The Storm

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I was told it didn’t snow on the island. 

I was assured when looking at a house on the side of a mountain it did not snow on the island. 

“The Caribbean of Canada,” I was told over and over again. 

What I have since learned is that when a Canadian tells you it doesn’t snow they mean it doesn’t snow every day. For a Canadian no snow means some days it will not snow.

I did not understand that translation. 

I had no idea how to prepare. It wasn’t just snow coming, but a massive storm to swallow the island. 

There was talk of supplies and water, oil lamps. 

Thoughts travelled back to Uganda and all of my fears of not having access to help if needed. And here I was about to be snowed in, with no way down the mountain, all ferries stopped, seaplanes locked down, no way out, and no way in.  Completely at the mercy of nature. 

Completely and utterly alone. 

The snow started to fall at night. 

I woke when power was lost, complete darkness in the too early morning. Cold from the lost heat, I crawled out of bed and got the fire going, pulled out my mortar and pestle and woke the kids with marble on marble grinding coffee beans by hand. 

I cooked my first breakfast on a wood stove and settled the kids with full bellies in front of a stack of books, lit only by glorious firelight, and went out into the storm. I needed wood, lots more wood. 

Load after load I moved logs from one end of the house to the other, a foot of snow eating each step. 

All I could think was please God let us not need help because none can come in this storm. 

There was a sharp pain as a sliver of wood slid beneath my fingernail. I came inside and tried to get it out but it was too embedded. The pain shot up my hand. 

The day continued, the snow kept falling.

We cooked lunch and dinner by fire. 

I watched the battery bars on the phone get less and less, our only connection to the outside world, until the last bar disappeared. 

The snow kept falling.

We played games.

We talked.

We watched the snow falling. 

It was night now and so silent and dark without any lights anywhere, no sound from anything, not even a hum. It was otherworldly and powerful and I felt so unbelievably vulnerable, and in awe. Here I was, completely snowed in with my 2 children, unable to rely on anything but my strength to get us through.

I looked down and my finger was quite red and swollen. I knew I had to get the splinter out before infection set in. And I knew there was no way off this mountain for days. 

So I took a flashlight into the bathroom, took a pair of tweezers, and by a thin beam of light took my fingernail off, piece by piece. 

That was the moment. The moment when I realized I was strong enough. 

We didn’t need to be saved. We didn’t need help. I had us just fine. 

I turned the flashlight off and walked back out into the dark snow covered house a very different woman, into a very different way of living. 

 

“Our whole lives were like that: 
run into the leaves, a black
autumn descends, 
run in your apron of leaves and a belt of gold metal
while the mist of the station house rusts on the stones.
Fly in your stockings and shoes
through the graying divisions, on the void of your feet, with 
    hands that the savage tobacco might hallow,
batter the stairs and demolish 
the seals that defend all the doors with black paper;
enter the pith of the sun, the rage of a day full of daggers,
and hurl yourself into your grief like a dove, like snow on the 
     dead…”—Pablo Neruda
     

     

     

 

 

Willow Branches

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Deep within the dark Pacific Northwest winter I went to the island nursery to get some eucalyptus branches for my bathroom. It not being the season for eucalyptus branches the gentleman offered me some cut willow tree.

I asked him if they would last long.

He said you could actually stick a willow branch into dirt and it will grow into a tree with the right amount of water and light.

I told him my bathroom was dark and I just needed them to last the winter until the eucalyptus came in.

He suggested putting them in water to prolong their decay but that there was no way they would grow without light, or soil.

They weren’t much to look at. Just a bunch of bald sticks. I almost threw them out. Three times I took them outside to the compost and then changed my mind and brought them back in.

They bothered me. They looked so tangled and stark. 

But I left them, and tried to ignore how much they unsettled me.

I think it was my son who saw the first root. Then more roots came, then buds, and finally green. Willow trees were growing in the dark, in a vase, in my bathroom. Without soil, without light, they were growing. 

The roots became a matrix and the green burst forth and after a few months I saw the branches were struggling and now needed more so I brought them out to my sun drenched living room.

Spring is whispering and the sun is growing stronger while my willow branches drink and devour it. I fill their vase daily with water, they keep getting greener, their leaves keep getting fuller and I tend to them and care for them, as these branches have become sacred to me.

 

                   “I saw a country road lined with tall shade trees. I saw fields, cattle, a village below the trees. I don’t know what book or picture I had got that from, or why a place like that should have seemed to me safe. But it was the picture that came to me, and I played with it. The mornings, the dew, the fresh flowers, the shade of the trees in the middle of the day, the fires in the evening. I felt I had known that life, and that is was waiting for me again somewhere.” –A Bend In The River, V.S. Naipaul 

 

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The Island

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It all started with a kitchen. 

While searching and gathering everything I could about Quebec and Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto, learning about cities and schools and neighborhoods my husband sent me a link to a house for sale with a kitchen that stopped everything. 

The house was nothing to look at, but this kitchen, THIS KITCHEN was everything.

The kitchen was in a house on an island. 

“Honey, where are the Gulf Islands?”

“Off Vancouver.” 

And then the rabbit hole opened up….

…I found a writer who wrote an article on the island…

…I searched for her on FB and messaged and she kindly returned….

…She wrote me of the beauty, the quirkiness, the diversity. She wrote of a school in the middle of a forest and would I like the administrator’s number who has 2 adopted boys from Ethiopia…

…and I kept falling and falling and falling. 

The Gulf Islands. 

But it was so far. And so isolated. My husband was worried I would be too alone. I was so scared to be so alone. But something was pulling me there. Something was telling me to go. Something so much stronger than worry or fear. 

We made the plans, found a summer rental for 2 months, and traveled across the world.

My husband settled us into a cabin on a lake, said goodbye, and flew back to Africa.

As I watched him sail away on the ferry my heart stuck in my throat, and I was shaking all over. 

I was on an island, with my 3 year old son and 8 year old daughter, where I did not know a single soul, with 2 months to find a home….

…and build a life.

The In-between

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I almost became a goat cheese farmer. 

When I crawled out from under the bed, once Canada was decided upon, the question became, okay, but where? 

I’ve always been a foodie.

I love to cook.

Sicilian blood runs within me; I was reared in Southern hospitality. I really didn’t have a choice. It’s as much me as my breath.

So when my husband told me about a goat cheese farm for sale in Quebec I was buying rubber boots and getting the baguettes ready. 

Now neither of us know anything about goats. We don’t even eat much cheese. But the idea of getting dirty, creating something with our own hands, passing down a tradition to our children was delicious. 

My husband hopped on a plane to NY, rented a car, and drove deep into the Quebec countryside, while I stayed in Uganda dreaming of Billy Goat Gruff. 

The farm wasn’t what we thought. The house in need of too much work. The area a bit too secluded. But it was food. And it was dirt. 

What I craved: to be close to nature; to garden; to bathe the kids in leaves; to reconnect with something higher.

To see stars.        

 

      “…. I think the girl

           knelt down somewhere in the woods

           and drank the cold water of some

           wild stream, and wanted 

           to live.”   –Mary Oliver

 

—one of my strongest memories of childhood are hot summer nights, sticky skin, heavy air, catching lightning bugs in jars. When I think of childhood I think of that wild light, captured only briefly to stare at in wonder. The wild stream of endless summer nights that call me still—

I wanted to give my children the wild. 

 

 

 

Tell Me Your Life

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Drowning in Uganda I lay on blogs as my raft. Floating in words, pictures, I found hope and inspiration. I’ve always loved biographies, documentaries. Even as an actress, telling narrative tales, I devoured true stories. Tell me your life, your stumbles, your successes, your humiliations. Tell me how you did it, how you live it, how you survive it. 

Even more in this time of snapshots, instagram, the quick and easy picture I want to pull it away and see what is under the filter. Show me the real. 

I love Design Mom and her brilliance with the creative life alongside her battle with depression. I love that she uses her platform to stand up for what she believes in even when that invites conflict. 

I love this young woman at Oh Dear Drea who for some reason has captured my heart. I watch her stumble and strive and yearn and cheer for her to keep going. 

I love Design for Mankind and her “Chasing Slow” and beautiful poetic words and questioning of what else there might be. 

Even at the popular Cup of Jo, Joanna gives us just enough of her that I feel if I saw her on the street in NY I could say hi and yeah, parenting can be tough. Thank you for telling us the real.

But it was Hey Natalie Jean (sadly no longer blogging) that stole my heart. Watching her move to NY, explode into herself, leave NY and have to painfully reinvent was like watching my own movie play. 

It was through these blogs that I realized the power of one person’s story. 

It was through these blogs that I saw how one person can touch, shape, move us just by telling their life. How we should walk out our door, knock on our neighbor’s and begin to tell our tale and then hear what they have to say, how they’ve managed it all, what has moved them, what has shook them, what has it all meant to them. 

Because that is what we are, what we have to share, our stories. 

I just ordered a book today whose title comes from a quote from the writer Katherine Mansfield, “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.” 

That distance between lives can seem so far.  It’s our stories that connect us, our humanity that we share, and I am so grateful to these blogs that they share theirs and were a lifeline to me when I needed it most. Please, tell me your life. 

 

Red, White, and Guns

I am from Florida. Most of my family still lives in Florida. I want my heart to break for the school victims, I want to cry and scream, and it did and I do, but my heart can’t break much more because it’s already broken.

It broke with Sandy Hook. It gave up with Sandy Hook. If little children dying in gunfire did not wake my country up, if little children watching their classmates die did not shock my country into change, nothing will. Little children.

The truth is guns are why I didn’t go home. It’s why I chose Canada.

My husband works in South Sudan. And he feels safer there than he would in the US. When a UN employee goes to a new country there is always a security briefing on that country. When going to the US he was  told to always avoid confrontation. No matter what, to walk away. Because in the US you must assume everyone has a gun.

You must assume everyone has a gun.

It’s been a fascinating journey to explore what it means to be an American outside of my culture. When I say, “I’m an American,” what I am saying, in essence, is I am an individual. I, capitalized. America as the myth where anyone can make it, where you can be and do whatever you want, you as YOU. And that is beautiful and powerful and intoxicating. But where is the WE? Yes, you can be a New Yorker, or a mid-Westerner, a California girl or guy, or have deep Southern pride, but what does it mean to be an American? What binds us all? The safety of our children should bind us all.

I recently became a Permanent Resident of Canada. At the end of my interview and swearing in the consular said, welcome to Canada, you may now work, and will forever have health care.

I cried. I hugged my husband and thanked him. I thanked him for giving me a new country to call home. A country where the collective is bigger than the individual. A country where my rights are tied to my obligations. I am a part of something, and my happiness is tied to my neighbors and my communities, my province, and I am humbled and awed and honored to play my part.

I love the US. My children are American as well as Canadian and I hope that one day they will be able to go and be a part of something larger than themselves there as well. That the good-for-all overcomes the me and my rights.

The US is not all bad and Canada is far from all good, but I love that I feel so less important here. I love just being a petal on the flower.

The Unraveling

Uganda was familiar yet so much had changed. It still remains running in my blood, when I look at my daughter I am there, she wraps the county around me so I can still smell it and feel it, even long for it. I see in her the people I knew for 4 years, the people on the street, in the shops, walking along the road. I see them all when I look at her. And miss them.

How lucky I am to have lived in the country my daughter is from for 4 years. To know that part of her.

The city is choking. Day after day I found myself unable to breathe. When the rains came it was perfection and I loved it and then the dry would come and with each minute, day, week, month, as the moisture left the air turned brown, then grey, then dark.

My daughter started to get asthma.

My son seemed pale.

The dry season slammed us.

I started to pull in, worry. Shut myself up. Wait for the rain.

And in that waiting…

…there was the horrible food poisoning that laid my son and I down for weeks.

…the middle of the night emergency room run where no doctor was available.

…the yellow fever outbreak running through the villages coming closer to the city.

And then the election.

The president of Uganda, Museveni, was running again, his  86th term (or there about) and word was his main competitor was not going to let the election be “stolen” again.

I was hanging on when I heard phones might be shut off. I was hanging on when I was assured the UN would evacuate us if need be. I was hanging on.

And then my dear English friend who raised her children all over Africa, my dear friend who thought nothing of being in a car in the worst neighborhood without a cell phone, my dear friend who seemed to have no fear said, “Oh no, but darling you must evacuate. It’s not going to be pretty.” And then she left.

That’s when I heard the opposition was planning to burn the city down.

By the day of the election, with most of my friends gone, I was no longer hanging on.

Me, to my husband, “But how will we get out if we need to?”

Husband, “Don’t worry, we will.”

Me, “But if the city is on fire how will we get to the airport?”

Husband, “The UN will get us to the airport.”

Me, “BUT THE ROAD WILL BE ON FIRE AND THERE IS NO OTHER ROAD!”

Now I know my husband would have never let us be in a dangerous situation, but I no longer heard him. I had let go and 8 years of wandering came flooding out of me….

And then we heard the gun shots.  The walkie talkie comes on to tell of riots. The government shuts off all social media. We hear the opposition has been arrested, the streets are filled with soldiers, more riots, an occasional yell pierces through the deep silence and I felt adrift and lost and terrified! I ran to my bedroom and crawled under the bed and called my neighbor who was thankfully still there. Through sobs I told her I needed to know there was a way out. She told me she had the Irish ambassadors helicopter as her escape plan and no matter what the children and I would be on it if need be. She promised not to leave me behind. I will never forget her kindness. Those words soothed me, saved me and buffered me as we stayed by the walkie talkie and listened to it all unfold, my heart pounding in my chest while I clung to my children.

There were no fires.

The riots were very small.

I can safely assume no one else crawled under their beds with fear.

But it was clear that I needed a break. It was clear there was something more going on. It was all too much, too wonderful, too scary, too full of adventure, too much chaos to find a new center after I’d left all I’d known so very long ago.

I needed a break. I needed to go home. I needed clean air, and good food, and to just catch my breath, to feel connected. I needed to rest.

I could have never imagined when we made that choice  for me to come back that I would end up not at home, but in another country, alone on a mountainside, on a tiny island with my 2 children and nothing else and it would be nothing like rest, there would be snowstorms and power outages, my husband a million continents away. I would be more cut off than I’d ever been, more isolated and more vulnerable than I thought possible, and that it would prove to be the best and most wonderful 2 years of my life.