14 February, 2008

~ Something I did not know about Jell-O ~

I know a lot about Jell-O, but something I did not know is that a ramekin, just a 1/2 cup ramekin, falling from the second shelf in the cupboard (I swear it leaped!), will strike a bowl (actually an 8 cup Pyrex measuring cup) of Jell-O (quantity of four cups at that point) at the dissolving-in-boiling-water stage, with enough force to: a) shatter the ramekin; b) empty the bowl of more than one full cup of liquid (so said the measurements on the side of the cup); c) spray that more than one full cup of liquid a distance greater than four feet in all directions. Including up.

Did you know that?

Until this afternoon, I did not know that. Good thing I was wearing a black shirt.

I did not take pictures because: a) the Jell-O was running everywhere and, as it was not yet dissolved, it was drying and hardening in seconds; b) Jell-O stains light grey countertops (which I have)....especially when it is cherry-grape Jell-O (which is what I was making); c) having just had a Jell-O shower, I was too drippy and sticky to run through the house to get my camera bag; d) and was WAY too drippy and sticky to handle my camera.

My youngest son heard the noise and came to see what was going on. "What happened, Mum? OOOooooohhhh! Whoa!" This brought his next older brother to the kitchen asking, "What's going on? Holy crap, Lois! Gross! What is that?" They're such helpful boys. (rolling eyes)

My light grey counters are stained, but my walls, cupboards, floor, cannisters, oil bottle, toaster, taps, kettle, stove, bla, bla, bla, are clean and de-stickified. I have a suspicion I will be finding Jell-O spots for days.

Peace ~

11 February, 2008

~ Lessons in horse sense ~

I share this today because Kate loves horses as much as I do.
Peace ~

I have spent three days trying to accomplish what normally takes less than two hours. Ordinarily, I have a thought in my head, I have an idea, a phrase or a sentence, I sit down with it, hand it over to my Muse and, before a hundred and twenty minutes have passed, something approaching a column has been written. That’s how it works ordinarily. This week, as though to illustrate to me that I am not on the road to mastering the principles of my craft (moreover, that I may have wandered completely off the map), all of my sitting down and handing over has come to nothing. I have spent hour after tedious hour playing with words, coaxing them, manhandling them, trying to turn them into something resembling a cohesive expression of thought. They have fought me every step of the way. I have no less than five arrested attempts to prove it.

It’s curious how every day, from the very moment we are born, we are presented with opportunities to learn lessons and life skills. In today’s fruitless battle with words, I had forgotten one of my greatest lessons. In fact, this one has been absent from my mind for a long time...perhaps this literary frustration was just the event needed to remind me of what I knew as a child.

When I was nine and ten years old, my horse Pebbles (no, I didn’t choose that name but because she had learned to answer to it, I kept it...rather, she kept it) and I spent every possible waking moment together. To my everlasting delight (also, I expect, to shut me up), my father had traded our VW van to a local farmer for a miserable, cranky, neglected old nag, prone to biting, kicking and balking. Somehow, the total adoration of the child that was me loved her back to kindness.

In 1973, a VW van could buy a horse, but not the saddle that went with it, so I rode bareback. I did have a bridle (purchased from the Co-op in the next town with my bottle-picking money), but tended not to use it once Pebbles had become more docile—I had once slipped the bridle over my own head and taken the bit in my own mouth and decided that, because it was disagreeable to me, it must be disagreeable for my horse as well. I would clip a lead (or sometimes just tie a bit of twine) to her halter, haul myself up on her sun-hot back and be gone. “Stay where I can see you,” my mother would say and, because we lived on the prairie, I could wander miles from home and still be seen.

Because I trusted her, the day Pebbles stopped short in the empty field behind our house, and refused to budge, I knew something was truly wrong. What I discovered was a coil of barbed wire hidden in the long prairie grass. The wire had curled up and around her legs, was pressing against her belly and was tangled in her tail. Pebbles and I were trapped in a barbed wire snare. I called for help, but who is there to hear in the middle of an August afternoon in a town of only 82 souls? Everyone with any sense was over at Wood’s Garage sipping Cokes in the shade (that would be the kids old enough to drive—all three of them) or down at Eldon’s Meat Market smoking pipes and drinking coffee (that would be the men) or over at Helen’s General Store smoking cigarettes and drinking tea (that would be the women) The kids (including the teenagers, there were only 14 of us in town—and six of them were from the same family!) were headed home for snacks of Freshie and Rice Krispie squares, just like I had been. With no aid forthcoming, the only thing for me to do was to slide off Pebbles’ back into the barbed wire nest, bare legs, yellow thongs and all, and go for help. So I did, first explaining to Pebbles how important it was that she remain perfectly still so as to avoid slicing open her pretty legs. She blinked her long, black lashes as though in understanding.

There were no adults about our house—as I say, they were at Eldon’s or Helen’s...or maybe even Wood’s – so I found the biggest pair of wire cutters on the property and headed back to extricate my entangled horse who, I discovered, had not moved so much as a hair. It had not occurred to me to change from shorts to jeans, nor had it occurred to me to trade my thongs for runners, so before five minutes were up, I was covered in scratches, cuts and pokes. As I struggled with the wire, Pebbles kept careful watch. When at last I freed her left front leg, she lifted it gingerly and stood, balanced on three legs, until I had cleared a safe space for her to set it down again. We worked like this for over an hour, ten year old me bleeding from dozens of minor wounds, fourteen year old Pebbles watching intently, helping as best she could and occasionally licking a particularly sore cut on my leg. By the time I had cleared away the last of the wire and freed my horse, my hands were blistered and cut, my back was sunburned where my shirt and shorts had not met, and I was bleeding from my shoulders to my fingertips and from my thighs to my toes. I couldn’t heave myself onto her back, so Pebbles and I walked home through the long grass, avoiding the thistles and gopher holes. The whole interminable way, the horse that had once nipped at everyone just for the sheer pleasure of it, rested her head on my shoulder and licked my arm. I carried pail after pail of cool water out to her for drinking and pail after pail of Dettol water out for washing her legs. I couldn’t actually see any cuts, but I figured it was the right thing to do. Besides, she had earned a wash and a rubdown.

When the adults came home, it was my turn to be washed with Dettol water. My mother bandaged the deepest gouges on my legs and wrapped my hands in gauze before I walked (wearing jeans and runners) back through the field with my father to gather up all of the barbed wire for safe and proper disposal.

I don’t know what happened to Pebbles. We moved the following winter and she was sold for $35 to a farm family with three children. I hope they were good to her. I hope they loved her as much as I did. As much as I still do. I hope she loved them in return. My father told me he had looked for her once, many years ago, when I was again keeping horses and would have had a place for her, but she was gone.

Over the past three days, I have tried too hard to write what I had to say. I didn’t stop to realise that, sometimes what I have to say and what needs to be said are not the same thing. I had forgotten the lessons I learned that scorching, summer afternoon on the prairie—lessons of trust and tenacity, lessons of patience, lessons of gratitude and of love.

The last line of one of the books I loved best when I ran barefoot on the prairie seems particularly appropriate today...even if I must misquote by changing the horse’s gender. “If there’s a hoss heaven, please God, rest her soul.”


Amen to that.

05 February, 2008

~ Becoming a Wordsmith ~

Before I even understood them, I was fascinated by written words. I did not know the names of the individual letters, nor the sounds of any of them were meant to make, but I knew that whenever these figures were strung together in particular combinations, they represented communication. I knew that one person could set down a series of these figures which another person could look at later….and understand. It was magic, and I wanted to know how to do it.

They tell me I was speaking in complete sentences by the age of twenty-two months. They tell me I would ask to have new words, long words, complex words repeated until I had learned them for myself. They tell me I would ask the name of everything I saw and ask the meaning of every word I heard. I must have been particularly insistent (read: annoying) about my desire to learn this form of magic, because I was taught to read when I was four years old (I would be prepared to bet it was so my mother could have some respite from my endless questions and my unceasing requests to be read to) and they tell me that, once I had been taught to read, I also wanted to know “how do you spell that?” They tell me I announced, at the age of five, “What an extraordinary day I’ve had!” They tell me (and I well remember) that at the age of six I announced “When I grow up, I’m going to be a writer!” Shortly after this pronouncement, our neighbour (an artist of considerable talent, prone to tragic bouts of depression and occasional self-mutilation...a perfectly fascinating man for a child to know!) made me the gift of a 1928 Underwood typewriter. “If you’re going to be a writer,” he told me, “you’re going to need a writer’s tools.” At about the same time, my grandparents gave me a set of encyclopaedias which had been published before my father was born. They fed my addiction. My obsession with words grew, quite naturally, into an obsession with books.

I read everything I could get my hands on. When there were no stories left to read, I read the dictionary, studying language origins and root words, looking up the definition of words within definitions, and flipping to every “see also:”, using pronunciation guides to figure out how to wrap my tongue around polysyllabic words with seemingly too few vowels or an excess of consonants. I was positively beside myself when I discovered a thesaurus. The rules of phonics intrigued me, especially the exceptions to the rules, which appealed to my abstract sensibilities.

The library my mother used to take me to was one of those beautiful, nineteenth-century stone creations with hardwood floors buffed to a high shine, and ceilings that stopped somewhere just short of the sky. It smelled gloriously of floor wax and wood polish and books. On hundreds of dark shelves stood thousands of books—new books with colourful jackets and crisp pages, old books with gold-stamped leather covers and heavy linen pages cut with paper knives; there were thin volumes to fit easily in one hand and massive tomes which had to be heaved onto one of the elaborately carved tables for inspection. I would sometimes (out of sight of the severely disapproving, birdish librarian who wore her spectacles on a beaded chain and who never put her arms into her cardigan, but wore it over her shoulders with the top button fastened under her wattled chin) reverently extracted one of the greatly worn books from a shelf, held it to my ear as I opened it, hearing the arthritic complaint of the spine. I would fan the pages carefully, bathing my face in wafts of its’ cool, musty scent before burying my nose in the book, smelling dust and paper and ancient ink, almost believing (and fervently wishing) I could draw the story into myself. In a carpeted and brightly lit room in the basement, the children’s books waited in bright rows on white shelves. My favourite (borrowed at least a dozen times) was an alphabet book which began, “A—acrobats eating asparagus…” Once home with my armload of treasure, I would hurry to my room and throw myself across the bed to lie belly-down under the window, reading. And reading. And reading. An adult of whom I was not particularly fond once shook her head at me—the child with her nose buried in yet another book—chiding, “You’re going to ruin your eyesight with all that reading!” I worried about that for a while, until I discovered the story of Louis Braille in one of my encyclopaedias. I felt reassured knowing that not even ruining my eyesight to the point of blindness could stop me from reading.

When I was small, we had no television. Most of the people my parents knew lived in television-free homes, as well, but however many toys and puzzles and games there were, I was always drawn to the books. I learned more about some people from their bookshelves than I did from conversations with them (or from eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations with them). I still feel uncomfortable in homes where there is no evidence of reading material. My own bookshelf residents (there are books in absolutely every room in our house) have been grouped according to subject, in an arrangement loosely based on the Dewey Decimal Classification System. The shelves are full—overfull—and I have boxes of books stored away in the basement. I need more shelves. My husband says I need fewer books. I offered to make a trade—I would reduce the number of books I harbour (“After all, how may books can you read all at once and do you ever actually LOOK at most of them?”) if he would reduce the number of vintage wood planes he has gathered (“After all, what do you actually USE them for? Don’t you have two routers?”).

We are currently in a position of stalemate.

Though he does not share my passion for the written word, my husband does pander to it. On gift-giving occasions, I almost always receive a certificate from one of my favourite book stores. Other people give me these, as well (My favourite people!), and I hoard them away in a Very Safe Place until it is Just The Right Time. There is a tremendous thrill in walking through the doors, knowing I can have any book which catches my eye, any book which feels right in my hand, any book whose prose fills my mouth with the round resonance of its’ vowels or strikes my tongue with the staccato sharpness of its’ consonants. My family knows that once I enter the temple of books, I will be lost to them for an indefinite period. One of my children once resorted to lying (tugging on my coat and entreating, “Mum! Dad just answered the cell phone and he says we have to leave right now!” The cell phone was, at that moment, in my own pocket) in an attempt to prise me from a display of out-of-print books.

Once, for no reason at all, my husband bought a book he “knew I would love”. I don’t remember much of the plot, but the cover is embossed with medallions and scallops and scrolling which feels marvellous under my fingers—a tactile delight! He’s right, I do love it.

He once made a four hundred kilometre trip to an antique shop in order to surprise me with a century old edition of a favourite Mark Twain volume (how wonderful is that?). He may not share my passion, he may not understand it, but he encourages it and, it seems, has resigned himself to living with it.

My latest favourite quote reads, “The worst thing about new books is that they keep us from reading the old ones.” Quite so. But let me have a try at them all, anyway.