I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks over the last few weeks, dipping into it here and there. Each essay stands on its own as an example of landscape and language, followed by a glossary of place that reaches far back into the tribal and regional languages of the United Kingdom. I’m taken by his form, the exploration of linguistic roots, the desire to name the natural world with specificity. I am in particular influenced by this last point and have worked his thoughts in with mine in a long essay I am currently working on – the need to anchor places with descriptive language in order to save them.
But more than anything I am taken by his hikes, rambles, and climbs in the mountains which root his stories in the physicality of place. I recognize these types of places and what propels us to them, having done many such excursions in my own life (he even briefly touches on hiking the West Coast of Vancouver Island), and he brings them to a page in clean prose that is a pleasure to read. But if I’m honest, his stories are also making me insanely jealous, and not of his writing.
Jealous instead because for the last several months I’ve had a foot problem that has increasingly made walking and hiking a misery, and am now at the point where even a 5 kilometre walk puts my body at odds with itself. It started about a year ago, with an intermittent pain in the ball of my foot for which I could find no source, and has progressed to the point where I wonder whether I will ever walk pain-free again.
The problem I have is apparently quite common – a Morton’s neuroma – and the first treatment recommended by my doctor is shoe insoles (which aren’t working as intended, I think they are making the pain worse). After trying insoles for a few months, then I could get a steroid shot, or even surgery – but I do want to try the least invasive option first. From reading on the Internet, it might also be the case that calf stretches and foot massage could help as well – which makes some sense. Up until recently I’ve been doing daily yoga, and a lot of foot rolling – but the last couple of weeks I haven’t, and the problem in my foot has increased in that same period of time.
My research (and my doctor) tell me that this is pretty common among middle-aged women, of which I am one at 46 years old. This doesn’t make me feel better, though I suppose I am off the hook in the sense that it wasn’t something I did to myself other than get older. But the foot problem goes along with the shoulder problem (an old injury likely causing arthritis) and suddenly I have a new understanding of my aging future.
What I see, and need to ward against, is the tendency to shy away from discomfort by decreasing my activity in the world. It hurts to walk, and so I don’t go to the gym. My shoulder is tight when I wake up in the morning, and so I don’t want to work on shoulder or arm balancing postures. If I don’t counteract these tendencies, then it’s obvious what happens next: range of motion is lost, vitality is drained, and aging comes on faster. This is how injury adds up. It’s not the single point of fracture that’s the problem, so much as how that accumulates, builds into something much greater than its originating moment.
One good thing about reading Macfarlane’s work right now, when I’m feeling sorry for the foot I have to nurse when even walking across my own living room, is that it’s been reminding me how much I have loved to hike, and how since moving I’ve really set that aside. Partly because overland backpacking trips were replaced by trips to the cabin, and partly because while Gabriola has many lovely walks, it has no real hikes. Either way, I’m missing a part of my life that I used to really enjoy and set time aside for, and that started long before this “neuroma” arrived on the scene.
I’m heading east tomorrow for ten days – first to Montebello, Quebec (for a union conference), then to Hudson-on-Croton, NY (to visit a friend), then to Ottawa (for work). This is a time of year made for walking in that part of the world, and so I am considering the right clothing and footwear for my trip. I don’t want to let any more days go by where I sit on the sidelines of the living world, where I eschew yoga or hiking because I am afraid of my aging body. Instead of feeling constrained in my physicality I want to simply regard this body as one just as capable but requiring different care.
I did sign up for yoga class with my teacher this morning, and will shortly be off to the studio for some much-needed stretching and body positivity. It’s so easy to get stuck in oneself, and stop looking around at the world; at least a little bit of my day will be spent re-orienting that vision. Finding new landmarks, as it were, to signpost my middle-aged life.
For the last few years, Brian and I have put aside $100 a month so that for our anniversary at the end of September we can purchase a piece of artwork for our home. This year we decided that instead of artwork, we would put our anniversary money towards a dinner at Willows Inn, on Lummi Island. This is a place we love, having been two times before (once shortly after Blaine Wetzel joined the establishment in 2011, and another time with friends about six years ago). The food is always an artwork, and though it is too twee for everyday nourishment, I find myself coming away inspired to do more with local and foraged foods. I bought the new Willows Inn cookbook this time, which is full of techniques I’ve never tried but have access to the ingredients for (aging venison, making sea salt, cold smoking salmon).
We drove from Willows Inn to our cabin outside of Princeton yesterday, and I’m writing from the loft while Brian wanders the hills above for sign of deer. It’s four-point buck only at the moment, so doubtful that he will get anything this week, but we have a freezer at home waiting to be filled so I’m crossing my fingers. When I finally leave the coziness of this bed I’m tucked into, I will dress and go for a walk around the lake looking for rosehips and juniper berries which should both be ready for picking. It might be late for the rosehips and early for the berries, but I know this is the approximate time of year junipers ripen. While tedious to pick, they dry into a flavouring agent for game and other meats like nothing else.
I’ve also decided I’m going to hunt mushrooms again on this trip, something I have done in the past but not for a couple of years now. Given the rain up here this fall, I figure it’s worth another shot. We have harvested morels here a couple of times in the spring, but what I’m really hoping for is oyster mushrooms or even chanterelles. I have no idea if those species grow here, though the conditions are right for both.
One small project we have been thinking of for after Thanksgiving, is to build a little smokehouse at home. This has been on the radar for awhile, but now I have an island friend who wants to make Ukrainian sausage because she misses it from her childhood. Also – I’m inspired to try cold smoking salmon, and curing venison (a la Willows Inn). I’m interested in a design that allows for both hot and cold smoking and I think this can be combined fairly easily. We have a lot of the materials to make it happen on hand (or can get them from the local recycle/reuse depot).
I also have plans, once I return from my travels east in mid-October to get the sourdough starter out of the fridge and start making bread and other sourdough goodies. I shelved the starter sometime in late winter, but I know that it will only take a couple of weeks to get going again. I’ve been eating pretty low carb since mid-summer, so baking has been off the agenda, but I’m comfortable with a bit of whole grain sourdough here and there and I can’t really imagine a winter without bread. I look forward to pulling Sarah Owens’ book Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and more off my shelf and trying some new things this season. Hers is the best baking book for sourdough I have found.
Earlier this month I was at work filling the pantry with staples for the winter including soups, stews, pickles, and stewed tomatoes. I also finally got around to bottling the hard cider that I collected the apples for in fall 2018. It’s been sitting in the carboy since October of last year, though I did rack it twice so it came out nice and clear.
There is no doubt that I am definitely in the food storage, food planning part of the annual cycle! The trip to Willows Inn was a nice reminder of what else we can do to enrich our food gathering and sustenance experiences, though I am glad that we already participate in local food cycles that sustain us and our community in an ongoing relationship. Moving to Gabriola has enhanced that a thousand percent, though my cycle of food prep was this way even when I lived in the city – I just have more access to free fruit and veg, and locally raised meat. I’ve been thinking lately about how to pay that out to the community in the form of a processing collective, but that is a project for winter, when I have time to plan and have meetings with folks. When I’m done with getting ready for the long nights and cloudy days.
The photo above really sums up my day. Fucking weird. And also kind of beauty-ugly the way that only a full on day can be.
I flew into Vancouver in the pouring (as in torrential) rain, totally unprepared for that kind of downpour. I grabbed a broken umbrella from the float plane jockey and ran up to the terminal where I saw a guy who had been on my plane – an older white man in an expensive jacket – asking for an umbrella to use for the day. All this time taking float planes and I never knew you could do that (or would even think to ask). Since I had to walk to the office I asked also – and they gave me one! I know that’s a small marvel but it was just one of those moments where you realize why rich white guys have everything: they feel entitled to it (also systemic support for a single race and class has a lot to do with it).
So at least I didn’t get soaked walking up to the office where I was going to make a case presentation on a pretty important grievance with human rights implications. While I can’t say much about it, I will simply note that my first meeting of the day went badly and when it was over I felt like getting on the next float plane out. Normally I’m much more in control of my case presentations, but the manager threw me for a loop from the start. I have a strong case, so I’m not worried about the eventual outcome, but I can see a stone wall going up and people closing ranks in a particular group and that makes things much harder.
I left that meeting and went up to where my old colleagues sit and literally cried about it to a friend (yay me). And then called up the conflict resolution advisor and asked her to lunch. Not because I needed to resolve anything. I just needed to vent. We ate awesome rice bowls and traded giving each other advice. While we were in the restaurant, a pretty desperate looking guy grabbed the tip jar off the counter and ran out, which caused a bit of a scene. As my friend and I went to leave, we approached the counter again and put some extra tip money in the new jar that had been put out. While doing that I noticed a twenty and a ten in the jar, which had been put in by folks in the restaurant who saw the tip grab. That was good to see. I like it when people help each other out in spontaneous ways.
After that, I met with someone about maybe going to work for their team on a new project. That meeting went very well, and we had a great conversation and I left feeling like that might be a possibility. I don’t know yet, but I felt wanted for my skills and experience and that hasn’t been the case very much lately. I have a lot to do at work, but I don’t feel that I’m getting to exercise the full spectrum of my capabilities. Something with a bit more breadth would be nice, also something not project managing web campaigns.
After that, another meeting with workers who have been downgraded in classification and want to file a grievance together about it. I gave them advice as it’s a pretty common situation and they were just glad I could meet them in person.
As the day closed, there was another torrential downpour and even some crazy flash flooding on the street, but I left (with my giant float plane company umbrella) and went to DressSew to buy buttons. If you sew you know that buttons are pretty expensive, but at DressSew they carry buttons that were discontinued decades ago at a ridiculously reduced rate. I bought $25 worth of fabulous buttons for .49 or .25 cents per card.
After that, I met up with an old friend (ex-boyfriend from a million years ago) to have a drink and hear about his marriage ending. I needed the unwind from my day, so having a drink with someone was welcome, but spending time together reminded me how far apart we’ve become in the last twenty years since we broke up.
After that I got the bus to SFU where I’m spending the night. My last post was all about inputs = outputs and today was a day of all heavy-duty input. What I learned or had confirmed today was this:
So that’s it. Monday in Vancouver and I’m glad that I’ll only be here for the morning tomorrow, flying home mid-day. I can’t take all these inputs after all.
While the end of summer is officially still 18 days away, Labour Day is pretty much the transition marker for me. On the plus side, I didn’t take very much in the way of vacation leave over the last three months so I have hunting season holidays coming up along with some work trips back east which will break up the monotony of sitting at my desk as the rains come in.
In the monthly mailing that came out on Friday, I talk a bit about my dislike of August, the anxiety of endings, and the transition to fall. Once we get past the first weekend of September, I’m always feeling a lot better and today is no exception. After finishing a big work project last week, I took an extra day on the long weekend and had a holiday at home where I took a break from all my good habits, relaxed, and went with the weekend. Much of that was spent at the Cultivate music and theatre fest where Brian was hosting songwriters on the main stage and our friend Tom was putting on a show about the life of Woody Guthrie – both of whom did an exceptional job.
Yesterday I spent a bit of time with my monthly planner, and this morning made sure my online calendar and paper calendar were synced up. The change of the season has me taking stock of all the projects in my life: what do I have to do? what do I want to do? what do I want to do more of? less of? I have some notes about that in my journal. But rather than rattle out a list of all the habits good and bad, I am focusing on one thought, something that became apparent to me last month as I felt my creative work flicker, waver, and blur. That one thought is: Good inputs equal good outputs.
See, August was a bit loose for me. Hour for hour, I had less of all the things that give me a sense of purpose: scheduled activity, educational interaction, toothsome reading. That is typical for the end of summer, so I’m not beating myself up about it. Unfortunately, the good inputs were replaced by mediocre ones: random Internet scrolling, nighttime Netflix, and so-so reading materials. And guess what? My writing output for August reflected that. I put my time in, I always do, but I made very little headway on anything creative, including the long-form essay I have prioritized working on this quarter.
Last week, I had a conversation with my creative mentor about that essay. She had some great suggestions about questions the piece should answer, how to work the layers of meaning I’m bringing to it, and ways to deepen the central metaphor. We talked for a couple of hours, first about my project and then about hers – and I came away from it renewed in my commitment to seeing the piece through to a complete first draft by the end of this month. In short, our conversation was a good input, as is the book Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane which I picked up and started reading over the weekend. His subject matter is related to what I am writing about, and I find myself highlighting passages on every other page, taking instruction from how he writes about natural landscapes and phenomena.
After a month in the creative doldrums, these two inputs enlarged my sense of creative purpose and connection overnight. So rather than listing all the things I want to improve about my daily habits I’m going to stick with this intention for September: Increase the good inputs.
These are not just academic of course. Every input–yoga, wild nature, immersion in the ocean, rich conversations with friends, new works of music–expands my ability to be creative and contribute to my world. If I spend my time on mediocre or bad inputs, then I am robbing myself of time for the things that sustain my good outputs. This does not mean that I’m taking a social media break, or setting restrictions on random Internet use (though I have an impulse to do both). Instead I’m going to focus on my weekly priorities, fitting in more creative work time, and picking up a good book instead of my phone during my downtime.
Whether it leads to greater creative output or not remains to be seen, but I am pretty certain that this approach will lead to greater peace of mind. There is so much noise in the world demanding our multi-tasked attention. I find I am so much happier when I sit with a single channel of focus for awhile. That’s what I plan to work on in September. What are your fall goals?
I’ve been night swimming the last few nights, encouraged by warm days and high tides later at night. 9:30 on Sunday, 10:30 Monday. The bioluminescence is blooming, so waiting until full darkness brings a magical quality to swimming that we only get a brief period of each year. It’s hard to describe the visuals of swimming in phosphorescence, I’ve tried before and the best description I came up with was that it’s like swimming in stars, shooting stars. The arms and legs stir up the sparks and light outlines the body, moving outward from it in a cloud of light that goes down into the inky sea. I’m at a loss for words to describe it really. It’s simply part of the magic of summertime.
I can’t remember the last time I went into the ocean at night, but I think it might be as far back as when I lived on the Sunshine Coast, fourteen years ago. Living in Gibsons, I sometimes went down to Secret Beach on warm nights to swim in the glowing waves, but then I moved back to the city and dropped the practice. I didn’t live near ocean swimming in the city, nor did I ever feel the urge to go into the water in the crowded neighbourhoods where the beaches exist. Too busy. Too dirty. Chip wrappers and dog poo in the sand don’t invite feelings of communion with the water.
Now on the other side of the strait, I walk across the road from my house to swim within visual distance from the last place I practiced night swimming. At low tide, the bay empties right out past the rocky reef leaving only a rocky/muddy flat, but at high tide it fills up as much as five metres. I follow a sandy shoal in, stepping around the rocks and submerging myself as soon as I can, swimming out to just shy of the reef. I don’t like to get too close, risk an accidental scrape against the barnacles.
Tides, like bioluminescence, remain one of the great mysteries to me. I understand these phenomena scientifically, and yet I still can’t wrap my mind around them really. The fact that at one time of day this bay is a shallow pool, and at another, the water is 10 feet or more deep is not something I can compute in any rational part of my brain.
I am an avid watcher of tides. There are beaches not far from me where mid-tide swimming is possible, but quite honestly I’m spoiled by a beach at my doorstep and so I wait, 3.7 metres allowing swimming out beyond where my feet touch the bottom. At 4.0, the pool is full and at 4.5, only the top of one part of the reef is visible and seems very far out at sea. Such is the illusion that the water creates. Walking 100 feet on land is not the same as swimming out 100 feet in the water. There is an element of danger, the unknown, even though I recognize this bay is also a muddy flat in another life.
The weather hasn’t been overly hot and the nights are temperate, not muggy, but still the water and the air aren’t far apart in temperature once the sun goes down. Full sunset right now is about 9:30 making evening swims possible until quite late as long as the tides co-operate. To see bioluminescence though the night sky has to be full dark, closer to 10:30 and it’s best to swim away from any adjacent light sources including moonlight.
On Monday I went swimming with my friend Kyla in a sliver of the moon’s glow, but the because ocean glows deep with the movement of our feet, the light was visible even with the moon above. We went after the bar, after the open mic, to a beach that is known for this phenomena, sitting on the sandy shore as the light disappeared from the horizon. We got a little chilled, throwing rocks into the water looking for evidence that it was time to go in. Once we saw the confetti-like sparkles rippling outward, we stripped off our clothes and waded through a shallow seaweed before plunging ourselves into the inky sea. We exclaimed at the brilliance of each stroke, at the way our kicking feet below us created a milky way underneath. The luminescent organisms grew more numerous the farther we swam out, the dark sky also full of stars on the cloudless night.
I’m not sure there is anything more magical than swimming naked in a silvery glowing ocean, underneath the Perseid meteor shower. We paddled around for awhile out there, exclaiming as though we were teenagers on LSD all over again, floating on our backs to look at the stars, until Kyla felt a fish nibble her arm and we decided that it was time to go a bit closer in. We went onto the beach for a moment, before swimming back out for another few minutes “to make sure we really saw what we saw.”
On the beach, my clothes went back on full of sand as I scrambled to get dry in the darkness and we turned the seat heaters on in my car on the drive home to bring up our body temperatures, now chilled after half an hour in cold water. As always, the ocean left me stoned. Swimming in the dark has a disorienting effect, bobbling between dark sky and sea, moving without a horizon to fix on and a sense that that the ocean goes down forever, right to the core of the earth. When you climb out from that, it is hard to fix oneself in space again and for the first minute or so of driving my car, I wondered if I really should be doing that.
Back at the house I showered and rubbed oil in my skin, went to bed, dreamed of floating in a bottomless ocean with only the light of tiny creatures and the stars to guide me home.