walking in the world

29 July 2009

Lately I’ve been revisiting some of my books about creative development and inspiration.  A couple of days ago I noted a passage by Mari Messer in “Pencil Dancing” in which she writes of “seeing” as a devotional practice, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since.  I thought about an exchange I once had with one of my colleagues.  He goes for a walk every lunch hour, like I do, and once he commented to me that he couldn’t understand how I could possibly go for a walk without an i-pod.  I was a bit taken aback by the statement, and got to wondering what is it about a walk that needs to be blocked out by way of music streaming into your head? 

I have nothing against MP3 devices, I have one.  But for me, walks are full of sights and sounds that beg all the attention music does.  I suspect the fact that my colleague walks around the same block day after day, month after month, is connected with his need to supply some sort of entertainment for the journey.  Maybe he’s achieving some sort of Zen with his devoted repetition of that square with his melodic accompaniment.

And just as I didn’t get his inability to perceive a walk without being plugged in, he looked at me with something akin to sceptical suspicion when I tried to explain that I believe walking is more than just moving your feet.  That I believe there are important benefits to communing with the immediate world, or even just one’s thoughts.  I suppose my colleague seeks to escape the world for an hour; I seek to be with it.

About a year ago I got rid of my car, and with that, walking became central to my daily life.  Around that time I was out for one of those lunch hour walks and I came upon a driver training car stopped at a traffic light.  The student driver was a woman about my age; by her clothing, I guessed she was an immigrant.  She flashed me a smile which spoke of great big pleasure and no uncertain pride, and her shoulders hunched up quickly in a gesture of excitement.  This gal shared with me the new freedom driving was giving her, and I imagined her dreaming of driving all over the city, doing whatever she wanted to do and going wherever she wanted to go.

As I smiled back, sharing her pleasure, I thought of the new freedom I was feeling at having just dispensed of my car.  I associated freedom with each step on sidewalk, of taking the back way and seeing the world up close.  While the woman was attaining freedom and independence via driving; I felt freed of being trapped in the walls of a steel machine amidst cranky drivers on jammed streets and highways.  For all the years she dreamed of driving a car, I dreamed of escaping the grief of owning one.  She was seeing barriers and distances diminished; I was seeing shops and cafes and gardens I’d never noticed before.

After reading the Messer passage, I’m trying to see devotionally, without prejudice or judgement. And I’m thinking about the rewards to be had in doing so.  Like that shared moment with the woman driver stopped at a traffic light on a bright summer day.

Pencil Dancing, by Mari Messer


you go girl

23 July 2009

There’s a driver on the morning streetcar which I ride up Kingston road many mornings.  He slouches, scowling, against the side of the car and barely looks in your general direction when you board.  He looks as if he could care less whether you pay your fare or not.  People like that are always something of a challenge to me.  I’m usually pretty good at “killing ‘em with kindness” and breaking through even a little.  But this guy is a brick wall.  I mean, for goodness sake, I get on your streetcar all the time.  Do you not SEE me?  The LEAST you can do is acknowledge me.  I’m really NICE damnit!

And you know, I’ve heard Mr. Slouchy have conversations with other drivers or passengers he knows, and he sounds like a happy enough guy, a kind of a jokey “let’s have a beer” kind of guy.  I’ve actually had a bit of a sulk about that.  If he can chat amiably with other people, then what am I, chopped liver?

Alas, buddy’s got a hate on, or at the very least, something not nice to say to the general Toronto transit rider population.  Including me. 

This morning, a young girl, about eleven or twelve, gets on the car with her teenage brother.  She thanks Mr. Slouchy AND greets him as she boards, and her delivery is so bright and sweet and honest and direct I wonder how he could possibly scowl at her.  I also wonder how a young girl like her could have the gumption to be so determinedly nice to a nasty old fart like him.  As if that weren’t enough, she gives him same as she exits the streetcar, and LO!  I think I actually hear him say goodbye to her!

As I get off the car to embark on the next leg of my commute, I think that maybe my goal for the rest of the summer should be to elicit a greeting from Mr. Slouchy.


Funny thing happens on my way home from work.  I get down to Kingston Road and the last leg of my trip, and get on the streetcar and find a slouching, scowling, sullen driver who must be working a double shift.  I hesitate for a second, and then silently move to a seat at the back of the car.  After all, it’s seven thirty and I’m tired and hungry.  I push open the window and close my eyes to the summer breeze touching my face and think about that little girl and am thankful she’s going to have a good life.

Expressive arts activities scare me.  Many of them are derived from psychotherapeutic practices, and those scare the hell out of me.  There are certain cans of worms that are just begging to be opened, and I figure if I work with expressive arts activities enough, those cans of worms are eventually going to be opened.  As they should I suppose. 

People come to expressive arts for lots of different reasons.  Some people want to enrich their counselling, healthcare or teaching practices.  Others think the arts are a great basis for exploring and expressing the self.  And others just want to play and develop the creative process.  Some just have things to say, and need to find ways to say them.  I want to help people tell their stories, and the expressive arts world offers an abundance of fun and rewarding strategies for enhancing creativity and expression.

To help others utilize expressive arts, for whatever reason, you have to do some of the therapeutic stuff, the internal explorations.  For me, that’s always a personal challenge, particularly doing that out loud.  In front of people.  I’m an avoider – naturally inclined to leave those cans of worms closed.  And I’m reserved.  I feel quite comfortable expressing myself in writing.  It’s safe.  It’s solitary.  As for the other arts – not so comfortable. 

Last week I did some of that work with uncharacteristic courage.  I danced without inhibition.  I did theatre games without fear.  I told stories aloud and be damned my sieve-like memory and drifty focus. 

I felt good.  I wasn’t tackling nagging cans of worms like some were.  I was just doing.  Expressing in ways that are usually most uncomfortable for me but this time they weren’t and it felt really good.   

And then there was the sand tray. 

Sand tray (or sandplay therapy) is best known for its use by psychoanalysts and play therapists in creating a safe “world” in which to symbolically represent one’s internal self.  The client will choose from a variety of miniature figures and toys and create a scene or world in a tray of sand.  The client and/or the therapist will then interpret what is symbolically represented in the tray.  Expressive arts practitioners utilize sand tray for freeing and creating stories, and all the interpreting is left to the person making the world.  The expressive arts practitioner may ask questions designed to open or highlight certain elements and/or characters and/or objects in the story.

I’m usually one of the ones who are happy to let others take the “action” role in these types of activities, but when it came time to experiment with the sand tray, I jumped in and said, “this stuff scares me, so I should do it.”  I approached the activity with what I thought was a blank slate.  I wanted to assemble and place the figures and toys without thought, and come up with a story completely off the cuff, and enjoy playing with my imagination and exercise my [very limited] improv muscles. 

As it happened, there was nothing ridiculous about the world I created in the sand tray.  The themes are not new.  I told an old story of searching.  Looking for home.  Searching for place, and space and solidness and not finding it.

What’s new is the interpretation.  It’s a story is about mindfulness. Being mindful of the things that are driving the search, and recognizing the places you’ve already been so you aren’t walking in circles.  It’s not a story about the end, real or anticipated.  Really, there’s nothing futile in searching and not finding the pot of gold right away; there is nothing to be gained in trying to see the end before you get there.  As I wrote in a story years ago – it’s like jumping to the end of the book, when the story is right here, right now. 

Funny, that particular story is one that I told aloud last week.  I told that one because I know it, am familiar with it and I could then focus on the challenges of telling of it aloud.  That’s what I thought.  Uh oh. 

On we go, me and my cans of worms.  I think it’s time to get off the main road.


To learn more about sand tray, click here:

So, I wake up yesterday morning, and having left the curtains open, enjoy a bit of a “lie-in” and that view.  Then, as if nothing were more natural in the world, in and out of that view goes a big, black, furry bum, ambling off the deck and onto the lawn. 

Not creeped out or frightened at all, I leap out of bed, get my camera, and sit watching our guy eat berries off a bush outside the window. 

He probably likes berries better than marshmallows anyway.


Sunday evening I drive up to Muskoka for a week-long class in the Expressive Arts certificate program I’ve been taking at the Haliburton School of the Arts.  A few years ago I found Georgeina’s place at Eagle Lake, which she rents for a song.  It’s the lower apartment of her home, which sits high on a hill, at the end of Angel Road, looking over a gorgeous valley with a million colours of green, and Eagle Lake.  There are two bedrooms, a kitchen equipped with everything you could possibly need, a bathroom about four times the size of mine at home, and a barbeque and outdoor furniture and even a bug tent sitting on a large deck that wraps around the back of the place.  Like the living area, the main bedroom has sliding glass doors that open out to that deck and that stunning view, and it’s here that I sit writing in bed with morning coffee, listening to a local radio program.

On my arrival Sunday, my lovely host comes outside to greet me.  “I’ve had a pesky bear visitor these past several days” she says.  It seems the bear opened an unlocked door and got into her house one day while she was out, found a bag of marshmallows in the cupboard, and has been returning for more treats every day.  The persistent young fella, she says, tries to open all the doors, and doesn’t seem to frighten easily.  She’s called the Ministry of Natural Resources to come and trap the guy and I try not to think of my conception of old, inhumane bear traps.  But she’s got grandchildren staying with her, and now a wussy Torontonian and no one wants to get in the way of a hungry bear.  The MNR has not yet acted though, and Georgeina’s taken to scaring the bear away with firecrackers.  She left his paw prints on my living room sliding glass door as a reminder to me to keep them locked. 

This city girl is at once creeped out and annoyed that this bear is messing with my plans to sit on that deck and wash the world out of my system, and barbeque my nightly meals amidst the scent of all that green stuff out there.  I shiver at the thought of waking up to a big fat creature messing around at the door of my bedroom with the stunning view.  In fact, on the first night, I close the curtains against any and all big furry wakeup calls. 

But after living with the idea overnight, I’m okay with the marshmallow eating Bear.  This is Muskoka after all, a gateway to the vast northern Ontario, and for the residents here, bears are part of life.  Granted, I am walking cautiously to my car, and all the doors are for certain locked, and double checked.  But I’ve got to actually start hoping for the chance to take a picture of our guy.  And last night, I even left the curtains open.  Not for the furry wakeup call, but to take back that view.

View from my bedroom

wasn’t it a party

7 July 2009

When I was a kid, the funnest moments ever were summer and Christmas events with my cousins.  The EVENT OF THE YEAR was that weekend when our Michigan cousins would come to stay at our house and we’d all go over to spend a day at Boblo Island amusement park.  I was one of the bigger kids, and eventually we were allowed to tool around the island on our own.  One year we decided we would break the record for rollercoaster rides.  I think we rode it 27 times or something like that, which probably wasn’t a record of any kind.  Another longstanding favourite ride was the Wild Mouse.  Before Boblo got an honest to goodness rollercoaster, the Wild Mouse was the ride most anticipated.



Christmas parties were boisterous, noisy affairs.  We all loved the after dinner sing-alongs, during which Grandpa Herb would entertain us with his electric guitar.  Us kids would sit around on the floor and request our favourites like Hey Jude, If I Had a Hammer, and Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.  Dad and I got an acoustic guitar one year for Christmas, and Dad took it up and began to play along with Herb.


Since we’ve all grown and made families and lives of our own, our visits seem to occur at few-and-far-between weddings and funerals.  And that’s just too bad because we’re as always just as happy to see one another today as we were way back then.  When we heard cousins were planning a surprise party for Aunt Sharon’s 70th birthday over the 4th of July weekend, we were really glad for the opportunity to reunite.

So anyway, the day after Canada Day, Cathy, her kids and I leave the Manitoulin to drive to Bay City for the party.  We decide to break up the trip and leave a day early and stay somewhere along the Bruce Peninsula for a day at a beach.  Alas, the weather doesn’t cooperate with anything resembling laying-around-on-the-beach-sunshine, but we have a good time poking around the little town of Southampton, and spending the night in a rather smelly 70’s style motel.

Next day we’re back on highway 21 pointed in the direction of the Sarnia/Port Huron bridge.  We shop at the duty free and then a Port Huron mall.  By the time we get to Bay City at dinner time, we’re ready for a beer and seeing everyone at Janet’s “pre-party party.”  Coming into the city, we watch for the big Texan Restaurant sign to wave us the same greeting he has waved since we can remember.  I had noted a number of lifelong landmarks along the way, but the Texan is a favourite.  We didn’t have signs anything like this in Amherstburg growing up, so he was wonderfully exotic. 



We all trickle into Janet and Mike’s and have a relaxed and happy party in their pretty backyard.  Not surprisingly there’s a great spread of food.  We enjoy showing off our children; many of the littlest ones I’ve never seen before.  Everyone jokes that Aunt Sharon, who loves a party more than anyone, is going to be pissed about missing this one. 

Next morning we cut up potatoes for the giant bowls of potato salad.  Mike makes us cups of coffee and cuts up the watermelon for Janet’s last minute *&%$)@!!%$*? fruit salad. The twenty somethings, who extended their own version of the party into the morning hours, attempt to sleep in and nurse hangovers.  Except Renie who is up before anyone, decorating her beautiful and seemingly endless 4th of July cupcakes.  We each squeeze in a shower at moments we find it free, and actually get out to Brian’s country home not long after the allotted time.  There we find a beautiful party setup sitting amidst a gorgeous summer day.  We start drinking sangria and everyone just wants Aunt Sharon to get there.  True to form, my wonderfully theatrical aunt receives the party with joyful aplomb.



There’s lots and lots of picture taking going on.  Cheeky Uncle Rod hangs a Canadian flag in the tent near the 4th of July cupcakes.  Aunt Sharon opens the presents we weren’t supposed to bring.  Little kids make friends instantly, as little kids do, and run around wielding light sabres and eating cupcakes.  Everyone grazes on turkey, pulled pork and corn on the cob.  There is a slide show of old pictures, which we watch a couple of times.  Mimi gets pushed in the pool in honour of her 30th birthday, and kids and grownups swim. 

Michael and son Zac and their band provide the entertainment. It’s a wonderful moment when Michael busts out grandpa Herb’s old electric guitar and plays Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.


Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport Compressed 

We party late into the night; us cousins and our various spawn are not in any hurry to pack it in.  Next morning we descend on Aunt Sharon’s home where she and Lloyd are cranking out breakfast and coffee.  No one really wants to leave, but it’s back to the real world for most of us. 

Before we leave on the final leg of our roadtrip, us cousins talk about doing a party again next year, maybe on the island.  I hope we do.  This kind of familial spirit really shouldn’t be wasted.  Anyway, it’s still really fun.


I sleep over at Cathy’s on Saturday night, so that we can get up early and go to the market, then head up to Tobermory to catch the ferry.  Before we’re out the door, Julie calls and says there is a wicked storm going on with six foot waves, and the ferry ride – if it runs – would be so not pleasant.  Since we’re all packed, we decide to drive around up to Espanola and cross the bridge onto the island.

I’ve done this drive before, and like the last time, enjoy the gorgeousness of the landscape, particularly around the Espanola area.  Not long after leaving Barrie, we start to notice small Inukshuk and other rock sculptures along the side of the highway, appearing regularly all the way to Espanola.  We are also struck by the rock cuts through which the highway threads.  Each jagged surface looks as if it contains dozens of ancient faces.

As soon as we get on the island, it seems, the sun bursts through and by the time we get down to the cottage, it’s warm, still and sunny.  We arrive ten minutes before we we’re expected, and have an enjoyable catching up with Dad and Julie before our first wonderful meal of the week: chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots and greek salad.  And wine. 

I get the front bedroom to myself, and next morning, I lay there and listen to the rain falling, and relish the thought of five days of not going to the office.  In fact, I lay there for probably an hour just enjoying that.  On getting up, I have to re-think my planned reading spot.


It’s okay – when you find a place that rejuvenates you, any corner serves as a good reading spot.  I really don’t do much else other than read.  Until Lainey and I go for a walk to look at the balanced rock sculptures she and Chris made the day previous.  We make a few more.


A little later, Cathy and I decide we need to get some Guinness in the house, and maybe we’d like to have gin and tonics for Happy Hour.  We’re hoping the little LCBO outlet in Sandfield has some of the former.  If not, we’re prepared to drive to the bigger store in Mindemoya.  But we don’t have to drive further than Sandfield!

On the way back, we take a picture of the sign indicating “Smeltzer’s Road” in honour of our cousin Lisa who is also visiting elsewhere on the island.

The sun comes out in the late afternoon again, and we soak up some of it on the deck. Dad barbeques the steaks we brought, which we eat with asparagus, salad and cooked cabbage and more wine.  Later, Cathy and I lurk our loved ones’ facebook picture albums while Chris makes a stop-motion movie with his camera and some of Grandpa’s jellybeans.

Tuesday the weather is dreary and chilly again, but Cathy and I brave a brisk walk out Lakeshore Road.  Then more reading.  And talking.  And Guinness and nacho chips and Cathy’s fresh made guacamole for Happy Hour.  Julie cooks up a mess of fish for dinner, which we have with green beans and wonderful salad.  We chat, and chat, and pick the remains of the salad and then all go to bed early.