Monday, January 9, 2017

Go Amuse Yourself

Do kids ever say they are bored these days? I'm not sure. Even young children seem to be online all the time, gaming, texting and whatever else. However, I imagine that most readers of this blog will remember the days when kids would say "I'm bored". And you all know what the answer from our parents was..."go find something to amuse yourself with".

For me, that usually meant reading or drawing. I did have three siblings, but they were much older than me. And I did have school friends, but they lived a fair distance from me and I wasn't able to get out and play with them as often as I would have liked. We lived on a busy street and although we all walked everywhere back then, most parents didn't want their kids walking by themselves to my home on one of the busiest streets in the city. 

The end result of all of this was that I became quite able to amuse myself with hobbies and imagination. I'm not sure whether I started out as an introvert, but I sure ended up that way.

Something interesting that I've noticed is that some of the same challenges apply as we age. We often have to find something to fill our time. I was a little shocked recently when it occurred to me that I have been retired for nine years now. Part of me wonders, where did the years go? And part of me is pleasantly surprised by the fact that I have been quite happily amusing myself for almost a decade.

I wasn't unhappy when I became an empty nester. And I certainly wasn't unhappy to sell my business and retire nine years ago. There are so many things to do! And never enough time to do them.

However, that is not to say that every day is a day of excitement and adventure. 

Some days I have to follow that old advice and find something to amuse myself with. One of the good things about being a photographer is that I have lots and lots of raw material to play with. Even bad photographs can turn into something interesting with a little bit of imagination and a tad of luck.

I am an anomaly in this age of selfie taking, but was tasked to take one for a photography challenge our club was assigned last summer. I had a vision in mind that I wanted to create, and took a trip to my local Frenchy's to find a skirt that would billow in the wind. I couldn't find what I was looking for, and had to settle for something different. Not quite my usual style, it was leopard patterned sheer with a small black slip. It made quite a statement. With my apologies to the original owner, I wasn't about to wear it until the moment I was ready to take the photograph. 

Even though this was a selfie exercise, my husband was willing to tag along so we headed to Hirtle's Beach with the dogs, camera, tripod, and outfit. I picked a spot and pulled my new to me skirt over my jeans and set up my camera on the timer mode. John held the dogs and watched me as I ran back and forth in my leopard skirt and tried to get two scarves to flutter in the wind. A lack of wind, incorrect exposure setting, a photo bombing dog, and the fact that I forgot to take off my Blundstone boots, all contributed to a set of selfie images that weren't quite the artistic vision I had in mind. 
The "before" photo - too dark, photo bombed by Riley, not enough wind, generally a bad photo!

I did manage to capture something similar to what I had in my mind's eye when we had a second excursion to Beach Meadows a few days later. No photo bombing dogs, and a better location suggested by my husband helped me achieve the look I was going for.

Now, what has that all got to do with where we started in this article? Well, on a recent snowy day with no tasks that needed to be done, I was finding something to amuse myself with. I was organizing all my images from last year and came across the photos from my selfie session. Since playing with photographs is a lot more interesting than digitally labeling and filing them, I picked one and started editing. The photo bombing dog got cropped. The clunky boots got cropped. I adjusted the exposure and decided to discard the colour. And then I played with a preset effect on some computer software. Voila, I had an image I was happy with, creating something out of an image I was going to discard.
The same photo with a bit of editing - I was going to discard the original photo, but I love it now!
I know not everyone is a photographer, and not everyone has the same luxury of time. But now and then we all get bored and need to amuse ourselves. And even a boring bit of organizing can turn into something interesting to focus on.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Blank Page

Published in The Chronicle Herald - Nova Scotian on January 16, 2017 and the South Shore Breaker on January 11, 2017
Facing a new year is a little like looking at an empty journal. Its exciting because its fresh and new, open to all possibilities and with the potential of greatness.

But it can be a little intimidating too. Some of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to create something wonderful and memorable. Bigger and better than last year. A new me, a new future, a new start towards surpassing past results.

We want to get in shape, lose weight, have big vacations, accomplish spectacular goals. Anything seems possible at the start of a new year.

But what if we looked at that blank page and decided that we don
t have to fill it with a story that climbs to the top of the New York Times best sellers list? What if we contented ourselves with a quiet read full of every day things and every day life?

In years past, I used to spend part of New Year
s Day writing my goals for the coming year. My husband could never understand this and wondered why I had to write things down, why I couldnt "just be". I'm starting to come around to his way of thinking. Maybe its my advancing years, or maybe its just that twenty five years with this man has got me thinking more like him. (oh, the horror).

Seriously, I
m not sure Ill ever totally stop my list making. Thats just part of who I am. A planner. A dreamer. A believer that sometimes writing things down can be the first step toward dreams coming true. On the other hand, a long list of "to dos" can become an anchor that weighs us down and holds us back from living in the moment. If we take lists too seriously, it can backfire and become de-motivating and disheartening if we dont accomplish our goals. If our lists are too demanding, they can set us up for failure and become a tool for our minds to reinforce a feeling that we just arent good enough.

If we lack self confidence, a long list of difficult goals could lead to more stress and less faith in our abilities. The key for me when making my own list is to keep it real, keep it light and manageable, and keep it personal. And you know what? I did make a list last New Year
s Day, but I have no idea where it went. My almost total lack of memory means that I dont know if I accomplished what I wanted to or not. I guess Ill mark that down as a success. My list obviously didnt give me any self imposed stress!
If you had told me at the beginning of last year that I would write and publish thirty five articles, I would have laughed at the crazy thought.
I do remember one of my goals was to create a photo book of my favourite images to commemorate the end of five years of drug therapy for cancer. Although we did celebrate five years of being considered cancer free, I didnt work on a book. Instead, I went down a totally different road and started writing a weekly column for this paper. If you had told me at the beginning of last year that I would write and publish thirty five articles, I would have laughed at the crazy thought. Its an example for me that no matter how much I plan, being open to what the world throws at me can bring me great satisfaction and personal growth. It can also bring trepidation and fear, but that can be a good thing in small doses. If we accomplish something that scares us a little, it can stretch us and boost our confidence.

Some people like to give themselves an annual challenge, and one of mine was to read 50 books each year. Then I thought that setting a goal to read a specific number of books made it seem too much like a chore to tick off my to do list. I thought maybe it was more important to read at no particular pace and no particular time. Some days I sit and read for hours, and some days I don
t get a chance. Since I am a list maker, I keep track of the books that I have finished and make a note of which authors I enjoyed. And I do try to alternate my need for familiar authors with stretching my mind to new authors and writing styles. The library is truly one of my favourite places.

A lot of photographers join daily challenges, but I have never jumped on that bandwagon. Well, I should be honest and say I did try it briefly in the past, but stopped fairly quickly. I find that having to take specific photographs doesn
t usually work with the way I like to capture images.

As I contemplate 2017, and look at the blank page that is my coming year, I wonder what it will bring. If I was to write a list for myself, what would I like to see happen?

Of course we will continue to day trip around Nova Scotia with our dogs, traveling the coastline and finding new beaches to explore. I hope to finally visit the Kejimkujik Seaside Adjunct this year, and maybe capture an image of some seals. Another item on my photographic wish list is to find a snowy owl. 

At the top of my list will be - "Just Be" - and perhaps that will be the biggest challenge of all.
At the start of a new year, some of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make lists and set goals. bigger and better than last year. Perhaps more of us should try to “Just Be”.
Whatever your hopes and dreams are for the coming year, whether you write them down or keep them in your head, I hope this year brings you the things you truly need in life - good friendships, laughter and love. For those are truly good things for us to focus on.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Future File

published in the South Shore Breaker - December 28, 2016
It’s almost the end of the year and you know what that means. It means that many of us spend time coming up with resolutions for the New Year. Some people will resolve to lose weight or maybe stop smoking. Some will make promises to spend less time online and more time with the family. But I won’t be making any resolutions.

We have a different New Years tradition in our family. It has been years since we have gone to a New Years Eve party. We spend the evening at home, usually with a few family members. We have a slow leisurely meal, a fondue or something similar. And we spend some time with our "Future File". 
The Harley family's Future File has turned into a memory file, a tool to record memories for the past year.
Im not sure why we called it a future file when we started the tradition twenty three years ago. But we did, and we actually have a file folder with the words printed on it so the name has stuck. Our file folder only comes out on New Years Eve, and then it gets put away again until the following year. 
In the beginning, we did make a few predictions for the coming year and then we reviewed them the following New Years Eve to see which ones came true. There are always family debates and lively discussions about whether to give someones predictions a point or not. No points are given to "predictions" that were known to be facts. Well be going on a vacation, well be getting a new computer, that type of thing is not eligible for points.

But mostly our Future File has turned into a memory file, a tool for us to record our memories for the past year. Some of us keep it short and sweet, and some of us fill a page. We have a scribe, so each person talks about their memories and we all get to listen and share in the recollections.

We start the process by reviewing what was recorded in years past. We have twenty three years of recorded memories, so we pick a couple of years at random and read out the things that were written that year. We always include where we were and who was there. Sometimes we spent the evening with friends at a restaurant, but usually we were at home with family. Often reading notes from past years brings back memories that would otherwise be completely forgotten over time.

We also talk about and record our biggest surprise for the year. Sometimes its something lovely, like the time the whole family arranged for our son to come for a surprise visit - the first time we had seen him in almost two years. Sometimes its something tragic, like the unexpected death of a friend or family member. Our file shows the ups and downs of life, the sorrow as well as the joy. Important milestones, and inconsequential moments. 
I might remember the big events from past years, although as time goes on that is becoming more doubtful. But without writing things down, I would never remember the small things.

I wouldn
t remember that 1994 was the first year that my son told me that he loved me, without me telling him first. And I wouldnt remember that my son swore in front of me for the first time the very next year.

Likely I would remember renting a cottage in Cape Breton two summers in a row, but would I remember that when we were at home we had an end of day ritual of walking to the bench in the corner of our yard? We used to walk to the back of our 2 acre property and watch our three dogs run and play while we relaxed and talked about our day.

We would certainly remember the miracle of our granddaughter going home after spending three months in the hospital when she was born. Her birth weight was just one and a half pounds and she was finally released from the hospital just before Christmas. But would we remember hearing her first cry over the telephone if we didn
t write it down as one of our best memories of the year?

I would have lots of general memories of gardening, but I likely would have forgotten that our Giant Schnauzer Cinder ate all the squash from the vines in 2002.

Who would forget the year that a transport truck jackknifed and landed on top of their van, resulting in days spent in a trauma unit and months of rehabilitation? That would definitely overshadow family arguments about whether our son should be allowed to wear a wallet chain to school or not.

Taking our granddaughter for fish and chips, or teaching her to swing a bat, or eating pancakes at a sugar bush with our grandson are memories that may fade with time. But writing them down preserves them and re-reading the words jogs our memories enough to bring back the event in our minds.

As for memories from this year, I started writing this column late in April and have learned a lot about writing and about myself along the way. I am thankful for the notes and emails I have received from some readers, who have been most kind to me throughout my learning experience. It makes me happy to have you share your thoughts with me and to know I have touched some lives in a small way.
Each family has their own traditions for New Year's Eve. Staying home with friends and family over a long leisurely meal and spending time reflecting on the past year has become our family tradition.
You will have your own traditions for the New Year, but I hope you take some time to reflect on 2016 and the small joys in your life. In the words of songwriter Kid Rock, "Let's raise a glass, heres to you dear. Happy New Year". And may we all have something good to focus on in 2017.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry Christmas

No matter where you are or how you celebrate the season, I hope you have a safe and happy holiday.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Boxed Up Memories

published in the South Shore Breaker - Dec 21, 2016
Life is bittersweet, and it can throw us some challenges. Some people have to tackle more than their share, and sometimes we want to throw our fists to the sky and ask "why me?". But often we can overcome and realize that the struggles we face can make us stronger. They make us who we are, and who we are helps determine our personal story.

A few years ago we spent two Christmases in a row without a Christmas tree. The following year, I wrote about it and published it on my blog. Like all writing, people will read between the lines and come up with their own interpretation. Reading it made some people feel quite sad, although my intent was quite the opposite.

I have turned my former blog post into a short story called Boxed Up Memories. I hope you will see the underlying joy, for that is something good to focus on.

It had been two years since she felt there was any reason to celebrate.

First, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was waiting for a second surgery to remove more breast tissue and obtain satisfactory margins. While she was nervously waiting for this to happen, her dog was shot and killed on a beautiful fall day while running in the woods next to their country home. It was hunting season, but she was born and raised in the city and didn
t think anyone would shoot a dog instead of a deer.

So that Christmas two years ago she was too busy coping with loss to deal with putting up a tree. Loss of part of her physical self. Loss of her dog. Too much loss and not enough faith. Too much worry about upcoming radiation treatments. Too much worry about life and what the future would hold. Overwhelmed with emotions, there was no strength left for coping with the most mundane chores.

The following year things were better, but not great. Another surgery, but this time only shoulder surgery which was relatively easy. Physiotherapy was tougher, but she handled it. Her husband had just had emergency knee surgery to replace a knee that had been replaced just a few months before, a bad job that had to be re-done. Not even doctors are perfect. She couldn
t justify complaining about her physio, knowing that her husband was facing a bigger challenge.

Their struggles were minor compared to some people, but it was just too overwhelming to cope with even the basics of a Christmas celebration. Another year went by without acknowledging the season with a tree.

But this year was different. It was time to say enough is enough, time to say she chooses to live. And hope. It was time to celebrate the Christmas season with a tree and bring out the decorations. Collected throughout her life, each one symbolized a memory. One by one, she pulled the ornaments out of the storage box and remembered.

She picked up two ornaments from her early married life, the small brass reindeer and wooden tree with red painted hearts. She received them in the mail in 1984. She was only 23 and it was the first Christmas she and her husband were away from home, living in Alberta far away from family and friends in Ontario. Two of her school friends sent her some Christmas cheer, small tokens to remind her of big friendships. She thought of those friends every time she saw those ornaments. One friendship had disappeared over time, but another still stayed in touch despite living far away in Australia.

When she was only 23, two of her school friends sent her some Christmas cheer in the mail. It was the first Christmas she and her husband were away from home, living in Alberta far away from family and friends in Ontario. She thought of those friends every time she saw those ornaments.
The next one she chose was a reindeer made from a pine cone. It brought her back to the first holiday season she spent on her own after separating from her husband. She didnt have her two year old son with her that Christmas, but she had lugged a four foot tree up three flights of stairs so he would see it when he came to open his presents. There wasnt much money, so she had made reindeer ornaments with pine cones and pipe cleaners and beads. The only other decorations on the tree that year were 12 red balls and the entire collection fit in a shoe box. It was a Christmas spent alone eating chocolates and watching old movies.

The next thing she pulled out was a small box filled with white feathered birds, her mother
s special decorations. She remembered when the two of them went out to buy them. It was the seventies, and her mom wanted a pink tinsel tree with white decorations. She didnt get her pink tree, and settled for the white birds.

White feathered birds, her mother's special ornaments, and a string angel given to her by her father, were special reminders of her parents that she treasured year after year.
She was only 21 when her mother died after a three year ordeal with breast cancer. But she wouldnt think about that. She wouldnt think about the cancer gene that seemed to run from generation to generation in her family. Best sometimes not to think too much. Instead she would remember the special memories she had of her siblings and their families gathered back in the family home for Christmas, her mom glowing with happiness to have her children and grandchildren with her. Now the birds were always placed in special spots on her own tree, the only part of her mother that she had spent holidays with for over thirty years.

But there was a whole box full of other memories. Good memories. Dozens of ceramic ornaments in all shapes and sizes, reminders of year after year spent at the kitchen table painting them with her son, his name and year inscribed on the bottom. The changing years reflected by improving signatures. Backwards letters became cursive writing with smiley faces, the passage of time displayed in a name.

Year after year, time was spent with her son at the kitchen table painting ceramic ornaments. Passing years were indicated by the changing signatures.
Funny how each ornament could bring back so many memories. She always enjoyed talking about them if someone was helping her to hang them on the tree. But she was okay doing the task alone as well, lost in her thoughts and reflections of her life.

The lovely clear glass ball with a teddy bear tucked inside was a gift from her new partner in 1994. It was their first Christmas together in their own home. Twenty years later and married now, it still brought a smile to her face. Twenty years of blended families and making memories. Lots of love and laughter, but trauma as well. A terrible car accident caused by a freak snowstorm and jack knifed transport truck. Ambulance rides to two different hospitals, and time spent in a trauma unit. Months and months of recuperation for her husband. But they survived and were determined to live life one day at a time and be thankful. She stroked the teddy bear. She really did have a lot to be thankful for.

A clear glass ball holding a teddy bear was a reminder of the first Christmas she spent with her new partner. Twenty years later and married now, it still brought a smile to her face.
A string angel was given to her by her father. He bought it from his stroke recovery group to help them raise funds. Her mind drifted back to 1982. It was just two weeks after she got married. Her mom had just been hospitalized, losing her battle with cancer, and her dad was admitted to the same hospital with pains in his chest, pains that turned into a major stroke. Her mom died two weeks later. That Christmas was when she finally had to grow up.

The doctors said her father would never walk again, but he proved them wrong. He spent a year in the hospital, and recovered enough to live on his own for seventeen years. He passed his driver
s test and drove again. He attended university classes. He was determined and strong. And she missed him.

It seemed ironic to her that the older she got herself, the more she missed her parents.

But she was the parent now, grandparent even. The next batch of ornaments reflected that. Photo ornaments. Painted flour cut outs. Paper and crayon. Lots of things made with love by three grandchildren, and hung on the tree every year. Time passed, and the children grew quickly. The ornaments got more refined as the years went on. The children often didn
t remember giving them, but she remembered. She treasured each ornament, and each child.

Someone once commented that she had a tragic life, but she didn
t agree. There was heartbreak and pain. Trials and tribulations. But she was determined, just like her father taught her to be. She treasured all her memories, the good and the bad. Because thats what she was made of, and thats who she was.

Now there were no large gatherings at their own home. Their children had their own families and traditions, their own lives in distant cities. Time marches on. She didn
t have a designer tree, but she had her tree of memories. Decorations that told the story of her life. Stories of challenges and determination. Of family and loss. But most of all, stories filled with family and love.
She would never again let a year go by without celebrating. Celebrating Christmas. And celebrating life.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Aprons in the Window

photograph chosen for the Home and Away issue of Understorey Magazine
I took this image a few years ago while we were eating at a very small restaurant that does fabulous home cooked breakfasts and lunches. Nothing fancy or trendy. Just good meals that you have to be patient and wait for. It's a tiny restaurant, with just a few tables but has lots and lots of eye candy that you can enjoy while waiting....old tins and teapots and signs and such. And aprons hanging in the window.

This image was recently published in the "Home and Away" issue of Understorey Magazine.

Understorey launched in November 2013 as a project of the Second Story Women’s Centre in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. In 2016, Understorey formed a new partnership with the Alexa McDonough Institute for Women, Gender and Social Justice (AMI) at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

According to their website:
Understorey Magazine publishes literary writing and visual art by and about Canadian women.

Our vision is to sustain a relevant, accessible, diverse and aesthetically beautiful venue that supports and empowers women through self-expression. To achieve this vision we:

  • Publish compelling, original stories and art by Canadian writers and artists who self-identify as women.
  • Inspire, encourage and mentor new and emerging writers and artists.
  • Support and promote established writers and artists.
  • Seek out underrepresented stories and voices.
  • Maintain a broadly feminist perspective that is welcoming, inclusive and empowering

I feel quite honoured to have one of my photographs chosen to appear in this publication.