Sunday, September 21, 2014

En Plein Air


just spent a spectacular sunny September weekend at Police Outpost Park, on the border of Alberta and Montana. On Saturday afternoon, I hiked to a viewpoint along the trail and painted on location. I had to carry my gear about a kilometre. I started out at 3:00, and was back at our campsite by 8:00 when the sun went down. So after subtracting the time taken for hiking, and setting up and taking down, I think I spent about 4 hours drawing and then painting. I completed a 14x18 en plein air painting.


This was my setup. I had remembered this handy little bench along the trail from previous hikes.


This was the scene that I painted. I was looking out over fields and an pond towards Chief Mountain. The autumn colours were brilliant. This photo does not represent the colours well as I was looking towards the sun. The mountain was just a hazy silhouette against the bright sky. The sun passed across the sky to the right and was setting over the mountains in the west by the time I finished the painting.


This photo shows the painting just after I had blocked in the main shapes and colour areas. I was painting on a birch panel with oils. I usually paint on stretched canvas or linen, and I found it hard to work on the panel. It seemed to suck up the moisture of the paint too much. When I began laying on the pale blue wash for the sky, the thinned paint went blotchy, so I ended up blocking in with much thicker paint than usual. Also, when I used unthinned paint, my brush became dry after a short stroke. So I struggled with the consistency or viscosity of the paint throughout this experience. 

I had prepared the panel with two coats of shellac, followed by a ground of white alkyd paint. I have been told that artists do not use shellac anymore as a base on panels - that it is an old-fashioned approach - but that is how I was taught to do it many years ago. I would like to hear advice from others on how you prepare panels for oil painting. No doubt, the wind and sun also contributed to the problems with paint consistency.

Anyways, I had great fun painting this scene. Most of the time I paint indoors. I had really been wanting to get out on location and paint. My excuse was that I couldn't find my old telescoping portable easel. I painted one panel outside last summer by setting up a table, and propping my panel against a box on the table. That didn't work well once the wind came up! I finally went a bought a new lightweight easel, and this was my first time using it. 

Here is the final painting. I took the photo with my phone, so the colours are not very accurate. 


Friday, September 19, 2014

The Misery Lens

We've all been there at one time or another. It is that terrible place of mind where you become trapped inside a sandstorm of raging hurt or anger, or maybe inside the frozen grey ice of resentment and alienation. You look out at those who have wronged you through a lens of misery, and everything you see appears ugly, ill-fitting, and as miserable as you feel. In fact, the misery is more than a lens on the eyes. It is a stench that envelopes you and taints everything that you come near.

Your body and mind go with your emotions to that unpleasant place and they all end up swirling around together. Your teeth are clenched, jaw aching, and no matter how many times you notice them and open your mouth and try to relax your face, a few minutes later the teeth are clenched again. Your neck and upper back are so tight that they are going into spasms, and you have a persistent headache that ranges from a dull ache to blinding pain. You lose faith in your ability to do basic simple things, like say hello to people, or do a familiar task.

And all the while the squirrel in the brain is on a frantic treadmill, trying to analyze the crisis you find yourself in. You lay out the facts and possible interpretations over and over again. There is an occasional insight or moment of clarity, and then you plunge into another round of rehashing the newly aligned facts, and you plot and compare courses of action. You can't step away from it. The internal conversation distracts you from everything else, and keeps you awake at night. You become exhausted.

You didn't get stuck behind the misery lens randomly. Some situation drew you into the internal storm. The situation was so terrible, so critical, that your very survival felt threatened. You failed a course. You were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused. Your spouse left you or threatened to leave you. Your boss or teacher humiliated you in front of others. Someone cheated you or mocked you behind your back and you found out. Someone close to you died. You made a serious error at work that hurt someone or caused a project to fail. You reached age fifty, still single and childless, and wondered about your own worth. You got cancer. 

The stew of emotions, thoughts and physical reactions are by-products of the struggle to cope with a threatening situation. But they are so all-encompassing that they throw up a smokescreen, a grey lens that distorts perception. But in the middle of it, the perceptions don't seem distorted; they seem real, true, and very intense. I know this because this has happened to me more than once. In retrospect, it is really easy to notice that the angry blaming thoughts and hurt feelings were leading me to conclusions that, afterwards, seemed somewhat twisted, or even ludicrous. But in the middle of it, that clarity and distance is hard to achieve.

Here are some ways through it that have worked for me. I remind myself that it is a process or coping phase and it will pass. I will get through it. Usually I come out the other end with a plan. 

I do things that help me step away from my obsessive brooding thoughts and feelings - things that quiet the brain. For me what works well are: getting out into nature; exercise; journalling; talking to a trusted friend or family member (I have to ignore the voice in my head that tries to dissuade me by saying that no one understands or wants to listen); counselling; painting; cooking; yoga; skiing; reading an interesting upbeat book; physical closeness with a loved one; engaging with others and focusing on them, not me; and listening to speakers on positive themes such as creativity and leadership (e.g., TED talks). 

Ultimately what pulls me out of the bog of misery it is figuring out what steps I need to take to address the problem that I am facing, and then actually taking action. Maybe it involves finding the courage to confront someone, or to do a task that I am afraid of, or to own up to my mistake. Maybe it means recognizing that a certain problem is not something that I can or ought to deal with, and giving myself permission to step away from it. Sometimes it involves finding little moments of peace and joy to help me get through each day while I wait for time to do its healing work. 

There always is a solution, but it is seldom obvious through the misery lens. Typically, once the misery lens falls away from my eyes, I can hardly remember what I was so riled up about and why it seemed so very important. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Farmers' Market Supper

I have written before about how frustrating it is shopping for groceries in the the city where I live, but I don't think I have written about the farmers' market. We have an excellent farmers' market here, every Saturday morning from May through to October. Many of the best vegetables can be obtained from farmers from the various Hutterite colonies who market their wares at the farmers' market. There are also places to buy organic meats and vegetables, homemade baking and jam, local honey, free run eggs, and locally made cheese. Of course there are lots of crafts as well. 

This morning, I zipped around to all of my favourite merchants and filled my basket with all kinds of lovely vegetables, peaches and plums from British Columbia, and multigrain bread and walnut stollen from the Hungarian bakery stall. This evening, the supper that I cooked was almost entirely from the farmers' market purchases. 

I made pork chops with a sauce of sundried tomatoes, old fashioned brown seedy mustard, onions, and rosemary from my garden. The pork chops were from a local organic pork producer, and the mustard was made locally too. We had corn on the cob from a local farm (spectacular! So juicy and sweet) and tender young green beans from one of the Hutterite farms. I made a tomato salad with red, orange, and yellow cocktail tomatoes from the local organic vegetable farm, seasoned with garlic, chives (from my garden), olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and topped off with locally made cheese curds. We also had the Hungarian multigrain bread. Yum! It was simple fare, but because it was fresh and local, it all tasted fantastic.

This brings me to my garden. I am happy to report that my new little backyard plot is doing well. The raspberries seem to have thrived, even though they have been somewhat overshadowed by the giant marigolds that I planted to add some colour this first year while everything was getting established. Similarly, the strawberry plant are large and healthy, and the rhubarb plant is huge! I had not intended to harvest any rhubarb the first year, but in fact it has grown so well that we've recently had a rhubarb crisp and a rhubarb upside-down cake. 

For the most part, the vegetable garden is not such a success story, however. All of the herbs, except the basil have thrived, and the oregano blossoms seem to be a favourite of the bees. The tomatoes are tall and healthy. We ate the first two tomatoes last week, but most of the tomatoes are still quite small and green. Some of the Japanese eggplants are now large enough to eat, and I think the carrots will be okay. But nothing else grew well. The Swiss chard and beet greens have been destroyed by leaf miners, and the beets have not formed proper roots. The peas were very spindly and scarcely produced, and while the vines of the scarlet runner beans are tall with many flowers, no beans have formed. The jalapeƱo and habanero pepper plants are very small and haven't fruited. The broccoli, spinach and lettuce did not grow at all. 


Here is the garden as it looked this morning. The vegetable garden is in the foreground and the fruit garden is behind. It looks great but hasn't produced much. Thank goodness for the farmers' market!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hair That Smells Like Food

Today I opened a new bottle of shampoo. I took a sniff before lathering it on my hair. Mmm. Butter and brown sugar. It smelled delicious, like a butter tart, or warm caramel sauce on moist fudge cake, or perhaps bread pudding fresh from the oven. My shampoo smelled good enough to eat.

Now, I have to begin by explaining that I have a thing about the way shampoo smells. When I was a small child and my mom washed my hair, I used to cry and complain, and beg her not to put the stinky shampoo on my hair. I hated the highly perfumed drugstore shampoo we had at home. My mom probably thought I was making a big fuss about nothing, although she did shop around to find another shampoo that I would not insist was "too stinky."

As a child, I suffered frequent headaches. My parents attributed them to reading too much and having eyestrain. (I did read a lot: a book a day throughout my middle childhood and early teens, including in bed in low light conditions when I was supposed to be sleeping.) Also, starting as an infant, and from time-to-time right up to the present, I sometimes get a rash on my skin caused by eczema.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I finally made the correlation between my headaches and perfume, and decades later before I ever heard the terms "scent sensitivity" or "multiple chemical sensitivities." Luckily for me, I seem to have just a mild version of it. If I am stuck in a room beside a highly perfumed man or woman, I am fine if I am few feet away or if I am only near them for a couple of minutes. (I do find that men's scented products like shower gel, deodorant, and aftershave are often much worse than women's products.) I use laundry detergent without added scents or dyes, unscented moisturizer, and unscented deodorant that does not have aluminum in it. I never use perfume, cosmetics or hair dye, which suits me fine as I have always seen myself as more of a "natural woman" than fitting the media-constructed type of airbrushed femininity.

Also, not all types of perfumed products bother me. I have found a brand of shower gel that has a range of light scents that does not cause headaches or skin rashes. It works for me so I consistently buy that brand. And with shampoo, well, I am that woman at the hair salon who always opens the bottle of shampoo and conditioner and sniffs before buying them, and who always declines hairspray. Products that smell like fruit, coconut, vanilla, aloe, herbs, pine, and some kinds of flowers (but not lilac, lily, or lavender) all seem to be fine. I usually can tell just by sniffing.

So this brings us back to hair that smells like food. Somehow, it seems odd, culturally, for people to be walking around with hair that smells like pina colada, lip gloss that smells like vanilla latte, or sunscreen that smells of coconut cream pie. This strange preoccupation with products that smell like food extends to candles, soap, and markers (felt pens). In an era when our food is becoming less and less like real food, our personal products are becoming more like food. If my hair smells like dessert all day, is that scent going to work on my subconscious so that I will be more likely to order a piece of cheesecake or head to the drive-through for an iced chai latte? Is the proliferation of products that smell like sugary foods contributing in some small way to the epidemic of obesity?

I am sure that the marketing departments know exactly which scents will tempt us to buy a particular product, and that the chemists are busy cooking up new concoctions to attract the nose. The strong florals and musks popular 40-50 years ago gave way to herbal combinations in the 70's and 80's, and now the trend is towards the smells of tropical fruits, chocolate, sugar, and vanilla.

Edible hair. At least it doesn't give me a headache.     


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coming to Know a Place

When I am travelling, everything I see from the vehicle window is spectacle. The mountains may appear high and jagged, the river clear and green in the shadows, and the village quaint and shabby. But it is all a passing scene, a mere image that I have not interacted with except as brief observer.

To come to know a place, I have found that I have to stop, explore it, and have experiences there. An example of this is Waterton Lakes National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, adjoining Glacier National Park in Montana. I had heard people say it was a wonderful park, but I did not have a chance to visit it until two and a half years ago, in February. We drove into the park on a grey windy day. The townsite looked almost abandoned. The lake was grey, and the wind had whipped the water into whitecaps that were crashing on the shore. The mountains were tall but without definition in the dull light. We stepped out of the car for a closer look, but only for a moment as the wind was raw.

"Well we've seen that now." It did not seem to be such a wonderful place.

The next time Rob and I came to the park was on the Canada Day long weekend at the beginning of July. We drove to the park with my son and the two dogs, planning to do a day hike. It was a hot sunny day.

The park looked completely different from the first time. It was full of tourists jamming the streets of the little townsite, wandering up and down, eating ice cream. The huge campground by the lake was full, with kids running and biking everywhere. The mountains looked glorious and dramatic in the bright sunshine.

From our map book, we had picked out a hike that had its trailhead right near the townsite, the Bertha  Lake hike. We had a bit of difficulty finding the trailhead as we initially attempted to pass through the large campground rather than circumnavigating it. Once on the trail, we found there were so many people there, it was more like a stroll on a city sidewalk than a wilderness experience. Also, we had to keep the dogs on the leash, as that is the rule in national parks. Although the scenery was lovely, we ended up only walking as far as the falls, then turning back. It was not the most enjoyable hiking experience.

So you can see that my first two experiences Waterton Lakes National Park were not that positive. However, we have come back many times since then and have discovered many wonderful hiking and cycling trails. We have had lunch at the Prince of Wales Hotel. We have taken a boat cruise down the lake to Goat Haunt, Montana. We have camped in all three campgrounds, each very different.

With each different experience in the park, we have come to know more about its landscape and history. We have hiked its trails, camped in the backcountry, eaten at various restaurants. We have seen it in different seasons, and in interacting with the place, it has become woven into our memories. I now have a very different and much enriched mental map of the park. It has indeed become a special place to us.

I have described my experience of getting to know Waterton Lakes park as an example of the process of developing a sense of place. I believe that a person can only come to know a place through repeated experiences in that place. Too often in our travels, we race through places without stopping, or only go to attend one event. To get to know a place, a person has to slow down, walk and observe, talk to people, and have experiences there.  The world seems to be more inviting and less alienating when we engage with people and places than when we merely observe from a car window or see it from our screens.


Cycling at Waterton Lakes along the Kootenai Brown trail.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Retirement Dilemma

Somehow, I never thought this would happen to me. Retirement did not seem to be a possibility, or at least not something worth thinking about as it clearly was a decision that would be made very far, far in the future. Yet somehow time has sneaked by, and I am beginning to think about it. And now that I am thinking about it, the decision seems complicated.

There are a number of factors that led me to not think about retirement. One is that I had a job that I greatly enjoyed -- a job that was not just work but a vocation that engaged me and became a meaningful life purpose. I can remember saying to a friend that I thought I would never retire. Maybe I would slow down or cut back a bit, but not fully retire.

Another factor was kids. I started my family late, and my youngest just left home three years ago. Each one of them has attended university. As long as I had children at home, and then university bills to pay, retirement was not in the cards.

Finances, of course, are a big consideration in timing one's retirement. In reading retirement literature, sometimes it seems that finances are the dominant consideration for most people. How much pension or other savings is enough for a comfortable retirement? Well, that depends on how long you are likely to live, what kind of lifestyle you desire in retirement (e.g., lots of international travel or being a homebody), whether you have debt, and whether you plan to supplement your retirement with some paid work. There are lots of components to juggle.

For me, a number of these aspects have changed recently, and also some unexpected factors have entered the mix.

Since I "crossed over to the dark side" of administration, my work has become less enjoyable, and therefore no longer something I feel motivated to continue doing into old age. Also, because my administrative work requires me to work extremely long hours, I now have little time to pursue other interests, like writing, art, gardening, and so on. The deferral of these other passions is building a pent up need to make time for them, and I can do this best by stopping work.

My youngest only has one more year of university. So soon this will not be a limiting factor. I have made some good financial decisions in recent years, which has made early retirement a real possibility. Some things I hadn't anticipated also have begun to make retirement loom larger in my mind. One is that my husband is retired, and I would like to spend more time with him, doing things together that we enjoy, while we are both healthy and young enough. Another big change in these last two years is that we now have grandchildren. Both grandsons live far away. If I were retired, I could travel to see them more often, or we could even move closer to them.

So you can see that I am beginning to inch towards retirement in my thoughts.

But it isn't so easy. I have found that my work has me in its grip. My very identity is in large part defined by my profession, and I fear that I will lose some important part of myself if I retire. There is also the fear of the unknown. What will I do? How will I fill my hours? What is the plan? For so many years, I have been striving forward, always climbing the next mountain. How can I give up that way of being?


Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Job Well Done

Work has never been just a job to me. Rather, it is and always has been woven into the fabric of my life. This predilection to deeply commit myself to my work probably started way back when I began school at age six. School is the work of a child, and I did the same thing then; I embraced school and its activities with joy and intense engagement.

I have written here before about how work takes such a big chunk of my time and attention that it often has thrown my life out of balance. I have written about the distress I feel when I have not enough time to do things I enjoy or am passionate about because I am giving the biggest part of my time to work. I also have written about the ways in which excessive work has a negative impact on my health. But I don't think I have described what I get out of work, and why it is such a strong focus and motivator for me. The fact is, I don't think I fully know the answer to that question.

This week at work, I was trying to get things finished up prior to my summer vacation. It has been a long hard year, and I now find myself in a state of exhaustion and very much in need of a break. Usually in decades past, things would slow down over the summer as students left, the schedule of meetings eased, and most people took some holiday time. But in recent years, as everyone tries to do more with less, big projects and hiring schedules have been pushed into the summer months as there no longer is enough time to complete everything in the Fall, Winter, and Spring. So, as always happens in my line of work, my last week before holidays has been especially intense.

I made a list of "must do's" -- those projects and tasks I simply had to complete before I left. These included extremely overdue reports, budget decisions, performance appraisals, requests to review and provide feedback on or to approve so that others' work would not be stalled while I was away, and meetings and training to transition certain responsibilities to others to manage in my absence. But, hearing that I was about to take some time away, staff and colleagues rushed to send things to me "to take a quick look at" before I left. (Most of this extra work came pouring in via email.) So suddenly I had a much bigger pile of work to complete in that last week. This happens every time. I know that when I come back, there will be a huge heap of work waiting for me too, all of it seemingly urgent.

So where is the joy in all of this?

Well, for me, it is satisfying to work through a complicated problem, whether interpersonal in nature or operational, and find a solution that allows people to start working forward again. I enjoy mentoring people, such a staff member stepping into a new managerial role, or a new hire just joining the institution. I find it interesting to take the lead in drawing others into a team to work together on developing new approaches or programs, and I love to conceptualize and design new approaches from high level systems and abstract models right down to small practical procedures. Conceptualizing, seeing the big picture, problem-solving, synthesizing, building, creating, and doing it all with people -- it's personally satisfying, and I believe it makes a positive difference, at least in my little part of the world.

After a busy week, from 3:30 pm onward on Friday afternoon, having finally finished the last meeting of the day, I carefully worked through one task after another. I wrote requests, suggestions, explanations, and instructions. Then I hit send, put a line through that task on my list, and went on to the next. Yes, I had to jettison some of the tasks I had intended to complete. They will be waiting for me when I come, back. I set my proxies, drafted my out-of office message, recorded my voice mail, filed everything that was on my desk. At 8 pm, I turned off the light, locked the door, and left.

It took a week's worth of 12-hour days, but I left feeling it was a job well done.
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