Monthly Archives: February 2016

Colour loading, chili and mindfulness

In art, there is a painting technique called colour loading. One loads one side of the brush with one colour and the other side of the brush with a second colour. Two colours. Skilled artists can load the brush with three colours. What makes this colour loading so fascinating to me is that the painter can now make strokes, side by side, of two (or three) distinct colours. Neither colour impedes on the other. Each colour runs beside the other; clear and well-defined.

When we walked along the river two weeks ago, we noticed hundreds of ducks and geese in the bay. The ice that had formed the previous week had begun to melt and there were fissures throughout the ice floes, or ice islands, as my husband calls them.

The ice fishing huts that had sprung up had disappeared and the ruts and tracks in the snow on the ice made by anxious fishermen were filled with water. Only the ducks and geese dared to brazenly walk across the floes.

That day the sky was  two tones of Easter egg blue and multiple shades of dove grey, while  white clouds drifted by – cumulus, cirrus and stratus. There was a fourth type of cloud in the sky but I hadn’t watched enough of The Weather Network to name it; I am no climatologist. Take my word for it: the sky was filled with fluffy, streaky, and wispy clouds.

The muted sun hid behind the cumulus, cirrus, stratus and mystery clouds, but the streak of vivid blue sky that peeked through was a sure sign that she would make a showier appearance before the morning was done.

During our walk I halted often to watch the geese fly overhead; their honks could not be ignored, much to my husband’s annoyance when I chose to stop often.

Later, I made chili, and I changed up my recipe: I added one big dollop of honey –  honey that my husband had bought at the farmer’s market. Also, I roasted the vegetables (onions, garlic, carrots, pepper, celery, hot jalapenos) instead of sautéing them.

When we sat down to watch Sunday afternoon football, we began to text our sons who live in Toronto. Our texts were colour-commentator worthy as we are all football fans. (Although my one son and his wife have watched a documentary about concussions in football and sports, and have been most decidedly turned off of the sport.)

My sister dropped in on her way home from visiting her friend who now lives in a long-term care home in London, laden with gifts. I am not exaggerating; she entered and yelled, “I have come laden with gifts.”

She stayed for chili and crusty bread and we opened a Chinese beer for each of us – the same Chinese beer that we enjoyed on our recent visit to China.

In turn, she presented me with two sketch books and a package of charcoal pencils. Her friend who she visited earlier that day insisted she buy them for me. Turns out her friend has a Fine Arts degree and knows about these things. I was so moved to receive my sister’s gifts. She had not forgotten my husband and presented him with a bag of candy. My husband (who was not moved) tore the bag open and called the candy.. dessert.

I was moved because more and more I am aware of the gifts of each day – ducks and geese on melting ice bergs; blue and grey streaky skies that change as we walk (Nature has perfected the colour-loading process); home-made honey by one of our local farmers; chili; sweet candy; and art supplies.

When people ask me about my experience of looking after both parents, and then visiting them in a care home, I am often asked how I coped. And my answer is always the same – I try to live mindfully, each day in awareness. When we live in the Now, and are mindful of each and everything around us at all times, we live more fully. More alive. Healthier. More joy.

When I visit the long-term care facility where I now volunteer, mindfulness is my intention. When I go through the doors, I stop at the window display, inset in the wall by the hairdressing salon, just so that I can appreciate the creative talents of the staff and the residents. The art is beautiful and it is beyond comprehension how residents who have a dementia-related disease are so talented, artistically.

At my weekly meditation class, we talk about how a person in their eighties, and even nineties, with no prior experience in art, suddenly draws or paints with perfect symmetry, balance and proportion. How does that happen, we wonder? We suspect that the fears and misconceptions about our own unique talents disappear with a dementia – as if the veil of doubt that we carry around all of our lives  (Oh, I wish I could draw, but I can’t; I have no artistic talent, none!) is lifted.

As I continue down the hall towards the area where I visit (there are four pods in the care facility – I visit one of them), I stop and greet personal support workers, kitchen staff, nurses and cleaning staff with recognition and delight – many of these people are the same ones who held me in their open arms when I grieved beside my dying mother’s bed. We are forever connected; we have a bond that love and compassion (and grace) has created and it is a bond my mindfulness honours.

Later, I may spend time helping residents go to the bingo room or to music therapy; or I might read to residents during our weekly reading session.
Last week I laughed along with the residents when Charlie, a Golden Retriever, and his owner stopped by for a visit just as we finished reading John Grogan’s Marley and Me. Charlie is a four-legged volunteer, and a favourite with the residents. One of the residents told me that Charlie must have known that we were reading about Marley. It did seem serendipitous, and the same resident pointed out the similarity in their names, Charlie and Marley.

Charlie’s owner intuitively recognized that she had arrived at the perfect moment and so she sat down and initiated a Q&A session about Charlie. Some of the residents asked her if Charlie is frightened of thunderstorms, like Marley. When she answered no, she had her dog perform some tricks, all of which delighted the residents. Charlie then visited each resident, taking time to lay her head on either of their knees or in their laps, sniffing them completely, and allowing the love to flow. Charlie is mellow – she has this mindfulness thing mastered.

When we are in complete awareness of the moment that we are in, we are mindful. Dogs get that. Dogs are not worried about any issues or fears – their full attention is on the person who is sitting in front of them (or who is giving them a treat).

So if a family member is visiting someone who has a dementia-related disease, I suggest mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to appreciate the person fully, and not the disease.

Appreciate the staff who care for them; take time to learn their names and ask about them. Learn about the home’s activities and take part in some of them. Visit the gardens or go for a walk. Learn to savour these sweet moments – life is short, embrace each day.

Let go of the fears that surround disease and illness; instead, recognize that the time you have left is about living, not dying. Time is a gift.

When I looked after my father, I tended to his daily needs: toileting, dressing, feeding and transferring him from bed to chair or chair to bed. So one of the most important lessons that I learned was about our bodies and our health, and from that I learned never to underestimate the ability to take care of ourselves. From the moment I open my eyes, I am thankful to be here, to be healthy, and to be able to go to the bathroom – alone, without support. I can feed myself and choose what to eat; I can dress myself; I can walk down the stairs without support; and I can walk. These are all gifts – begin to recognize them as gifts.

“the miracle is to be alive”   Thich Nhat Hanh

Like a paintbrush that is loaded with two or three colours, our emotions sit side by side: love, fear, and sorrow.Three distinct emotions. When we recognize that our emotions exist side by side, and that it is human to feel all three simultaneously, we begin to have more compassion for ourselves and our emotions.

Awareness will lead us to appreciate the distinct colours of our lives: side by side, each clear and well-defined. Each colour more beautiful because of the colour that lies beside it. Sweetness beside sorrow; joy beside grief.

All gifts.

Sharing time with someone who has Alzheimer’s

Often family members visit a loved one with a dementia-related disease for weekly, bi-weekly or monthly visits. Some visit more than once or twice a week, but these same family members will tell me that they find it a challenge finding an activity that they can share. I remind them that it is not the activity, itself, but the time shared together that matters. Our loved one is still worthy; our loved one still matters.

Restlessness or anxiety is a common trait of persons who have Alzheimer’s or another dementia-related disease. Because exhausted caregivers are often too worn out to create new activities to distract their loved ones they often resort to turning on the television. Those of us who have cared for someone quickly realize that the television is not the answer. Unfortunately we learn through trial and error that the television programs can spark other symptoms, such as hallucinations or illusions. Worse, delusions.

Others, when faced with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, begin to withdraw – they no longer visit their loved one because it has become too stressful. They convince themselves that the person with Alzheimer’s (or a dementia-related disease) is no longer cognitively aware; therefore, they reason why visit?

Since I have journeyed with both my father and my mother who had Alzheimer’s, I fully understand how these feelings and thoughts arise. But I have also experienced acceptance of the disease, and with acceptance, kindness, compassion and love follow.

Spending time with your loved one is one of the best ways to learn to accept this disease. Try to visit with the intention of “seeing” your loved one as she/he is in the present moment. Let go of the past (and your thoughts about how shitty this disease is, how your loved one is no longer the person that she/he once was, how much you resent or feel guilt) and just visit with this intention: I am doing the best that I can.  Let go of thoughts about the future (what will happen when she/he dies, how much longer will this go on, what will happen to my health if I continue down this road). Stay in the present.

Acceptance takes practice. One must have awareness first of our emotions. Don’t shove them down. Accept them. And forgive yourself for them. It is human to feel resentment, anger or guilt when dealing with disease. (Thank you, Dr. Robert Buckman, I Don’t Know What To Say…, for this valuable insight.)

Once we acknowledge this fact – that it is human to feel negative emotions – then we can turn our attention to releasing them. Wherever we turn our attention (awareness), energy follows.

When I used to visit my mother in the long-term care facility where she lived the last two and a half years, I parked the car and sat for a few minutes. I would close my eyes and intend that my visit would go well and that I would only bring my loving energy into her room; I parked the negative energy in the car.

Here is my intention (or prayer):

Let me only enter with love. Let me greet my mother with love, compassion and joy. No matter her mood or the events that she will tell me, I will stay in a state of acceptance. I am not here to cure her or fix her. I will visit and do the best that I can. And I accept that. No matter what, she is here. I accept that, too.

Through my own experiences and through talking with others, I have compiled a list of activities or tips to help distract a person whose symptoms are causing restlessness, anxiety, frustration, agitation or irritability. None of these suggestions will work all of the time; some of them work for a short period of time and then other activities need to be introduced. Sometimes we adapt or tweak an activity and that makes all the difference.

And sometimes an activity is not the answer to restlessness, but that stillness or calmness is. Learn to declutter and simplify your loved one’s surroundings. Over-stimulation, whether it is a messy room or too many people chattering, can arouse anxiety in someone with a dementia. And some carers believe that over-stimulation and change can cause Sundowners Syndrome.

When someone becomes restless or anxious, distraction can be an antidote. Often I would take my mother’s hand and suggest that we look through her photo albums or rummage through a box filled with family photos. This was an activity that she particularly loved to do and if I sat beside her and listened to her stories, that was double the pleasure. (Tip: no matter what story you hear, do not correct their version)

When the experts tell us that the part of the brain that stores old memories is often one of the last to deteriorate and that those memories often stay intact until near the end stage of Alzheimer’s, we can understand why our loved ones enjoy visiting the past – old family photos, reminiscing about old stories, old home movies, music and songs from their childhood or young adult life (or songs from the war) – these all make for an enjoyable pastime. And I am convinced that these activities allow for our loved ones with dementia to shine again.  On a daily basis they are bombarded with things that they no longer can remember how to do and reminders of loss and failure; therefore, why not give our loved ones an opportunity to remember happier days – days when they were full of life and passion, days when they were not dependent on others. Reminiscing about the past, listening to your loved one’s stories, and looking at old photographs fill a vital need.

Finding activities or hobbies that suit the person with a dementia is not a one-size-fits-all solution. A little detective work might help, as you might want to explore a variety of activities.

For example, your loved one might have enjoyed photography as a life-time hobby. Understandably, he might not be able to remember how the camera works, and his lack (loss) of fine motor skills might impede how he holds the camera and focuses on a subject. But the person might still enjoy photography books; or a small camera, or two, could be placed in a box as a worthwhile activity – a caregiver could initiate a conversation about photography with the person, as he holds the camera and  touches the different components.

My mother was a clean freak when she was younger and we teased her that her laundry was folded as if she was still in the army. Well, those habits did not fail her when she became an older woman with Alzheimer’s. Personal care workers would tell us that my mother would make her  own bed every morning, and that the bed would be wrinkle-free and perfect. (And yet she could not walk without two people supporting her. Figure that.)

When the laundry was returned to her room, I would take everything off the hangers and give them to my mother to re-fold. She would concentrate on folding a sweater and even if it took her many minutes, she would not give up. When I would lean in to help her, she would insist that it was her job, not mine. I could do it quicker and neater, but it allowed my mother dignity and purpose and it became an activity that she enjoyed during my visits.

Another activity she liked was to sit with her jewellery box on the bed where she would lovingly handle each of the pieces of costume jewellery. She would pick up a piece and tell me its story. “You gave me this necklace one Christmas when you were ten years old. You told me it was the most beautiful thing ever.” I would stare at the yellow beads,  and wonder if she was confused with my sister’s or aunt’s gifts. I could not remember buying it, nor did I even like it. Yellow is not my favourite colour. But I enjoyed watching her face light up with joy as she remembered these stories. And I especially enjoyed her stories. (Sometimes she got her stories mixed up and the decades ran into each other.)

We might read stories or poetry to someone with a dementia, or we might play music from the early eras. Reading aloud or listening to music is extremely calming and tranquil. Studies have shown both are used in therapy and have good results. Again, music from the past awakens the part of the brain that is not as damaged as others…it becomes a pleasurable and joyful experience for persons with dementia, and, of course, it is extremely restful. This is particularly a good idea for grandchildren who visit. Young people can read their favourite books or magazines to their grandparent. (Remember: it’s about the energy we create, not the content of the pages.)

My friend visits her mother who has Alzheimer’s and sadly,  her mother does not recognize her, but they still enjoy hours of singing songs together, and spending time together, holding hands.  Christmas carols and hymns are special favorites, she tells me. When my friend recounts her visits, I can see the joy on my friend’s face. She has truly parked all those emotions, including her sorrow now that her mother does not recognize her; yet she visits as often as she can, with love in her heart.

There was a large cork bulletin board in my mother’s room at the long-term care facility, and we pinned all of the greeting cards that she received onto it. When she became too anxious or upset, I would announce to her that it was time to re-arrange her bulletin board. Then I would take everything off the board, lay the items on her bed, and she would look at each card or token (butterflies, autumn leaves, pictures) carefully. I would ask her where we might re-pin the cards on the board. According to her, everything should be hung low on the board so that she could look at them when she was in her wheelchair. (So clever, I would think.) Sometimes I would visit and she had taken everything off the cork board and I would find them in the trash can by her bed. Not saying a word, I would re-hang them when she wasn’t looking. She never commented on my actions.

Often I encourage family members and friends to mail cards to our loved ones who are in a long-term care facility (or hospital).  Many of the residents that I visit do not have a single card, plant, vase, picture, or special gift in their rooms. (Their rooms look bare and lonely.) When we mail a card once a month to someone who we cannot visit as often as we wish, we are giving them a true gift – a chance to receive mail, an opportunity to “show off” the card, and a gift of ourselves to them. In this simple act, we express consideration and support (and comfort) to our loved ones. A small expression gives huge joy. When we care for persons with dementia, we learn very quickly that the smallest of gestures are meaningful and matter the most. (Here’s a tip: choose greeting cards with beautiful pictures on the front such as animals, nature, butterflies, or flowers and add a handwritten note. “I love you and think of you every day. Thank you for everything that you did for me when I was a child.”)

Think of activities that our loved ones enjoyed when they were healthier and then tweak that activity to fit their level of ability. Someone who liked to make crafts in the past, might enjoy a box of different kinds of fabrics, buttons, and zippers. Different on-line sites sell quilts made with zippers, pockets and buttons and bows – called a fidget quilt – while others offer craft projects adapted to someone who has Alzheimer’s. This is a wonderful idea for those who enjoyed crafts, or for the person whose hands fidget and are in constant motion. (Each person with a dementia will be at a different stage of loss – some will not be able to use their hands due to loss of fine motor skills. And, of course, some will have forgotten how to tie a bow, fasten a button, etc.)

Some people with Alzheimer’s may not actually want to do the activity – but will enjoy sitting and watching their loved one participate. My mother no longer gardened but liked to watch the staff plant vegetables and flowers in the communal gardens.

Some people have dolls that can be dressed; some persons with dementia like to do puzzles (there are many puzzles that are adapted to Alzheimer’s and dementia); some will respond to a box of tools or a box of kitchen gadgets (for those who loved to cook). And many persons with a dementia love to draw or paint. When I visit the care facility, I am always astounded at the beauty of many of the paintings that are hung in the hallways – the subjects are often simple, but beautifully crafted: a simple maple tree, a vibrant red cardinal or a vase of flowers.

Finding the activity just takes a little detective work on the carer’s part. And sometimes our loved ones will tell us in their own way – my mother spent every day sorting through her dresser drawers, re-arranging things constantly. We learned that it calmed her and we stopped trying to re-order her items. Once I found mince tarts in her lingerie drawer and pieces of chocolate – all melted and a complete mess. We learned not to sweat the small stuff and just to remove the mince tarts and chocolate. (Tip: add some small boxes or plastic containers to the drawers so that your loved one can fill them with items of their own choosing.)

Lastly, I learned that sitting outdoors in the garden with my mother gave her immense pleasure. We would sit for a couple of hours, listening to the birdsong and watching the birds at the many feeders located in the garden. Squirrels would visit and the occasional rabbit family would grace us with their presence.

On a few occasions, my mother would comment on a trip that she made when she was a young woman, confusing the present day with her past. Instead of sitting with her daughter in the garden, she was sitting with her friend in the courtyard of the hotel where they stayed. At first I was confused about her stories, but I learned to just go with the flow – and stay in the Now. That is, my Now; not hers. Either  her past or my present, we both were content to sit in the garden in stillness and peace.

Those were the happiest times when we just sat in silence and stillness. I would forget that my mother had a dementia and lived in a long-term care facility. I just sat in the moment, enjoying the Now.

It’s really not about the activity or how we spend time with someone, it’s about the loving energy when we sit with them. If we visit with an open heart, and we are willing to leave our egos aside, our visit will matter – to our loved one and to us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pull the car over and just cry

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“Pull the car over and just cry. Give in to your sorrow.”

My neighbour stopped me last Friday, just when I was about to get into my car and run errands. Her mother died a few weeks ago, so I closed my car door and walked over to her.

I need your advice, she said. “I know that your mother died last year and you seem to be coping well.”

I didn’t answer her. I just listened.

She continued, “I drive around and I just want to pull over and cry my heart out. I don’t know what to do with myself or my emotions.”

She said a few more things… about caring for her mother for a long time, and how lost she felt now that her mother was gone. And she talked about how sad she felt. Everything she said resonated within me.

Finally she took a breath and looked at me, “What should I do? Do you have any advice?”

Before I could edit my words that were forming in my head, the words popped out…”Why don’t you just pull over and have a good cry? Give in to your emotions.”

She blinked. She blinked again. She stared at me intently. “Oh!” she whispered.

Her eyes welled up and she whispered, “Thank you.” And she turned away from me and went back into her house.

“Pull the car over and just cry.”

How little we need from each other when we are overcome with grief and sorrow.

While I was writing my Ebook about caring for parents with Alzheimer’s, I took a couple of courses in palliative care, and one of our instructors (a palliative nurse for many years) encouraged us to read a book, I Don’t Know What To Say – How to Help and Support Someone Who is Dying, by the late Dr. Robert Buckman.

When I first learned of Dr. Buckman, an oncologist, he hosted a television show in the 80’s, a show about sex. He was a warm and funny man and I immediately became a fan. When I Googled Dr. Buckman, I learned that he came to Canada in 1985 and worked in Sunnybrook Hospital and later, Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. He wrote a lot of books and publications and made many videos, combining medicine and humour. Interesting – I have always thought that people who combine science or medicine (that is, facts and information) with humour are gifted.

Dr. Buckman’s book set me straight many years ago. It was a difficult book to locate as it is out of print, but I bought a second-hand copy, on-line. I consider his I Don’t Know What To Say… a bedside table book – it is my go-to reference book whenever I learn of a friend’s poor diagnosis.

If I had to identify only one lesson that I have received from this book over the years, I would have to say it is: Listen. Say nothing. Just listen.

So when my neighbour asked me for advice, my other persona (I can fix this! persona) wanted to hijack the conversation; but, thankfully, I could hear Dr. Buckman whispering in my ear, just listen.

I wish I could say that I am a good listener all the time. It is actually the only 2016 intention that I made this year: Listen more. But the reality is that I often talk too much, especially when I am confronted with someone’s need to bare their soul to me. My default reaction is “Okay, I have just hung my armchair psychoanalyst shingle – I’m In – and I am ready to dispense advice.”

But wisely, Dr. Buckman encourages us to just stay still when someone comes to us with their sad news – a poor diagnosis or prognosis or a death of a loved one – and just say nothing.

He reminds us that patients or family members of someone who is ill or dying do not want us to solve their problems; they just want our ear. They want to talk and they need someone to just listen and say nothing. We can murmur yes, or nod our heads, or we can echo back to them what they just said as an affirmation that we are hearing them (correctly).

One of the most interesting things he wrote about was a simple lesson about listening.  A research study was done in the United States in which untrained people were taught to “counsel” volunteer patients – they were taught to just sit and listen and say “I see.” All of the patients thought that the counselling sessions were excellent, and asked to see their “therapists” for more sessions in the future. The untrained people (just by listening) were viewed by the patients as “therapists,” helpful “therapists,” no less.

Dr. Buckman was making a point – listening is a valuable and worthy strategy when dealing with people who have problems. Well, people with problems would include…all of us! The whole Universe (unless you are Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama).

Dr. Buckman’s advice is gold; it’s an alchemy.

Listening is a therapeutic tool because it allows for that sacred space: the space where there is stillness and silence. In that sacred space is where healing takes place and where acceptance lives. It is an energy that is real, and when we most need comfort and support, that healing energy allows us to talk freely, without distraction, without judgment. Listening can transform someone’s pain – just by allowing someone to share their pain and sorrow. When we listen to someone (without giving any advice), we silently transmit a message: I’m here for you; whatever you say, I hear you. And that silent message allows us to connect.

Thanks to Dr. Buckman I learned that I didn’t need to cure/solve/fix my neighbour’s grief.  Nor did I need to advise her – she already had the answer within.

Her first comment to me was that when she felt so sad and overcome with emotion, she just wanted to pull her car over and cry. That’s the answer.

Our hearts and our spirits always push us in the direction that we need to go…that little lesson I know for sure. Her heart was telling her to just cry and let it rip.

Holding on to our emotions is never a healthy coping strategy.  (If you are in a crowded arena with complete strangers,  you might want to hold in your emotional buildup. Like the time I was in a nurse’s office answering questions about my father’s needs on the first day of his entering a long-term care residence – I spotted him on a gurney in the hallway and I let it rip. I was an emotional geyser that blew up. I am sure that I traumatized the admitting nurse.)

No matter our age, losing a parent is a huge milestone in life. And one of the means of allowing ourselves to let go of the grief and sorrow as it wells up within is to…weep.

When we allow the emotions to flow, we show compassion to ourselves. If we feel anger, then acknowledge it. Sit with it. Whatever it is that we are feeling, whether it is sorrow, resentment, or anger – just sit with it and allow it. Do not fight it; or push it away; or ignore it; or look for distractions. Sooner or later our feelings need to vent. The beauty of this technique is it is so simple; no editing, no revising is necessary.

We need to allow our feelings, a voice. Sit with them and accept them and in time answers will arise and we will figure out why we are angry or resentful. And we will learn to let go. But first, there must be awareness.

We are human. And humans feel.

Pull the car over to the side of the road and just cry.

Trust me on this…you’ll feel better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birch trees

There are two birch trees that grace the front lawn of the cottage we rent each summer.

The story is that when the previous owner’s wife died, the trees were planted in her memory.

Birch trees in the front yard

The story and the birches have captured my fascination. I spend mornings contemplating life and the stillness of the hour from my faded pink and white macrame lawn chair on the back porch.

Life teams within the boughs and the branches.

White, peeling bark, trunks marked with black streaks, black notches, black smears – the nuthatch scours the inky crevices for insects. His upside-down trademark gives him a unique vantage point.

The downy woodpecker is another frequent visitor in the early am. I can close my eyes and hear his distinct tap against the trunk of the trees. Sometimes he finds a cache in the hollowed out niches; black holes that are not so empty.

In the tops of the birches where the leafy branches hide all, squirrels and blue jays duke it out. Both of them are loud and squawky, their angry, bullying cries puncture the morning’s silence. Some mornings the blue jay is victor; on others, squirrel reigns. I watch from my macrame chair and just laugh at their antics. I haven’t yet figured out their fight strategies. I suspect finders, keepers might be the rule.

When my husband finally joins me, he has a different routine – he will jump into his white pick-up and drive off down the dirt road, taking care to drive slowly – the sign beside the road warns Drive Slowing, Children at Play.  Fifteen minutes later he returns with his newspaper. Now he will sit beside me in a matching faded pink and white macrame lawn chair, coffee in one hand and paper in the other.

Only the rustling of the pages breaks the silence of the day.

Sometimes there is a rustling in the shrubs that demarcate the property line of the neighbouring cottages. A glimpse of a warbler, a cardinal, or the ubiquitous sparrow.

Occasionally my husband lifts his head when a chick-a-Dee-dee-dee rings aloud.

The birches stand as sentinels in the front yard which is actually (according to the seasoned cottagers) the back yard (even though it is facing the street). The back yard faces the water (the beautiful Lake Huron) so the insiders (the ones in the know) call it the front yard.

Confused? Don’t be. Think: water is beautiful, and therefore, the front! while the street is not so beautiful, therefore, the back! My husband says that is crazy talk, but I notice that he refers to the yards as tourists do (backwards), not as true cottagers do.

Sometimes I’ll sight an unknown visitor – a bird that I cannot identify – in the grass of the yard where I sit; I pull out my bird book, binoculars, and sketch book and make notes. I use the term grass loosely as the soil is too arid and the shade is too deep so the grass grows sparsely in patches only.  Once a week when the neighbour mows the grass for the absentee owner, dirt clouds follow his footsteps. From my comfortable perch on the porch, I would wear goggles, I often think. We like our neighbour (who is kind) and often cheer him on – we hold up hand-made signs that rate his work like Olympic judges: A perfect 10! or Sloppy lines – 6!  Our homemade signs that rate his lawn prowess always make him laugh – he has a nice laugh; it’s infectious.

After lunch we move to the front yard (on the water side) where we will read and drink some wine. Just in time for the afternoon matinée where a cast of cedar waxwings perform in numbers in the trees that grow on the slopes of the cliff. Theatrical costumes of black masks and feathered crowns are worthy of an encore.

If your seat is on the wrong side – back yard (street side) – you will miss the show. Performances last only an hour or two and always take place on the shore side. We always have front-row advantage – perfect viewing. The drinks aren’t bad either.

Our silence attracts more bird life. When our (invited) human guests arrive, the echoes of our voices carry and the birds fly away. So it is our stillness and silence, we have learned, that is rewarded.

I can sit quietly for hours. Once my husband was reading and I was studying the bird life from the porch, when a hummingbird visited the two of us. It hovered in the air within a few inches from my face. I sat still and didn’t alert my husband. Eventually the humming sound broke my husband’s attention and together we froze in awe and reverence. After what seemed minutes the hummingbird zipped away; just in time we caught glimpses of iridescent red and green. I have a flash memory of when I was little and I would stare for hours at our Christmas tree lights. I would squint my eyes to blur the lights – I thought they were prettier when unclear. Indistinct and blurry.

Silence is a source of great strength. Lao Tzu

I looked around the porch – not a plump flower. Flower boxes, one on each side of the steps, lined the railing – worn-out petunias, an ivy or two, dried out. No attraction there. Since hummingbirds like scented colour, I can only assume that my husband’s body scent of cinnamon toothpaste and neem soap  (both scents I highly recommend) lured our vibrating, shimmering guest.

An errant ox-eye daisy or two in the soil that surrounds the porch is the extent of the garden. Absentee owners do not water plants or amend soil. The flowers that were planted in the early spring are now forlorn-looking as neglect has taken its toll. Other than the two of us the only living, vibrant thing on the porch is a pot of basil – a necessity of life that I always tote along with me when I visit the cottage. My basil is alive and green. Perhaps the hummingbird is attracted to its aroma – an aroma that hints at pesto, bruschetta and sauces.

On the front porch is my throne – a faded pink and white macrame lawn chair – where I survey the abundance of the property and contemplate the possibilities of life. I can write and sketch birds from this perch; I can meditate in ease and stillness from this perch. I can dream of planting birch trees in my own garden at home.

Birch trees. Gifts from the Universe.