Perspective

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One of my oldest and best friends is visiting my family this week with her daughter. It has only been a few days since their arrival, but it has been terrific to see her. Although her trip was a bit rough, traveling alone with a sick child, I think she is enjoying her visit as much as I am. We don’t see each other much, in fact, the last time was probably over 3 years ago, but as is often the case with your oldest and best friends, you just carry on where you last left off and as if little time has passed at all. Wonderful!!

We’ve shared stories about our children, our daily lives, our beliefs, our mad and totally out-of-control obsession for blueberries, and reminisced about our childhood spent as neighbors. All of these stories have got me thinking about perspective. In a world where social media allows you to “edit” what you share about your life, it can often seem like everyone else has the “perfect” life. My life, though filled with lots of wonderful people, is far from perfect. I am far from perfect. My friendships are far from perfect. The past few days have made it even clearer to me how important it is to have actual in-person contact with your friends and the importance of sharing stories with them. It gives me a sense of perspective. For example, her children are a few years older than mine, so she’s been through a lot of what I’m going through now. Though I know that phases pass and my kids are growing up so quickly, it gives me some comfort to know that my relationship with my children will continue to develop and the things that might be frustrating to me (and them) now will no longer be an issue in just a few short years. I’m certain there will be other frustrations, but we will cross that road when we get to it!

Living in a city with friends that have only known me in my life here is really great, but it is also very nice to share stories from my younger years with someone who was also present during them. It’s really fun to see where her perspective on shared childhood events overlaps with mine and where it differs. I’ve learned how important our friendship was to both of us, but also how most of our memories of playing together (which was probably almost daily) took place outside on my parents’ farm and how this life outdoors influenced both of our beliefs and values as adults. We have looked back as adults at the games we used to play, the time we spent together, our relationships with each other and with our families mostly in delight but sometimes in horror – the mix of a childhood filled with magic, curiosity and imagination, yet also the unfiltered and brutal honesty that children call their own. My choices in life have brought me to where I am now, but I sometimes wonder if I (and my husband) succeed at passing along the magic of the trees and fields of our childhood to our children – these lovely children who are city-dwellers and will most definitely have a different experience and perspective than we did. I try to focus not on the experiences that they don’t have in the city, but on those that they do and have faith that this urban environment will provide them with just as much magic as our rural homes did for us.

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One of the stories my friend and I have shared was about some rock piles and tree formations in one of my father’s fields. This particular field is located directly behind my parents’ house. When I was a kid, my father always had about 20 head of cattle, usually located in one of 3 fields. These fields and the woods behind them were some of our favorite stomping grounds. Literally. We both remember stomping down squares of my dad’s lovely long grass (right before haying season even) in order to create “rooms” for the “houses” we imagined we were building to shelter us from the imagined tornadoes which might come and transport us to Oz. Great fun! Why we didn’t take shelter on the rock pile is a mystery to me now, though I do suspect it has something to do with my fear of snakes and my conviction that they all lived there in that pile. Still, we did play on the pile which was studded with birch trees, swinging around and rearranging rocks to our hearts content. A stone’s throw behind the rock pile was a longer island of trees – as long as a football field, full of trees and bushes and raised so we had to climb up onto it. I can remember taking refuge there on this “island” that we were stranded on, pretending to forage for our survival in the thick greenery and building small dwellings from fallen branches and sticks. My friend remembers the big island exactly as I do, but in the summer before last, my perspective on that island was changed forever.

That summer our family flew “home” to visit my parents. It was a nice treat because my husband’s parents flew from Ireland to join us on the Tug Hill Plateau for part of our stay. Though they don’t see each other often, living on opposite sides of the pond, our parents get along very well. Both of our fathers are farmers and so they spent most of their time together outside in and around the barnyard “hanging out with the cows” (my words, definitely not theirs). Our mothers spent time inside enjoying crafty pursuits, reading and commiserating on the life of a farmer’s wife. One morning, as is common on a farm, some situation of great urgency arose – this time it wasn’t animals in the road who had escaped the fence yet again, no, this time it was a first-time heifer that had calved in the night and the calf was missing. My motherly instincts kicked in and despite being clad in my pajamas, I grabbed my mother’s pink rubber boots which were two sizes too small and stuffed my bare feet into them, running out the door to look for the poor new calf, hoping I would find it alive and kicking and that it hadn’t fallen prey to the local band of coyotes. I volunteered to look through the woods and fields which I considered to be my old stomping grounds and once I climbed over the gate behind my brother’s house, I set off sweeping back and forth through the field, searching in the deep grass for the lost calf. Now, I haven’t lived around cattle in over 20 years and in those 20 years, my father has expanded his herd considerably. I knew that at the opposite end of the field, there were nearly 60 head of cattle roaming around that weren’t familiar with me, that are skittish and spook easily and, most importantly, that included a full-grown Red Angus bull. I realized as I entered the woods that I might have been out of my depth and so I started glancing over my shoulder with great regularity, praying I wouldn’t see a stampede of spooked cattle racing in my direction.

As I picked my way through the woods, I noticed that the trees had matured in the years I’d been gone and that the plethora of undergrowth that used to flourish there, including wild blueberries, had taken their leave, forced out by either lack of sunlight or by hooves that were no longer restricted to the fields as they had been in my youth. The forest seemed to be a smaller than I remembered and I covered the ground quickly in my nervous state. As I proceeded to curve around to the other side of the woods, I came out at the back of the field and the line of my father’s land. I hadn’t found the calf yet, but it dawned on me that, as I continued towards the back corner of the field, the herd of cattle was probably between me and my exit route. I started getting more and more nervous and I discovered that I also needed to avail of the facilities at my earliest convenience. As I paused between the trees at the edge of the field, I strategized about where I would run if a herd came running my way. My mind immediately went to the large tree island. I thought if I climbed up the slope, the running cattle would be deterred and I’d be safe. It was also on my way to the exit. Even better. As I made my way unrushed towards the island, there was still no sign of the herd, but I noticed that the “island” looked much smaller than I remembered, didn’t look very green or lush and that it definitely no longer boasted a slope to deter that imagined stampede. Surprised and a bit disappointed, I continued on towards the rock pile a little bit closer to the house and to my preferred exit. As I climbed onto the rocks to get a better vantage point to survey the situation, I looked up towards the gate next to the barn and the house. I saw my mother-in-law waving frantically that I could return to the house – they must have found the calf. Relief!

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As I picked my way down the rocks to make my way across the field, I looked up and noticed the herd heading leisurely towards that very same gate from the far front corner of the field. I guessed I could probably make it if I walked briskly and started off. I was about a third of the way to the gate and I stopped to re-access whether I could still make it before the herd arrived. My mother-in-law saw me hesitate and look at the herd and she hollered out that they’d found the calf and I could come back. Her shrill shout spooked the herd, which accelerated quickly in the direction I was going. Just as quickly, I turned around and ran back towards the stone pile. I took a brief break to catch my breath and decided that the far back corner was the safest option as it was farthest away from the frenzied herd. I took a deep breath and started walking away from the herd towards the fence line in the back corner, glancing over my shoulder every now and then. About a quarter of the way to the fence line, I realized that the herd, having seen me, had turned – likely out of curiosity, but I wasn’t going to stop and find out. I wasn’t sure if I could still do it, but nevertheless I decided to make a run for it. As a kid, the two-strand electrified fence was easy to squeeze between, but with a larger herd, my dad had updated it to a five-strand fence and a stronger fencer which is not so easy to navigate without getting a major shock. Still, the full jolt of adrenaline had kicked in and I decided to try. My legs and heart were pumping and my feet, cramped into those boots, took me as fast as they could to the small grove of trees at the edge of the fence. Without looking back, I approached the fence running, I swooped down, grabbed a stick from the ground and in what felt like one very fluid movement, I fell to the ground, using the stick push up the fence, and rolled through the poison ivy and brush out to the gravel on the shoulder of the road. Thankfully no vehicles were passing or my panicked actions might have caused an accident. I just laid there for a few minutes in the gravel trying to catch my breath. It took me another few minutes to get back onto my shaking legs. My pajamas now stuck to me as I slowly walked on wobbly knees and pinched feet along the roadside back to my parents’ house where I would finally get to use the facilities and wash off the ivy before a rash started. As I plodded along, I was suddenly struck by the fact that the refuge of my youth was one no longer. A bit saddened by its loss, after a few choked breathes, I took heart in memories of adventures on the high seas, being shipwrecked on that island of trees and learning the importance of imagination, lifelong friendship and perspective.

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A story about birth

Yesterday was my birthday. It was a good day. My long-abandoned annual birthday run was replaced with an equally pleasant walk in the park with my daughter and a lovely hour-long yoga session in my studio. My family and I met a friend in a café for some cake (or cocktails – depending on whose account of the afternoon you hear) and the babysitter came, leaving my husband and me to go on a date which included dinner and some jazz, and in typical Amsterdam-style ended with a 35-minute bike ride through a very stiff and slightly wet head wind. This may sound quite challenging and unwelcome at such a late hour, but over the past few decades, I’ve discovered that it provides a beneficial service: that of clearing cocktail-induced clouds from one’s head. A splendid birthday on all accounts!

Happy Birthday Mommy

For as long as I can remember, each birthday, my mother told me the story of how I was born. It was early in the morning that cold February day and she wasn’t due for another five days. She woke up early that morning because she couldn’t sleep. Labor wasn’t the first thing that crossed her mind, but she felt uncomfortable in the bed, maybe a bit restless. Despite the early hour, my father had already left for work, so she rang her mother, looking for some comfort and advice. My grandmother, having given birth to six babes, was an expert in the matter. My grandmother told her not to fret, got in her car and drove the 10 minutes to pick my mother up, bringing her back home. My mother showered, washed her hair, and felt a slight rise in the pressure of the situation – nothing she would really call labor, but still, something was afoot. They decided that a trip to the hospital would be a good idea as it did seem she was heading in that direction. It was mid-morning at this point, so she called my father who would have a break at work around that time and told him that she thought she might be in labor and asked him to bring her to the hospital. My father, being the ever practical man that he is, suggested that his mid-morning break was not very long and perhaps she might wait until he had his lunch break a few hours later, when he would have a longer window of opportunity to bring her as it was a 30-minute drive to the nearest hospital. Mom must not have been in the throes of labor because apparently she agreed to this. Eventually my father showed up and picked her up, making the drive and arriving at the hospital early in the afternoon. Once she reached the hospital, her wait for my arrival was very short as I arrived at a quarter past two. Happy day!

More than three decades later, it was my turn. Now, having heard this story so often and for most of my life, I had a much romanticized idea of how giving birth would be. In Holland, giving birth at home is quite common and encouraged. I even planned to have my daughter naturally in a birthing pool at home and though we did fill it once and have a little splash in it that hot July, unfortunately, she had other ideas. My experience, which was in the hospital, was less than romantic, being significantly longer and far more painful than the story my mother had shared with me through all those years – my story – a story which I’d unknowingly adopted as a preview of my upcoming birthing experience, projecting ideas of a swift, natural and yet reasonably painless delivery. The lesson learned? Even if your mother tells you how it is, one woman’s experience of giving birth is not another’s. Ouch.

This year’s birthday was special to me in a way. It occurred to me that my very first birthday spent in Europe was my 21st. I lived in Strasbourg, France at the time where I was studying during a year abroad and life was an adventure, ripe with possibilities. One of those possibilities eventually led me to stay in Europe and spend my next 21 birthdays in Amsterdam. Now I used to be fairly good at math and so I according to my calculations, I have officially (or non-officially, since I’m not a certified mathematician unless being on the Mathletics team in high school counts as a certification and I’m pretty sure it does not) lived half of my life abroad. Not a big deal, really, and yet I find myself wondering where this adventure I am on will lead in another half a lifetime. A lot of people see the start of the New Year as a time to reflect and evaluate the direction their life is taking, making course corrections as they feel the need, but I feel this more deeply on my birthday since it’s my own personal New Year. My life, like many, has been filled with plenty of ups and downs. The past decade has held some pretty great things and some pretty dark things. I don’t want to discredit the bright points of these years for they were certainly present and important, but the larger picture has in truth held much darkness. Fortunately, I feel that I am slowly emerging from the darkness, reclaiming a sense of the person I once was, embracing the magic of life again and hoping that I can continue on my adventure with a renewed sense of purpose. This year could be pivotal…and, in fact, it will be. Inevitable decisions and change lay ahead for me personally and for us as a family. These are both stressful and scary and yet, for the first time in a long time, I feel drawn to make them. I take some comfort in the fact that my journey has brought a sense richness to my life, whether it felt like an adventure at that particular moment or more like the ultimate defeat, and I know that my next step will bring another life experience to the table. With a new year ahead of me and a course that is as of yet unknown, all I want to do is approach it like I once did, with both determination and an open mind, a sense of curiosity and wonder and a belief that it will bring me to where I’m meant to be.

Thanks for reading.