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.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Reclaiming the Backyard for a Food Garden

The house that we bought two years ago has a lovely backyard. Most notably, it has a number of trees that provide shade and protection from the wind. As well, many species of birds live in our trees, or in those of our neighbours to the west. Our trees include a large spruce tree, a cedar tree, an elm tree, a couple of decorative flowering trees, and an ancient crabapple tree that has gone wild. 

Clearly, the former owners had the backyard professionally landscaped. The sunny centre of the yard is  taken up with a large patio, fire pit, and a narrow strip of grass. In the summer, we often barbecue out there, and then in the evening build a bonfire and sit around it looking into the flames. Along the back and side fence, and behind one side of the house are raised beds, planted with shrubs and shade and drought-tolerant perennial plants. 

It is a beautiful yard and I really like it. However, I found one thing lacking: a spot for a vegetable garden. Because of all the trees and also because the backyard is on the north side of the house, much of the yard is quite shady. Also, I did not want to disturb the aesthetics of the landscaping or the functionality of the patio. However, I very much wanted a vegetable garden. 

The first summer, I planted a few vegetables in amongst the shrubs in one of the sunniest raised beds. They did not thrive. I harvested almost nothing. I analyzed the problems as too shady; poor soil; and that the shrubs sucked up all the water. 

The second summer, I dug up the shrubs in that bed and moved them to the front yard. Rob pruned a nearby tree so that it did not shade the bed quite so much. I added compost and steer manure to the heavy clay soil. The bed was fully devoted to vegetables. 

Once again, it was not a very successful garden. The tomatoes, Japanese eggplants, carrots, and herbs grew well, but not much else. Part of the problem was the poor soil. Another problem was that we went travelling for a month, leaving the garden to be watered by someone else. I seem to do this every summer -- put in efforts planting a garden, then leave for main part of the summer. 

Also, last summer, Rob built three tall narrow planters out of pipe that we put along the edge of the patio. We planted them with strawberries which seemed to thrive. Even though it was their first year, they bore an autumn crop of berries. Unfortunately, the plants did not survive the cold winter. In the pipes, their roots were too exposed. 

Since we have moved here, I have wanted to put in some raspberry canes and some rhubarb. Also, we needed to find a place for strawberries. So I have taken over another one of the raised beds. Rob cut down the decorative tree that took up most of the bed. Although it was a pretty tree, it had invasive roots that prevented anything else from growing in that bed. It shaded the vegetable garden more than I liked. Also, at some point in the past, it had been pruned badly with the main lead cut away. It had a double trunk and put up many suckers. It also attracted tent caterpillars and ants. So although I was sad to see the tree go, I now have another little food garden. 


This photo shows the new bed, and in the background, my vegetable patch. I planted most of the new garden yesterday. The strawberries are at the front, the rhubarb in the middle, and the raspberries along the fence. I have planted a container of annual flowers, and put it on the stump. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lost Self

There is a special place that I have returned to whenever I have had the chance over the years. I don't know if you have had the experience of coming to a certain geographical location, and immediately being filled with a deep sense of peace and internal harmony. This place is like that for me. Moreover, it just feels right, as if I am meant to be here. I have a bond with the land. Each path, each vista, is a familiar friend, and welcomes me back although it might have been years since my last visit.

The place I am writing about is Banff in the Canadian Rockies. More specifically, it is not just the town of Banff, or even the spectacular Banff National Park that has this effect on me. It is The Banff Centre, formerly called The Banff Centre for Fine Arts.

The Banff Centre is located up on the side of Tunnel Mountain above the frenzy of tourists and hotels down below in the town. There are visual artists' studios, and musicians, and writing programs. Readings, dance performances, free jazz concerts, galleries, and lectures. And conferences of various sorts. Mostly, I have come here to attend conferences related to my profession and work.

Every time I come here, I get a little glimpse of my lost self. That lost self, the creative me, is elusive. She imagines herself holed up in one of the little artist huts, painting. Or writing. Or just detaching from the greedy teeth and needy maw of work, and having the time and solitude to think and reflect. As I walk through the beauty of the quiet grounds surrounded by spectacular peaks and breathing in the scent of pine trees, she flits into view briefly bringing a surge of of hope and possibility. And then I am sitting in my next meeting or conference session, and she is gone again.

My lost self. The self my busy dutiful life doesn't have time for. Most of the time, it is easy to forget that self in the busy whirl of daily tasks and obligations. But when I come here to The Banff Centre, I discover that she is still inside, wishing and hurting.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Blocking In

I have just finished blocking in a new painting. I am working from a photo that I took one evening in the city of Lethbridge, Canada. Looking west beyond some buildings as the sun was setting, I saw the huge prairie sky studded with jelly bean shaped orange and apricot coloured clouds. In the foreground, dark buildings, parked cars, and trees were silhouetted against the colourful sky. Architectural features in the near foreground, such as wooden planters and a low retaining wall, created interesting shadows and reflected some of the orange glow. There also were patches of snow.


At this stage, I have blocked in the main areas of colour in the sky, as well as the dark buildings and foreground. Mostly, I have not started putting in the trees, except for a few dark marks placing some tree trunks relative to the other components of the scene. I will want to do more work on the sky first, and then paint the trees up into the sky. 

Although I am fairly happy with the shapes of the buildings, especially the one on the left hand side, I am really struggling to make the dark foreground dark enough. In my reference photo, everything but the sky is very dark, and even the bit of snow in the middle lower section is a mid-range value. 

This is a common problem for me. I tend to want to paint everything in high to mid values avoiding the dark tones, and in high key bright and light colours, avoiding shades of grey. But if the darks aren't dark enough, then the light and bright elements will not contrast enough to make them sparkle. So I have set myself the challenge of a night scene. I will keep working away at getting the darks darker. I am using raw umber, ultramarine blue, and paynes grey to make the dark values.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dig, Dig, Dig!

When he was first learning to talk, one of my grandson's first sentences was, "Dig, dig, dig!" That is exactly what I have been doing this weekend -- dig, dig, digging. The statutory holiday Monday on the May long weekend always falls on or just before the 24th of May. We used to call the 24th of May "Victoria Day" in recognition of Queen Victoria's birthday. This long weekend, that for most people signals the functional beginning of summer, always poses a dilemma. Should we go camping, or should we stay home and garden?

This year, as usual, gardening won out. I have lived in three Canadian provinces; on the coast, in the mountains, and on the prairies; in the northern and southern parts of the country; and in agricultural zones ranging from 2 to 7. Yet everywhere that I have lived, the local lore is that May long weekend is the time to put the garden in.

We have had a long cold spring, and until this weekend I had not even begun to clean out the garden beds. Also, when we moved in two years ago, I never really set up my gardening shed properly. So yesterday, I started off my gardening season by pulling all the old dead plants out of the vegetable garden (a task that I should have done last fall), and putting them in the compost. I threw down grass seed on all the dog-created bare patches in the back lawn. And then I cleaned and organized my gardening shed.

Clean and Tidy Garden Shed
I also started planning my garden. I went online and read up on organic gardening, growing potatoes, how to improve heavy clay soil, what type of raspberry canes do best in this area, shade tolerant vegetables, companion planting, and the recommended planting times for vegetables by seed or transplant in this climatic zone.

Today, I went off to the garden centre and bought gypsum, worm castings, and organic fertilizer made of fish meal and ground seaweed. I need to add soil amendments because the natural soil is very heavy, dense clay, especially at the lower end of the garden, and most of the vegetables I attempted to grow last year did not thrive. Only the tomatoes, which I had augmented well with compost, and the herbs in a sunny corner did really well.

Back from the garden centre, I started by pulling the few weeds out of the garden. Then I spread about 6 kg. of gypsum on the soil. Then I added four wheelbarrow loads of my homemade compost to the garden, spreading it on at a depth of about an inch. That used up my entire supply of compost. We have another pile that will be ready in three to four weeks, and a new pile that we have just started. Although we are dedicated composters, we just cannot make enough for all our gardens.

Next I turned over the entire vegetable garden with the garden spade. This was the dig, dig, dig part. However, when my grandson said it, he did not mean shovelling garden soil. He was referring to his toys, a caterpillar and a front-end loader.

It is heavy work turning over clay. However, I am pleased to report that there are lots of earthworms in the garden -- a good thing.

Freshly Dug Veggie Garden
By the time I finished, the shadows were getting long and my back was sore. It was very satisfying, though, because tomorrow I can start to PLANT! Digging and planting is always my favourite part of gardening. . . .well, along with picking, cooking, and eating the organic produce.


My Helper
Kate was my trusty helper. Actually, I think she was just waiting for me to come in the house and feed her some supper.

The Task Master
Oliver assisted by snoozing nearby on the sun-warmed brick.


Creative Commons License
This work by Dr Sock Writes Here is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.