Tuesday, December 31, 2013


At 9:40 this morning, it’s  -36° C.  Warm and safe in my bedroom,  I can allow myself to admire the frozen beauty beyond the garden doors.  I can’t help but marvel at the resilience and savy of First Nations who thrived for millennia on this harsh and unforgiving land, and the determination of the Europeans who came later.

Today, however, secure in the humming furnace and flickering fireplace,  freed from the obligations of travel, and confident in the skills of the engineers across the province who keep pumping out the power on days like this, I can indulge in the view before me.  The deck itself is a meringue of sculpted undulations.  A blade of grass arches out like a stray hair on an old person’s chin.  Scattered around it, brown twists of dry leaves are toasted almonds dotting a cake icing.   Nothing moves.

The mountain ash growing out of the deck is imprisoned, too, in the frozen air like olives and shrimp in aspic.  The cedar waxwings have already devoured its berries.  There will be no bright red canopy this year to frame the panorama from the window.  To the left, evergreen branches caked with crisp snow hang over the side.  On the right, Adirondack chairs lean on the wall in their winter pose, penitents atoning for some summer misdemeanour.

Behind the ash, the tufts of snow on the glass railing around the deck could be the white chenille bedspread Maman used to smooth out every morning when she got up.  Between the clusters, I can see the trampoline covered with a foot-thick block of snow whose edges hug the frame like the sheets tucked into a hospital bed.  The tangled tentacles of the bare deciduous trees around it stretch against the trellis top of the cedar fence.  In front of those trees, in the center of the yard, a giant blue spruce extends its arms in a protective embrace,  having grown into the role since our first year in this house when, as a sapling from the Indian Head nursery, it stood vulnerable and alone in its designated spot, its future uncertain. 

Over that cemented world, the implacable blue prairie sky is a cloche insulating the creation within.  Ever the optimist, the sun convinces me that the bitter cold can be managed, if not always appreciated, in stark contrast to grey days of wind and rain that can only be endured. 

The frigid temperatures gripping the prairies, on the heels of the ice storm in Ontario and the blizzards in the Atlantic provinces, remind me of our vulnerability.   Despite the illusions of power that technology, the suave seducer, has created, the environment is always in full control.  My farmer father, who always had one eye on the sky,  once said to his city-bred nephew, tempering his benevolent view of nature,  “Nature destroys.”  Dependent on nature for his livelihood, he had witnessed fields parched by a decade-long drought,  crops levelled by hail and bins shredded into toothpicks by a passing tornado.

We can monitor natural phenomena, and we can try to predict trends, but we are subservient to nature always.  The consequences of our manifested cleverness only increase our subservience, an ironic hubris that resounds in retracting forests, evidence of climate changes, and polluted air.  Technology has unleashed forces whose effects may only be anticipated and managed rather than arrested.

And if, like the indigenous peoples of the world, industrial societies had respected the environment as a living entity, and had forged a partnership with it?  Well, then the scene outside my garden doors this morning might have pushed this reflection in an entirely different direction.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


The last note of “Joy to the World” rings out in the church, the clear trumpet tone floating over the top.  Silence ensues.  Applause erupts for the second time.  Singers and musicians set down their books and their instruments, hug, shake hands,  and wish each other Merry Christmas.  In the midst of the merriment, the strains of “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” filter through, along with information:  We’re doing The Virgin Mary again!  Musicians and singers scramble back to their spots, and the band rocks out the Caribbean hymn one more time.  Stragglers clap a third time.

Our Christmas Eve parish liturgy has been one for the books, not only for the parish, but for our family.  Our three children played bass and trumpet, and sang.  Two spouses sang from the pew. My sister and her family joined in the choir.  All ten of us, musicians since our childhood, have come together from Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan and California, to celebrate Christmas and to have some musical fun.  Collaborating with the parish organist and drummer, along with a few choir regular members and alumni, sixteen in all,  we have as a corollary created and shared a singular moment in family history.  Our orendas,  already potent as singular forces,  ignite magic when the individual sparks combust.

For the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the orenda is a supernatural force present in varying degrees in every living and non-living thing.  Through that spirit, all human accomplishment is possible.  In his book, The Orenda, Joseph Boyden calls it magic.   Maybe it’s fitting that I finished reading the novel as we celebrate another orenda, that of the Christ child whose birth we commemorate, and whose spirit combined with ours in that magical shared moment.  We may not make music together again for a long time, if ever.  But we have this Christmas Eve mass, and we can recreate it with a simple, Remember when . . . ?

During the ensuing thirty-six hours, separate orendas crystallize one molecule at a time, creating holograms of remembered identity, and bonding to form new compounds of togetherness.  We gather at the table as we have since my sister and I were children, as a nuclear family for réveillon, the traditional French-Canadian  post-midnight-mass bash, as well as the next evening, an extended family now, for Christmas dinner.  In the turkey stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, tourtière, butter tarts, and wine, we honour our French-Canadian roots.  In the cabbage rolls and apple strudel, we acknowledge the cultural traditions of our spouses.  In the salmon mousse, chocolate mascarpone crèpes and birthday trifle, we cultivate our own traditions.  Blessed by Memère’s grace, these foods incarnate absent loved ones, and remind us of who we are because of them.

The spirit of togetherness developed in the music and the feasting is nurtured further in the games.  Elmer and the kids continue to build shared experience by taking out the snow machines for a few hours on a balmy winter day.  They frolick and ski.  During indoor games like Taboo, structured in large teams, everyone’s abilities and idiosyncrasies shine and surprise.  We share stories, and recall childhood games like Button, Button, a gift from Grandma, where the object is to guess which person’s hand conceals a stray button.  The bonds forged during these hours are indissoluble.   

To family, music, food, and games, we add the celebration of our Christmas daughter's thirtieth birthday.  We tell the story of her birth--the midnight labour, the frigid night, so cold the air solidified and breath could be sliced, the morning birth, and the announcement during the homily at mass on Christmas morning.  

The Christmas Orenda has been an alchemy of these elements.  Decorations, gifts, clothing, or any of the products ubiquitous ads on television and the Internet have tried to convince us to purchase over the last few months have contributed little, if anything.  The magic has come from togetherness.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


“2 :00 a.m. is the new midnight,” Julian says, and he’s not joking.  He’s just finished telling me his band rehearsed at midnight because that’s the only time all the musicians were free.  I congratulate myself for camouflaging my motherly What? look as a smile with only the faintest widened eyes.   I don’t want to think about the sleep my son is not getting.

I am reminded of another son, a freshman engineering student at the time, reflecting on his first year of classes, fifteen years ago, in response to the Mother prompt, “What would you say is a critical learning from this first year?”   

“I learned that midnight is not late,”  he said, an insight to match the maxim on the  back of his Engineering Students’ Society shirt that read:     Work: Infinite Set.  Sleep: Null Set.  (I lost the battle to include the symbols in this post.)

Truth be told,  any worry over the children’s friendship with Midnight is fraudulent.  I myself am no stranger to the witching hour’s beguiling attraction or its  critical role as a go-to source of time reserves.  A list of things I have done at midnight looks like this:

·            searched the lapping flames in the patio fireplace, mesmerized,  for insight and balm, a glass of wine in hand; 
·            danced polkas, old-time waltzes, jives and two-steps until my feet hurt;
·            listened to my husband and my two sons perform in various venues;
·            travelled alone in the dead of winter on the last leg of a trip back from a concert;
·            snoozed and read on a 747 headed to Europe;
·            puzzled over dance costumes, and stitched them together;
·            computed marks, planned lessons, and read student work;
·            prepared report cards;
·            organized my classroom;
·            wrapped Christmas gifts;
·            prepared food for dinner parties, school functions, or pot-luck events;
·            checked my gift list during Midnight Madness, the crunch of boots on the snow a counterpoint to the serenade of carols and Christmas songs pouring from the speakers on the city streets;
·            been in labour, the midnight announcing Christmas morning, to boot, delivered of a baby girl, my best Christmas present ever;
·            nursed babies, curled up in the rocker, both of us cocooned in blankets;
·            waited up for a child or a sibling on the road from somewhere, sometimes in a storm;
·            learned to use the first Macs on graduate class assignments from the manual, trial and error, and the Help feature;
·            comforted a sick child;
·            called the Health Line;
·            stroked the hand of an ailing parent;
·            read books;
·            watched movies;
·            savoured the rush of liturgical music performed with friends and family at Midnight masses for Christmas and New Year;
·            embraced my family and wished them New Year blessings;
·            celebrated réveillon, the French-Canadian after-Midnight-Mass-bash of gift-opening, food, and spirits;
·            occasionally, slept.  

Midnight and I have a relationship built on shared experiences, fond memories, epiphanies, and benefits beyond restorative sleep.  My children, too, embrace Midnight as a legitimate part of their workday.  I have to accept that the normalcy of it is a part of their inheritance.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


One of the guests at the German Club Christmas party says it for me.

“What a lot of work it must be to set up all that equipment,”  she comments, as Elmer picks up the microphone to begin his part of the after-pot-luck entertainment.  Of course, he dismisses this acknowledgement. 

“Everyone involved did a lot of work to put on this evening,” he replies.   True enough.  Many people have worked hard.  Everyone has brought food.  Some have decorated the Christmas tree; others have put the coffee on and even made tea; another group has warmed up the hall, set poinsettas in the wall frames, spread festive cloths on the tables, or opened up the guest book.  Yet another person has thought of creating a side table of decadence and delight, featuring mandarin oranges, peppermint candy, toffee, and chocolates.  A silver Christmas tree, a thin ribbon of metal anchoring suspended glass teardrops and spiralled around a center pole, certifies it as the indulgence hot-spot.   ‘It’s Christmas,’ the hall breathes, in case anyone hasn't noticed.

But, yes, Elmer, too, has invested time and energy, as he does, year after year, month after month, helping people sing.  Tonight, as is his custom, he has set up well before supper.  He has brought his accordion, along with its electronic innards, affectionately known as the “gut-box.”  Nearby, he organizes an amplifier, his pouch of cords, and his music binders.  As he aims to project the song lyrics on the screen, he makes sure to have the LCD projector with its own particular hook-ups, and the back-up  jump drive.  My job is to bring the computer and the Mac adapter and provide tech support; he lugs our screen, a relic purchased at a school garage sale, and hooked onto a microphone stand on a table.  It works.

Earlier, he had reflected on the musical tastes of his audience, as well as the demands of the occasion.  Comprised almost entirely of seniors, it’s a public that loves traditional German music, that loves to sing, and that knows him.  His program will reflect that.

Away in a Manger
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
Ready to begin now, having morphed from stage crew into entertainer, he scans the program clipped to his music stand.  He greets the crowd, introduces himself, and sketches out the program—some old-time favorites and some community Christmas carolling.  He plays “The Beer Barrel Polka,” and “The Snow Waltz,” and “The Liechtensteiner Polka.”  He prefaces each selection with stories that resonate with the audience—about the country school he attended as a boy, or a former teacher of his, the husband of an audience member.  He intersperses a joke or two.  Later, he plays one of his favorite songs, “Seemann” (Sailor), that he relates to one of the guests.   The music and the interaction solidify the spirit of community.

All I Want For Christmas Is
My Two Front Teeth
Elmer segues into community singing.  From the 110 slides he has prepared on an electronic file flashed on the screen, he selects first the essence, traditional German songs like “Muss Ich Den,” and “Du Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen.”  The words breathe childhood, struggle, nostalgia, and identity.  The melodies penetrate each person in the room, and bind one to the other in an invisible web of common experience, past and present.  After the root songs, he moves on to common Christmas carols:  “Joy to the World,” and other sacred and secular favorites.   As I skip over “Silver Bells” on the way to “O Tannenbaum,” someone calls out, “Oh, ‘Silver Bells.’”  So we back up and sing, men echoing ‘Silver Bells’ on the refrain.  Forty minutes dissolve.

What Child Is This?
After the music, we play ‘Guess the Carol,’ courtesy of another club member.  (Try your hand at the examples I’ve included at the right.  Use the comment box to identify the carols.)  People stay, despite the bone-chilling cold and wind.  They sip their coffee, flit from table to table, visit, catch up.  In that staying and sipping and visiting and catching up, the effort of the organizers and the time Elmer has given is affirmed.  It doesn't matter that take-down looms, and more hauling of equipment back home.

The evening is yet another example of the power of Yes.  The people gathered in that hall leave uplifted, their community ties relaquered and reknotted because a handful of people said, ‘Sure.  I’ll do it.  I’d be happy to.’  The power is in the sharing, the service, and the effect.  Certainly not in the money.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


“Oh, Yvette, it’s you.  I didn’t expect you to answer the phone.”  I could understand that.  Often, when I make a call, I rehearse the message I will leave when I get to voicemail while the phone is ringing.

“Well, it is me,” I laughed.  “How can I help you?”

“Yvette, tonight is Hymn Sing at the Home.  Susan has laryngitis.  Could you fill in?  It’s only about half an hour.  Sing what you like.”

Could I fill in?  Good question.  Or, more to the point, did I want to fill in?  My intuition told me that the hymns I learned in my small-town French Canadian Catholic parish + the hymns I have been leading in my own parish during the last 35 years the hymns the residents would be able to sing along to and want to hear.

“There’s a book, and the people will sing along, and you can choose what you want.”

“Sure, Jackie, I’d be happy to come.”

“Really, Yvette?  You’ll come?”  Sometimes, I shudder to think of the impression I must make on people.

“Yes.  I’d love to.  What time?”

“Six o’clock.”

“Okay.  See you then.”

So, after work, I stopped at home to pick up our two parish hymnals, just in case I needed a melody.  This was to be an a capella gig, and I might need some support.  As I navigated toward the Home, I thought of my strategy :  first, the familiar, then the familiar to them that I could support with the piano.  It just might work.

Residents had started to gather when I walked into the recreation room about 5:45 p.m. Some wheeled in on their own power, and found a place in the lines or by the wall.  Others were taxied in and positioned.  Kathy glided over to say hello.  “Are you visiting here tonight?” she asked.

“Yes and no,” I replied.  “I’m here to lead the Hymn Sing.  Jackie is desperate.”

“I never come to Hymn Sing,” Kathy commented.

“Well, you have to come tonight,” I encouraged.  She stayed.  I excused myself to check out the song books.  They confirmed my original fear—lots of hymns with only a few lines I could hum on my own.   

“Hey, Yvette,” Virginia piped up.  “The music for the hymns is in the binders on the piano.”  Bless you, I thought.  I am saved.

We started with “He’s Got the Whole World.”  Safe, I figured.  Upbeat.  People clapped.  We sang all the verses in the songbook, and then made up our own.  “He’s got the wind and the cold . . .” and then, three days before the Grey Cup, “He’s got Rider Nation . . . In His hands he’s got Rider Nation . . .”  That song set the tone.  I smiled, and wandered among the audience, and they smiled back and sang along.  We went through “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You,” “Lord of the Dance,” “Amazing Grace,” “Here I Am,” and “Abide With Me”.  Although I had to use the piano a few times, I handled some requests and we made it through the session.  When I announced the last hymn, the residents had the grace to sound disappointed.

Afterwards, they insisted I stay for cake and coffee.  I thanked everyone individually, shaking hands and looking into their eyes, seeing my father among them in the last two months of his life, and seeing myself in their place twenty or twenty-five years down the road.  One hour of my time invested in something so simple brought so much joy to a singular group of people.

All because I answered my cellphone, and said ‘Yes!’  A powerful word, Yes.