Monday, May 31, 2010

Early May Flower "Catalog"

During these outdoor growing months, I plan to review the flowers that have bloomed in my yard each month by creating a flower "catalog"... This month, there are so many, I'll divide the list into two - today and tomorrow.

These May spring flowers are always appreciated... after a long winter! I'm always amazed that they appear so soon after the snow disappears!

I love the scent of the lilacs...

A few years ago, I planted a white lilac bush - but "lost" it among the many trees and bushes that self-sprout in our back yard (thanks to the squirrels?) By "lost" I mean: I often "trim" these small trees - and so I must have cut it down accidentally...

So I was really excited to see these white flowers a few days ago. Perhaps my white lilac had survived! But on closer examination - I think they are the blooms on a sumac tree that has also self-sprouted and grown quite tall.

In one flower bed, early May saw the bleeding heart in bloom...

The lamium in my front garden bed is in bloom, too. I bought a small plant several years ago in a small pot., but it has spread. It might make an interesting ground cover that thrives in shade as well as sun.

Last year, I divided it and moved part to a shady area. I think it's time to divide it again - before it takes over the flower bed!

Other flowers that sprout up in different places in my yard - in flower beds and in the grass - are tiny bouquets of blue forget-me-nots. One of my neighbors considers them weeds, but I love them.

These pale pink forget-me-nots, are growing in the shade of other flowers in my front garden bed. They don't seem to spread like the blue ones - which are everywhere!

These white Canada Anemones are multiplying in my front garden bed this year...

They are part of the buttercup family.

This white flowering ground cover (galium or sweet woodruff) is spreading under the snow fountain cherry - which was in bloom in April.

(More tomorrow!)

Sunday, May 30, 2010


I don't understand premonitions... but they have touched my life several times.

My father was only four when his father became a soldier in World War I - a cook on the front lines. At some point, his father, August Gellert, had a feeling he would not be returning from the war. Perhaps the reality of the dangers around him fueled his fears. In any event, he asked his wife, Helene, to bring their two children, Wladyslaw and Elsie, to see him. She did - and, for the rest of his life, my father treasured the memory of that visit - the memory of his father holding him, carrying him around.

He had a mole behind his ear, he recounted. And as he carried me around, I played with that mole.

That was his only memory of his father.

Leap ahead 80 years... The next premonition (if it was a premonition) occurred the year of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. They were planning to visit Europe in May. The iron curtain was down, and a relative in Germany had offered to drive them to Poland to visit the village of my father's birth.

My father's two nieces, Elsie's daughters, had wanted to plan an anniversary celebration in Edmonton, Alberta - the city where my parents were married and where they still had family and friends.

Don't plan anything until we get back from our trip, my father had insisted. His mind was focused on one thing: returning to his childhood home.

Visiting the farming community where he grew up, my father was ecstatic. Pointing out buildings where he had gone to school and to church, where this person and that person had lived, he also showed my mother the cemetery where many of his relatives were buried.

If I die right now, just bury me here where it all began, he told her. That was his way of talking - nobody gave it a second thought... until he got sick on the way back to Berlin, developed a fever, was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and died two days later of bacterial meningitis.

My mother, shocked and overwhelmed, didn't know what to do... until she remembered his words. She buried him in Europe, and - comforted in some measure by what he had said - returned home alone.

Instead of celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary, family and friends gathered for a memorial service in Edmonton.

The third premonition occurred a few months before that time. Before going to Europe, my parents had come for a visit to Ottawa in March. They talked excitedly about their European adventure.

As they prepared to leave for the airport, my father - who liked to be there early - stood in the kitchen drinking his coffee instead of sitting down.

Are you ready to go? I asked, as he leaned against the kitchen cupboard, coffee cup in hand.

As I looked at him, sipping the last of his coffee, the thought flashed across my mind: This is the last time you will see him.

I was taken aback - dismissed the thought... Strange the ideas that run back and forth in our brains...

But that was the last time I saw him. And the picture in my mind of him standing there, downing the last of his coffee - is with me still, as clear as if it had happened today.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Good Deeds are... Good for Us??!

In a counseling course, Terry learned that people often quit seeing a counselor... just when they are beginning to get to the essence of the problem. They start to feel the pain - and, rather than lance the blister, they walk away, leaving it to fester some more.

Perhaps that's why I left Debbie Macomber's book, One Simple Act for the past few days! I would read a bit, but when it came to the action part - the challenge to put generosity into action, I'd close the book and tell myself, I'll think about this another time.

Do a good deed every day. When I was growing up, this expression was in common usage. A boy scouts' goal, the concept filtered down into society as a whole. I wonder if we were kinder and gentler back then. I'm not sure, though I'm attracted by the concept of giving... and receiving more kindness.

In her book, Debbie challenges readers to consciously look for ways to help others - because kindness and generosity, like viruses, spread.

As an added impetus, she mentions a study that concludes that:

"Helping lessens the effects of both physical and mental disease, reduces stress, and gives you a rush of happiness..."

"The volunteers...testified to feeling a rush of euphoria, followed by a longer period of calm, after performing a kind act. This feeling, ... [a] "helper's high," involves physical sensations that strongly indicate a sharp reduction in stress and the release of the body's natural painkillers, the endorphins. This initial rush is then followed by a longer-lasting period of improved emotional well-being."

In a recent blog post on 1000 Awesome Things, the author mentions how learning to share his lunch in kindergarten ended his shyness and lack of self-confidence.

All this leaves me reflecting on how I can live more generously, attempting to consciously participate in random acts of kindness.

(And I'll try not to put away the book until it's done!)

Friday, May 28, 2010

An Alternative Dandelion Solution

My time-consuming (but probably futile!) attempts to rid our yard of dandelions isn't the only approach in the neighborhood.

Some have given up! I smiled when I noticed this sign posted by a neighbor:

Experimental Dandelion Farm
Do not Disturb Weeds

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Dandelion Dilemma

We have never sprayed for dandelions, but quite a few of our neighbors used to. Now they are prohibited from doing that - and dandelions grow free!

The college to the west of us has fields of them... And the wind usually blows from the west, so our neighborhood is well seeded!

My solution to the problem is two-fold. I try to dig them out when they are yellow. This is really hard, as there are so many!

But this year I discovered an amazing new gardening invention - a long-handled dandelion (and thistle) puller!

I saw my young next door neighbor using one - it looked so easy! So I went out and bought one, too...

(I'm not paid to advertise, but I think that the Fisker brand is the best. One of my neighbors bought a different one and ended up returning it.)

First center the puller on the dandelion.

Step down on the pedal to get it into the soil.

Tip the digger sideways, leaning it towards the pedal - this closes the four sharp little teeth, gripping the dandelion.

It usually pulls the whole thing out at one go.

Push the orange handle downwards to open the teeth and push the dandelion off the stick.

It works like a charm!

Those dandelions that escaped my initial attack with my new digger have now gone to seed - so I usually (carefully) snap off the heads and add them to the compost pile, preferably before they open up. This whole pile is made up of dandelions I dug out. The important thing is to cover them so the seeds can't fly away!

Nobody said gardening is easy!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Construction Update

Our neighborhood is still a maze of holes, rock piles and machinery. Some days we have no idea how to get back home...

They have now dug another gigantic hole at the end of our street.

The first hole, a month or so ago, was to install new manholes. This hole, I think, is for pipes going into the manhole.

I have discovered (to my surprise) that metal beams lie under the road at intersections.

To drive onto our street, we have to drive on a narrow gravel track at the corner of our neighbors ditch. I wonder if he minds...

As I watch this construction project unfold, I'm trying to understand what they are doing. They installed the gigantic cement manhole stacks first.

...Now they are installing these large cement culverts...

...And, a few blocks away, these smaller blue (plastic) pipes. (I'm not sure what they are for.)...

Every time there's a new task, they have to dig up part of the street.

Hopefully it will all be done before winter arrives!

An encouraging sign: On some streets - those which were dug up last fall - there are markings that may be for sidewalks.

But there are other confusing sights I really don't understand!

Is the truck parked on top of the gravel to protect the gravel?! Or is it just someone's prank?!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Parenting Styles: Teacher? Or Counselor?

I was a teacher of adult learners for the majority of my working life - and, as a teacher, my adult students wanted me to tell them how to do things: How to say this or that in English. How to apply for a job. They expected me to know these things - and they believed whatever I told them. If something didn't work for them, I would suggest another approach, from a different angle... Advise, try, feedback. Those were the steps.

Parenting adult children, I've discovered isn't at all like that. In fact, it's probably the exact opposite - if I give my kids advice, they refuse to even grudgingly try it! And the feedback comes in the beginning, when they say it won't work!

The only surprising thing about all this is that I am surprised.

I shouldn't be because I didn't follow my parents' (solicited or unsolicited) advice very often either!

A friend of mine confided that the very fact his father suggested he become an actuary was reason enough not to consider it. Years later, when he discovered what an actuary did, he recognized that his father had been right. It would have been the perfect career for him!

Looking back on my young adult years, I remember not wanting to live my parents' life. Which is probably why I didn't always follow their advice. That doesn't mean I didn't listen to it. I often did (in spite of myself - it was given so often, I knew what they were going to say before they said it!) I did weigh it - and try to understand it (in the context of their experience). But then I did my own thing, in the context of my experience... The world they grew up in was so different from my own. I didn't think they understood my situation (and they probably didn't) any more than - a generation later - I understand my children's world view.

And that's probably the way it has been throughout the generations.

When I ask my husband how I can be less directive in giving advice (less like a teacher), he turns to his own workplace model in social work and counseling.

The counseling approach is to ask probing questions, he tells me. So instead of suggesting (or telling) the person to do something, one might ask: Have you considered....? And if there is a reluctance to try, to perhaps ask: What's holding you back from trying...? Then leave the questions with them to reflect on.

Should I try that approach? I ask myself...

My mind flashes back to another time when I (in my inept way) tried to use a counseling technique with one of my children.

After he mentioned something that was bothering him, instead of suggesting that he do this or that, I asked him: How does that make you feel?

I'm not sure where that question came from... Maybe from some workshop on empathy that I had just taken.

He opened his mouth, as if to answer, then looked at me angrily and said: Wait a minute! That's not a mother-answer! Mothers don't talk like that!

Then he walked away... I felt as if I had betrayed his trust!

Mmmm. Maybe I'd better stick to the method I know! And if it doesn't work - try to say nothing at all! Because by this time, my kids know all my normal answers. And if they share something with me, the old answers are probably what they want to hear!

Monday, May 24, 2010


Summer is here - and every day when I open the new storm doors - I'm THANKFUL for the light they bring in. (We installed two last fall - one in the front and one in the back.)

It's like having two more large windows in the house!

I'm also THANKFUL for the flowers in bloom, like...

Anemones (with the variegated purple lamium behind them)...

Here is a close-up of an anemone, its golden center resembling a crown...

I bought a small lamium plant a few years ago at a yard sale, and it is now growing into an ever-expanding mound. I moved some of it last year, and I will probably divide it again.

Here is a close-up of a lamium flower..

Galium, this ground cover with white flowers is spreading under a tree.

And this shiny ivy - which is taking over part of my back flower bed - is currently in bloom with tiny flowers.

As I puzzle over the names of flowers (and weeds), I'm also THANKFUL for Rob, my knowledgeable neighbor, who usually comes to my rescue and tells me what are called!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Do I Need Another Writers' Conference?

One of the events I attend from time to time is a two-day Christian Writers' Conference - held in Guelph, Ontario - southwest of Toronto. I do it to learn from editors and seasoned writers, to challenge myself in my writing goals - in short, to infuse new life into this part of my life.

It is interesting to mingle with others who share a writing dream - whatever that means to us individually. Many - like me - feel it is a calling:

Writing chose me - I didn't choose it...

I am still struggling with what to write and how to write meaningful reflections and stories that will help others and bring them joy.

The writers I would most like to emulate are James Harriott, the British veterinarian, who started to write late in life - and whose stories are infused with humor and wisdom, as he opens up the world of country animals - and their owners.

I have also enjoyed Madeleine L'Engle's intimate Crosswicks Journals (accounts of her life). I admire her because her Christian faith is part of who she is - as she goes about her daily life, interacting with her friends and family (mother, children, grandchildren, husband - an actor), in New York City and their country home.

A third writer I admire is Catherine Marshall, who mentored me in my 20s and 30s - through her books on prayer and her honest reflections on faith struggles.

As I look at the program for this year's writers' conference, I am intrigued by a blogger who will be teaching one class. Farm wife, mother of six (who homeschools her children), she write a blog that has over a thousand followers. (How does she do it all?!)

Do I need fresh inspiration? Or should I simply pull out old notes to refresh my memory?

How have I progressed since the last conference I attended two years ago? Where do I hope to go with my writing now?

These are all questions I'll have to answer before I decide...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Heroes" Among Us?

When I taught English to immigrants, I was always on the lookout for interesting newspaper stories to read and discuss in class. I felt that if I could get my students "hooked" on reading the paper in English, they would learn so much on their own.

One article I used over and over again in class was a story about a shepherd in the Alps whose cellphone saved his life. Alone in the mountains with his sheep, he used his cellphone to keep in touch with family and friends.

One day, going after a wandering ewe that was approaching the edge of a cliff, the shepherd slipped on the wet grass and slid to the edge himself. Flat on his face, almost falling over the cliff, he grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911... but was disconnected. At this point he started to slide over the cliff, so he dropped his phone to grab some tufts of grass. Fortunately - though his hands weren't free - his cell phone landed in front of his face... and he was able to press the redial button with his nose!

To add to the drama of the story, the 911 operator at first didn't believe him when he said he was hanging over a cliff and needed to be rescued... But he was able to persuade her (with his screams) and was rescued by a helicopter not long afterward.

This story has a lot of drama - and a happy ending - so one of the things I used to do in class was have students in pairs act out some part of the story (the conversation between the shepherd and the telephone operator, for example) or to pretend they were being interviewed by a television studio after the event... How might the shepherd express gratitude to the telephone operator - for believing his improbable story? Or the helicopter pilot for rescuing him from certain death?

Although the students always found the story interesting, I often found the the discussions that ensued in class fascinating as well.

I discovered, for example, that the word HERO has different connotations for students from different cultures. Whereas we (in Canada) use hero lightly, meaning someone who helped another person, sometimes - but not always - in a life threatening situation, many languages view a hero as more than that.

Who was the hero in this story? I would ask. The shepherd? The helicopter pilot? (The cell phone?!)...

None, an Asian student once told me.

Why? I asked, surprised...

Because nobody died. In my language, a person has to die to be a hero... the student explained.

Others nodded. It was the same in their language and culture...

Another time I asked the question: What would you say to thank this person who had saved your life?

I expected to hear expressions of profuse gratitude, and from some students I did. But one exception stands out in my mind:

I wouldn't thank anyone, one Moslem woman replied. I would thank God. In my religion you don't thank a person for saving you. You thank God for sending the person!

So much for the idea that we all think the same... Teaching often ended up being a learning experience for me - as I was reminded again and again that inter-cultural communication involves more than speaking the same language!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Heart Your Own City!

My son laughingly told me of a T-shirt he saw in New York City. Among all the I Love New York memorabilia stood a man - presumably a New Yorker - wearing a T-shirt that declared:

Love your own city!

Walking around downtown Ottawa enjoying the tulips... and the overcast spring day, I thought about the beauty of my own little corner of the world!

There is a lot to love here too!

The rivers and trees...

Beautiful buildings, like the National Gallery (its glass dome visible above the trees)...

Parliament Hill, our center of government ...

Its fountain with the emblems of the provinces, and the eternal flame...

Here again are the same government buildings, viewed from across the park....

And overlooking the Ottawa River...Beautiful from every angle!

Nearby is an old French cathedral - where weddings have to be booked years in advance...

The Museum of Civilization across the Ottawa River, in the province of Quebec...

The historic locks (not yet full of water) that allow small boats to pass from the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa River...

The American Embassy...

Lovely parks and flowers...

Time to appreciate what I often don't notice!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Best Teachers are.... Annoying?!

I recently came across the idea (attributed to the Greek Cynics) that a teacher who never annoyed anyone never did anyone any good!

This idea goes against the grain for most of us - parents, students, and teachers alike. But reflecting on what the Cynics might have meant, I think that (at best) negative/annoying/hurtful comments can cause us to puzzle over what was said - and in puzzling, (perhaps in tears) to learn.

I think of Debbie Macomber, author of the book, One Simple Act: Discovering the Power of Generosity, a book I am currently reading. When she was a child, she loved reading and writing - even though she was dyslexic and found both very difficult. She even confided to one teacher that she wanted to be a novelist... the dream was there, even in her childhood.

But at one parent-teacher conference, where she herself was present, a teacher made the comment that Debbie would never be a high academic achiever - because of her dyslexia. Debbie was devastated. Years later, in this book, commenting on the power of encouragement, she suggests that it would have been kinder and more encouraging had the teacher commented on her hard work or determination, characteristics that also impact success...

Tears were probably shed by the little girl who for years struggled with her teacher's low assessment of her ability ... And years later, she proved her teacher wrong by becoming a best-selling novelist!

(Thankfully, teachers, parents, friends aren't always right in their expectations of us!)

But in the process of dealing with the hurt, did Debbie develop a sensitivity to the power of encouragement?... A sensitivity that is part and parcel of who she is and what she writes.

Perhaps that's what the Greek Cynics were talking about: We learn from the bumps and bruises that come our way - as much, if not more, than from our successes.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ottawa's Tulip Festival

It's tulip time here in the city. Spring arrived early this year - so the flowers bloomed earlier than usual, and are ending their season earlier too. Which is unfortunate, because visitors from all over the world come to Ottawa for our annual Tulip Festival.

The tulips - more than a million planted in large flower beds throughout the city - are a gift from Holland, given annually to thank the city for hosting its Royal Family during the Second World War, when Holland was under occupation.

The tulips come in many shapes and colors...

Do they have as many different kinds and colors in the hillsides of Turkey, where tulips originally came from?
I often wonder.

But there were other events downtown as well.

When we passed by the Parliament Buildings, we noticed a Girl Guide rally.

Hundreds of Girl Guides listened to an outdoor concert as they sat on the grass on Parliament Hill...

The weather was overcast...

After admiring the tulips in Confederation Park, we stopped to listen to a different outdoor concert - polka music at an outdoor stage, part of a series of multi-cultural presentations.

And then...mmm - we got a parking ticket - because I thought that nobody would be checking on the weekend...

Lesson learned!