7pm. The tribunal chair has set aside that time to hear from community members and it’s important that we show her that enough of us care. An empty room sends a very clear message to her that this community doesn’t care about the threat to their water source, so why should she? So, please, if you can, find a way to show up and be seen as someone who wants to see our water protected. Be the faces of the community that she looks upon as she makes her decision about the future of our water source. It is an easy yet personal way to show you care, and to model for your kids what it means to show up and to stand up for what’s right.
Find out more information about showing up at the tribunal here.
Read more about Elmira’s water story here.
Check out my funky little prezi about Paris’ water story here.
Join our group of Rabblerousers here.
I wrote this piece almost three years ago, after a particularly stressful year. As I was shutting down my old blog, I thought it was worth saving. Given how crazy things seem to get this time of year, I think this message bears reminding. So I am tossing it out to you again so you can remember to give yourself and your people a bit of a break this Christmas.
I used to teach Psychology to highschool students. I had never actually studied Psychology in university, having balked at the idea of being just like every other Psych/Soc girl who had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. So, years later, I found myself teaching Psychology/Sociology/Anthropology to Gr 11 students who also had no idea what they wanted to do with their life. I stayed one chapter ahead of the crowd, and soon realized that I would have loved to have taken those courses in university. Nowadays, I read about cognitive development, neuroplasticity, archetypes, gender roles or groupthink JUST FOR FUN. I am actually very pleased that the course is offered, because it provides students with an introduction to subject areas that are completely new to them. And the content is incredibly valuable for anyone who might be interested in being alive and well when they grow up.
Our mental health unit included a section about stress – that ubiquitous topic that seems to make the cover of every magazine in the grocery line. We defined stress as the difference between expectation and reality. If your expectation for anything is way up here (imagine me gesturing dramatically) and reality turns out to be way down here (again with the gesturing), the space between is inhabited by stress. The greater the distance between expectation and reality, the greater the stress. This concept was a new one for me, and it comes back to me from time to time when the stress becomes just too much to handle.
We’ve come through a very stressful year. It started with the stress of fertility treatments which actually didn’t take as long as we thought but were still painful and awful. And so pregnancy was celebrated, but even that didn’t last as long as we anticipated. Baby Henry arrived suddenly at 25 weeks, a full 3 1/2 months early, and our stress hit new heights. Five tumultuous months in the hospital took their toll, but we were careful to manage our stress. The support of family and friends, the prayers of people from near and far, the hospitality offered by Ronald McDonald House and a strict sleep schedule allowed us to survive the ordeal without any breakdowns or illness on our part. And then we brought a cranky, screamy preemie home from the hospital and discovered that really, the challenges had just begun. As Christmas drew near, I thought the stress was going to take me down. And then I remembered the definition.
It turns out that the Buddhists have it right. If you lose the desires, you no longer suffer. In other words, if you lower your expectations, reality is perfectly satisfactory. I am a woman of great expectations. I am known to regularly shout “I have standards” to my husband who, more often than not, does not. And most of the pressure is put on myself. I know that I am not alone here. It is a common ailment among women. For most of the women I know, Christmas sounds like this: do we have the right coloured ribbon to go with that wrapping paper…. when am I going to get the baking done…. do we give gifts to the French and Art teachers too…. can we give the same gift to both of our dads…. is the freezer full of enough food in case people drop by…. live wreath or fake one…. is it too late to redo our Christmas card family picture…. where can I find white Poinsettia…. is this the right mulled wine recipe…. and so on and so on. And we do it to ourselves, because no man has ever gotten worked up about Christmas, EVER. And so, I decided to learn from my own lesson and change my expectations.
I let go of Christmas this year. Not entirely, but enough. People still got gifts, some even on time. I am still handing out our Christmas cards and it’s the end of January. I bought baked goods when needed and pulled out old Jamaican patties from the freezer when people dropped by. I let the clutter pile up and food supplies dwindle. I put out just the basics in terms of decorations, and only because I had a burst of energy one day in November that coincided with a rare nap on Henry’s part. I didn’t over-schedule us. In fact I didn’t make plans at all and just let them happen. I couldn’t plan much anyways, with a child who was only predictable in his unpredictability. And letting go was beautiful. There was no space between my expectations and reality, nowhere for stress to creep in and take over. No standards meant no stress. And that was when I realised it.
This is what it is like to be a man.
In the words of that brilliant philosopher, Phil Dunphy – Welcome to a place I call Relaxistan.
I have been silent on this blog for a couple months and I am sorry for that. It’s been a season of honey harvesting and processing, of family illness and drama, of side-hustles and ambitious projects, and of challenges on every front. That said, there have also been wonderful times of warm autumn days, get-togethers that feed the soul, good books, meaningful work and the exhausting but inspiring antics of a three-year-old who only operates at one speed – one very fast speed. A dear friend asked why I wasn’t writing and I said I just couldn’t find the words right now, and so I just worked earnestly with the bees and the honey instead and figured I’d write again when the words returned.
And then a monster was elected as President of the United States and many of us, not even Americans, were left reeling as we faced the new reality. I still don’t have the words to process that one, other than to say that the Church, Christ’s Body, had better find a way to show the world God’s love again, because 81% of white Evangelicals in the USA just sent a threatening message of hatred and intolerance to those who most need to be embraced by the love of Jesus. I can’t even fathom it. My heart breaks to see that the evil that lurks beneath has now been legitimized and empowered and given free rein – from the Oval Office right down to the sidewalks of that nation. We watch stunned from the sidelines, painfully aware that our neighbour’s suffering is our own. I know, in my heart of hearts, that love wins. But it does not feel like it right now.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. On this Thursday in November, I wanted to escape all of that, to unplug and disconnect from the heavy reality on our screens and to recharge. So, like Thoreau, we went to the woods.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life,
and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,
and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.
(Henry David Thoreau)
Now, I’m not certain that Thoreau would have had the same profound experience had he gone to the woods with a few kids in tow, but I'm pretty sure he would have had more fun if he had.
Here in Paris, we are blessed with many scenic options for hiking or strolling. It really is a beautiful town, with two rivers and plenty of wilderness still left for wandering. Barker’s Bush is the most cherished piece of land in town, and under threat as developers make their plans to clearcut it in favour of houses. While I lament the loss of this beautiful land, I can understand why people would want to live there along the Nith River. I also want to live along the Nith River, where the stones conspire with the flowing water to make the most wonderful babbling and gurgling. It is a wild area, where generations of children have spent summers wandering and exploring and frolicking in the woods and across the fields and along the river. You will always find others there, sitting on the rocks by the river, throwing balls for their dogs or just walking the trails, soaking up the woods-i-ness of it all. It is a glorious place.
So today we went to the woods. I am sure that you already know this truth, although it bears reminding: there is not much in life that can’t be soothed by a walk in the woods. As my dear friend said, a walk in the woods today was a balm for her weary soul. Our kids have all be miserable this week – perhaps due in part to the anxiety and sorrow of their parents watching the election play out, and in part to the time change, Halloween hangover and darkness at dinnertime. Whatever the cause, life with little ones has been hard this week, but something magical happened when those kids were set free in the woods. Just like us, they found solace and fresh inspiration there. They ran wild and free, rolled like puppies in the long grass, skipped stones in the river and turned their faces to the sun. Henry spent more time in the water than on land, at first gingerly tiptoeing in the shallows and then just wholeheartedly jumping into the deeps. That water was so very cold, but those kids cared not. Henry climbed big rocks and threw little rocks. He and his friend Jonah pretended to be pirates, conquering a large rock in the river and searching for treasure in the ripples below. They found a very fuzzy caterpillar which required some very close and intense investigation. Meanwhile, Tanya and I started a fire in the conveniently located fire pit at the edge of the river. I had come prepared with marshmallows and we were on a mission to relax and let ourselves and our kids just BE. It was the perfect antidote to the crankiness that had been plaguing us all. A midday campfire, complete with marshmallows and juice boxes, was the escape that we needed. What a beautiful day to be in the woods. We’ve had a lot of these days lately, and I think we’ve done a good job of savouring them. Each time, I declare that this is the last good day and that we mustn’t waste it by staying indoors. So we have had some good long walks in the autumn sunshine recently, but today was the best. I can hardly believe that we are well into November with such sunshine and warm breezes. It won’t last long, but I envision some pretty great hikes into the woods on wintery days as well. We will need some of that healing balm to get us through the winter.
Go to the woods - today or tomorrow or this weekend. I promise that you won’t regret it. You will remember what it means to find your peace and yourself, in the woods.
In the woods, we return to reason and faith.
There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,
-- no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes),
which nature cannot repair.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)