How to Not Starve class

Fridays at my school we teach a series of classes on whatever we and the students, just the K through 8, think is interesting, running them for a semester. My classes are Drawing from Nature, How to Not Starve (wild edibles), Photographing Nature, and Food Science. The most fun, and most work, has been How to Not Starve. I knew there was a lot to eat in the Pacific Northwest landscape and shoreline, even this time of year, and I’m learning even more. Because I’m so busy with my academic classes (high school) the rest of the week, I tend to throw plans together for Friday the day before, and sometimes as dusk is falling, so I have to go out with a headlamp to get samples.

The first day we brainstormed situations where a knowledge of wild edibles would be useful, talked about the basics of survival nutrition, and sampled wild salad greens–dandelion, shotweed, chickweed, clover, rye grass, and a few others. The second day the students did some online research, we talked about the nutritional benefits of tea, and we had mint, raspberry leaf and chamomile. I had happened on a freshly car0killed squirrel the day before, which I brought out to illustrate the idea of using wild animals for a protein source. I also gave them Korean dogwood fruit, there being several heavy-laden trees in the school landscape, rose hips, hawthorn haws, and Oregon grape. For variety I also made collards with onions and garlic, and applesauce from substandard apples. I found a cool YouTube site (link to Wild Edibles Season 1 here) that I played portions of while cooking.

This is the class of all those I teach that has the potential of being the most useful. It really could be that these twenty kids might need to find stuff to eat one day, the Big One having struck, and his and other supplies having run low. In the meantime, the students are pretty adventurous and enthusiastic, and I hear have been bringing weeds to their home cooks and requesting to go out to the fields to gather leaves for tea. Now they know that although some of those berries may not taste great on their own, if they mix them with a little apple or honey or rhubarb they can be very tasty, as well as highly nutritious. They know to chew a little more or boil up the tougher greens, and when all else fails, eat hawthorn leaves.

Last class I asked why they thought there were so little wild edibles allowed to grow around town. Then we discussed the meaning of “weed,” which I hope will narrow down for them, as they now have a greater value for those they know can be food.

This weekend I made dandelion coffee, which was delicious, and I’ll be doing that next, step by step, first digging with whatever we can find, then washing, then roasting, grinding, and pressing. We’ll have moved to our new rented building by then, and it’ll be interesting to scout out the much larger grounds to see what we can glean, and find out if the owners might allow us to cordon off a little area to allow to grow wild, and/or create a wild edibles demo garden.

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Posted by on October 23, 2016 in Education


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But I didn’t ask them, Do chimps have souls?

I’m still on the fence about whether I could be content teaching at this school for the long term. Still not sure if helping open up a certain percentage of minds to valuing scientific methods and evidenced based conclusions is important enough, compared to maybe working with marginalized students.

My biology classes are in the midst a unit for which a key question is “What makes humans unique?” I had the students watch “Among the Wild Chimpanzees,” about the work of Jane Goodall, and gave reflection questions as homework. Back in class, I asked them to share their answers to the last question, “Has watching this film changed your views about the uniqueness of humans or our relationship with other animals in any way?” I expected a few different responses, but instead, got a resounding, “No!” from a chorus of voices, accompanied by smiles of what looked a little like triumph, though more impish than defiant. I was actually taken aback, and said, “That’s okay.! You don’t have to.” They are definitely on their guard, those conservative Christian youth, in case I might relativize their truth in some way.

In the prior small group discussion in which students were challenged to come to consensus about what makes humans unique, and then to narrow these things down to what was scientifically testable and verifiable, it came out that there was a strong consensus that humans have a soul. I said, okay, the fact that you all believe that is because you live in a community full of families that have brought you up that way. I asked what it might be like for someone who publicly declared that they disagreed. They started a bit at that idea. So, I said, you believe that, you know that, as have most people from all over the world, in various ways, for thousands of years. But the reason you know it is outside of the tools of science, in a different way of knowing. This type of knowledge is not discoverable by science.

The idea here is that humans are unique in their ability to use symbolic language, pass on cultural traditions, and develop complex technologies, and in an extended childhood through rites of passage, but that they also share lots of characteristics with other animals, especially chimps. They all saw how the chimps use intelligence to solve problems, made and used tools, educated their young, and maintained close emotional bonds with members of the community. They also made war and sometimes engaged in cannibalism and other kinds of nastiness not generally acceptable in the community, but also present in human society. I sent them home this time with the question, WHY do you think we have so much in common with chimps? Most of the students (maybe all) believe, that scientists will tell them that humans descended from apes, and that’s not okay. Will they say really, we aren’t similar to chimps, it only looks that way because of scientists’ bias? Or that God created the chimps the way they are just like he created us the way we are?

And so then we’ll move on to interpretations of human culture, to the way human communities foster children through a long childhood, and then, all bets are off as we move to identifying the characteristics of all living things, and then evolution and Earth’s history, both hot potato topics. Stay tuned.



Posted by on October 22, 2016 in Education, Religion & Spirituality


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Notes on the new teaching job at the end of the first month

It’s past my bedtime, but I dare say tomorrow I’ll get up past my waking time. I’m tired, looking forward to extra rest, but in general I’ve been getting recharged by teaching. Moving a little more away from that edge where one can barely plan one day at a time except on long weekends and holidays. Last year’s work on biology and environmental science have provided a bank of materials I like to go with major topics in bio. In the case of environmental science, which I patched together into a hodgepodge of a course last year, I can see the long view and how things ought to fit together. Plus the three different math classes seem to be going pretty well and the students like the pace (though apparently the science homework has been too heavy). I guess I like teaching math after all.

Really like the people I work with. I share my desk room (teach in a different one) with a fellow who was a lawyer before this and has a small farm, He plays electric guitar and brings his acoustic to play after school with anyone who wants to, including a few students who drop by to learn a few things. The other teacher down the hall was in a band, maybe more than one, in Australia, and brings his “axe”(just learned that term from my office mate) down for a jam. I’ve only participated once so far, but now I keep my acoustic on site and once I feel a little less behind after school, will pick up some tunes again. We all know a bunch of the same folk and rock, and lawyer farmer is going to bring in some bluegrass & roots, while I hope to learn the science and history songs the Aussie has written over the years a a teacher.

The other high school teacher is super supportive and positive, and is the lead teacher and a principal in training. Then there’s the crazy middle school teacher everyone loves best of all, because he yells at them, acts all gruff, does track and field, and doesn’t always follow protocol. They see through him pretty quick. He said teaching was life-changing for him. Started with coaching football, then when he applied to work in the school district he grew up in, a complete rascal all the way, they said they’d hire him on condition he never pulled any of those kind of stunts again. The other teacher said he went back and apologized to all his former middle school teachers after he started working. The other day I overheard him shout, “I’m going to make you write ’till your fingers bleed! Mwahaha!!!” Incredibly high energy too, says he’s always been kind of ADHD.

The principal is just very kind and supportive, humble as he climbs his own huge learning curve, and and also effective at what he does, so has earned the staff’s respect.

Parent volunteers have been great, too—one who has this huge nurturing gift, who I can tell is energized by reaching out in genuine ways to inquire about and bolster the state of our souls. Another was the one from Nova Scotia I met early on, though I haven’t seen her much. The three office staff are very hard working and efficient, though kind of in a different circle.

Getting to know the students has been slow but steady–twice a week and packed with content, have to figure out a better rhythm for the science classes. I’m realizing that the students know very little about the environmental systems of the Earth–didn’t know what the atmosphere was, for example, and I’m pretty sure an in depth look at climate change has been outside the purview of their homeschool education. So I’m looking forward to opening that and many other doors.

Speaking of doors, I’ve already opened the door into learning about evolution, and have had several conversations with one parent of two of my students about how I plan to teach on it, starting before classes even got started. Others are quietly buzzing around the periphery, so I much prefer her direct approach. There seemed to be a feeling that such parents are overly involved, but it sure beats the sudden and unexplained exit of a family over unknown concerns, which I’m told happens a few times every year. I invited this mom to come listen to the classes where I teach on Darwin’s ideas, though I said evolution is a thread throughout the whole year.

I’m excited to bring what I have to the table, or whiteboard, but I had to remind myself to take it slow–both for my own need to do only so many new or big or in depth things at a time in my first year her, and to keep from shaking anything up before I’ve established myself as a person who has a solid understanding of science, math, and high school students, as well as an appreciation of and respect for parents’ role as their kids’ primary educators. Like I told one mom when we were speaking about her son, who has communication problems yet to be filly diagnosed, she is the boss, and if teachers don’t get him or lay on too much work without enough support, she should protect him from that and let him learn from a space of peace, not stress and unreasonable expectations. As a high achiever herself, she seemed to need that reminder that school work was the servant, not the master.

Homeschool parents talk to each other a lot. I hope to send the word and have it spread that they can bring up concerns and issues and I will not be offended or feel interfered with, that I see myself as their delegated stand-in teacher of certain subjects. Also that I regard my role as a public school teacher as one from which I teach science from a scientific standpoint and do not plan to avoid any important aspect of well established scientific theory or practice, whether or not it seems to conflict with conservative religious views. Finally, that my main agenda as a teacher is the same as that of anyone of the Judeo-Christian tradition and many another tradition, to be a blessing to the people I serve.


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Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Education


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Almost completely pure berry juice, with a little sweet lime

Just finished my first day of teaching, with a sense of relief at finally meeting real people and seeing, as the new principal said, what it looks like here. He’s new too. It looks like, wow! Good sized classes, neither too big nor too small, of bight-eyed teens and expecting and planning to do all their homework on time and needing only a few hours of guidance and inspiration per week to do the same thing others sit in class for five hours per week to accomplish.

I did not feel ready, having focused most of my time in the weeks leading up on getting to know the five new curricula, laying out the big picture plans, and thinking of cool science project and lab ideas. But my fellow teachers seemed to all feel the same, and weren’t hesitant to admit it. The first few day of two, everything is so different for the students switching out of summertime, back with friends or in a crowd of strangers, new teachers, all that bewildering the senses for them, too, that it’s best to keep things simple, and not necessarily “burn from the word go,” or “teach like your hair’s on fire”. At least not in every class.

So I laid down some paper, went over syllabi, told them a bit about myself and played the “stand up if you…” game. It worked beautifully, and I found out that the senior academy is full of musicians, athletes, a good number of readers and writers, a few who love math or science or know how to program, more than the average number who can tell how to tell one kind of tree from another, make pickles, and shoot a rifle, have traveled to the East coast or Alaska, and even a half dozen whose grandfathers, like mine, lived for months in the woods trapping and hunting for a living. No one knew how to make yogurt, so I said I’d teach them, as it was a biological process. I had them practice the opposite circling hands exercise while I told them about the mind’s plasticity, that it was amazing what connections our brains would make if we had a growth mindset. When I had nothing more to add, I wrapped up each math class with a start at the Chapter zero Pre-test and the sciences with or a Bozeman Science video to be continued or reviewed at home.

I noticed also, though I, too am taking in only the first layer of this new reality, some unique individuals, introverts by nature, who are full of interesting knowledge and experience, and a kind of quiet willingness to open up and be appreciated. They too enjoyed the game, not a grin-and-bear-it face among them.

In biology the second item on the list of syllabus topics was evolution. Was there anyone, I asked, who felt that was a controversial subject? Yes, a few acknowledged, one or two emphatic nods. I said we’d be finding out what evidence scientists used to come up with the theory of evolution they’ve probably heard of, but how much more there was to the idea, and the ways that scientists could observe first hand and even test and replicate the process of evolution on a shorter time scale. Said they’d definitely find it very interesting. Put out a request for fresh road kill and birds that had lost their lives to window reflections. Asked them to email me to see if it should be brought in fresh or kept in the freezer for a while. No one said “Ew, gross!”

The environmental science class had actually signed up for a course labeled “General Science,” so I told them–Surprise!–when I was hired I got to choose the emphasis of the class, and since they’d already completed biology and the End of Course exam requirement, environmental science was a good next step, was full of ways to deepen and integrate and connect scientific knowledge. It was also an important and timely kind of study in this era of awareness of the many environmental problems we are facing. That class was all young women, except one. Is it women that will solve all our environmental problems? I asked, before the fellow showed up. Definitely, one said, and the others nodded.

Our next classes are a week away, because of our Monday-Wednesday schedule and the holiday, and Friday classes don’t start for another two weeks, so I have an unbelievable three more days of paid planning plus a long weekend. I wish all districts could afford to treat its teachers this way.

I had a heavy harvest of raspberries and blackberries in the garden this summer, and they are still bearing. So I mashed and squeezed a quart, and drank up the aroma of the breeze off a warm bramble patch with my evening meal.



Posted by on August 31, 2016 in Education


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End of summer regrets and anticipations

I’m going to try to get at the root of my feelings here. I’ll have to part the complicated net of stress about various things–starting a new teaching job, not having done enough planning for the time I have left before classes start, wondering whether I will make some new friends there, if the commute will bother me much. Put aside my sense of regret at not having the time I wanted for concentrating on my two youngest children’s journey and growth, or my own projects. A sense of loss at having had to say goodbye to the school I so enjoyed working at last year.

I’ll have to brush away the awareness of my diminished energy as I age, the early signals of impending menopause. Have to put aside the sense of sadness about saying goodbye to my two oldest children as they head off to college, and the sad changes in my extended family that have begun to occur more frequently. The awareness of a need to process with my mate some of the conflicts and negative patterns that we have developed so that we can head into this new phase in the right spirit.

And now, just as I have come to place where I should start the paragraph about why I am motivated to teach after all, restoring my sense of purpose and vision, I have succeeded in disheartening myself. I have created a picture in which I am turning my back on the duties, delights and calling of my own abode to serve other families’ children in the “greater society.” And so ultimately I reveal my bias that deep down I feel that charity begins at home. But apparently I also believe if that charity is hard to muster or is not received in the way I am able to offer it, or if one has to lay up a bigger nest egg or refine marketable skills, then it’s time to go out and get a job. It’s good for a home maker to get out there and broaden her horizons, to see what she can do, to be recognized, paid for once, for her skills and service. To meet new people, try new things. And, they say, it’s good for the kids to see that you’re not just a mother, wife, home maker, domestic engineer. That you “have a life” outside raising them.

Yesterday afternoon my husband helped me put together the new cider press I bought. It sits in the living room, a handsome classic in wood and cast iron, ready to grind and juice the harvest of apples I have grown or got permission to glean.

On the floor in the kitchen sits my canning pot and two boxes of jars and lids, ready to hold sauce made from two large bowls of fresh tomatoes on the counter. Outside the basil is ready to pick and dry, the savory and onion seedlings ready to plant.

In the garage I have stored the parts of a chair I refinished and the pillows I recovered, needing a few day of labor to finish up repairs and reassemble. Also there is a laundry plunger, which I had planned to use to set up a non-electric laundry system that would get our things much cleaner than the half-hearted tumbling actions of our handsome new front loader from the big box store. My sewing and craft supplies are stored there, too, not used except in cases of necessity.

I have ideas for a writing project, a yard redo, a bicycle storage shed, an organic permaculture expansion. Somewhere I stored away my daughter’s partially finished quilt, and fabric for projects I was going to do with the kids to teach them to sew.

Out of my office window (I have to vacate in a few weeks) I see a father and small son heading past the dock on a standup paddle board. I bought one of those, too this spring, and have not yet found the time to use it. Since my foot and knee started complaining, I have been hoping to transition to more water based exercise and cycling. Last week my husband was urging me to shop for bicycles now that they are on sale, knowing mine is shot and that I’d wanted to ditch the car for a good commuter bike when I had the chance. I had to tell him it’s still not practical, since we have no bike storage, and now my job is twenty miles away up a busy route.

Outside in the boat repair yard I spy a woman sitting on her dry docked sail boat taking a break. She drove here to be by herself and decided it’s better to sit on a boat in a parking lot than wait months for the time and money to repair it and get it on the water. It’s a Sunday, and I think she expected to have privacy, to be able to feel the sea breeze, hear the lines snapping and gulls cry while she collected her thoughts, or let them go.

Let them go. Let it be. See the positive. The medicine for my soul’s illness I can find within. God is in control, and in all things he works for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Look on the bright side. Stop it, in other words.

I can do that. I have this sad ability to switch off certain emotions if I decide that they are processing badly. Not sure where they go, but I can suddenly stow them away and apparently move on. It’s been good to get them out there, and maybe that’s part of the coming to terms.

On to what I hope to accomplish this year, so as to begin with the end in mind.

The teaching of math part really doesn’t grab me, I’ll have to admit. So in my math classes, other than to help the students get the grounding and practice they need, I just want to help them get along and to know that they are valuable and important, part of a community, responsible for their own success. My job is to stay a few steps ahead, come up with various ways to teach to various students, and have a management system in place that helps them pace themselves as they get the work done at school and at home.

Preparing to teach biology (two classes) and environmental science (one) are absorbing much more of my time and energy. This is where I’d like to make a long term impact. I hope to instill/nurture a sense of wonder and curiosity about life, a good understanding of how living systems work and how science works, what questions we should pursue and how, and how useful science can be to help humans make decisions about how we live personally and organize our economic, social and industrial activities on this planet. I want them to understand that technology has no merit in itself, that it is how we adapt, whether poorly or well, to the realities as we understand. I want them to see the big picture, to get a sense of the possible philosophies that can drive scientific inquiry and technological innovation. I want them to choose quality, equity, justice, love, whether they go into agriculture, nursing, journalism, or management.

And so, writing this out was helpful after all, and has sort of a happy ending, all things considered, some more than others.


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In which the teacher wonders whether she will be able to fit in at her new school

More on the job search; new development: I got a full time position. Nice to know a month before starting–lots of time to plan, but maybe too much time to brood. Now there’s just a week, and I’m still feeling unsure.

I had hoped to be called by my district–the one I live in and which gave me the job I finished in June–about a middle school science or high school biology job. I thought I had a pretty good shot at it, with experience, good references, a few connections. But the weeks went by after my application was in, and no calls, no emails, and then “position filled” on the jobs website, same as last year. Also hoped to be able to bike to work, was poised to buy the bike, set up the storage rack inside the garage, now to be vacated by college age child. But no response to the applications I put in.

Six nearby districts had no relevant postings at all. The seventh had a maybe–a posting for high school math and science at an alternative school I’d never heard of, serving homeschooled students. I read the requirements, and I was a one hundred percent match, and more. So I applied, and got a call the next week, had my interview set up for that Friday. I should have been pumped– full time, alternative, fully qualified. The forty minute commute was regrettable, but we had been looking around for properties, and could easily settle closer if things worked out in that district.

But it was in that very religiously conservative town that I’ve written of before, the one I’ve never been interested in living in, never felt I fit in culturally. Even when I was more religious I was never conservative enough in the right ways, felt too edgy, likely to offend or be judged. On paper I looked like a good fit, but deep down I wondered if I would fit in. The school served homeschool families exclusively in a parent partnership model, which meant I needed to bridge those worlds and be super flexible about the different ways families approached education, which working within the public education professional paradigm.

I didn’t prepare much–just refreshed my mind with notes I’d taken for previous interviews, and wrote down my questions for them. My goal was to find out if this job would keep me on track for working with some of the “tougher” kids in the system, preferably back in the city, and maybe even in the school I worked in last year, after it had its new, larger building and needed more science teachers. I interviewed with the principal, who also teaches part time, and a teacher leader who was serving as a kind of assistant principal.

The school uses part of a building shared by a church and several other Christian ministries, including health services (free pregnancy tests) and a clothing distribution center. The principal and teacher were sharing a joke when I walked in the outer door, warmly asked me to wait a few minutes, then I was invited into the office. They asked me to tell about myself, nodded with appreciation at the places in my narrative that indicated a fit to the position. Asked me what was the worst lesson I ever taught. I said I couldn’t think of a specific one, but in general I mostly regretted times when I talked too much and listened too little, or where I was not relaxed enough to be myself and teach in my natural way. The teacher asked me whether I had used a particular curriculum as a homeschooler. I was prepared for this, having resolved not to let on that I had raised my children in Christianity, feeling that this information had no legitimate place in a public school teacher interview. I said I had used various things, and a literature rich approach. She pressed, which approach was that? I confessed that I had used Sonlight Curriculum. Ah, they both sighed in satisfaction–that was a good one. So the cat was partially out of the bag.

I asked them what they felt were the strengths of their school, and the challenges. Strengths were the tight knit team and close community of the student body, challenges included dealing with strong willed parents. Tied to that, I asked them if in the course of teaching some aspects of biology to children of conservative Christians, there sometimes arose conflicts over certain scientific ideas such as evolution. Because although I was brought up a believer, I only became familiar with creationism later, I said. I was interested in others’ viewpoints, indeed had sought out creationist books at a homeschool book fair to see what the most educated creationists had to say. Yes, sometimes, the principal said, there were sometimes parents who objected, but he would be there to help deal with that, and besides, he said, you don’t have to teach everything. This got my attention, as it implied that it might be best to sidestep such conflicts by cutting out science content. For example, he continued, once he worked at a school where the librarian wanted to have Harry Potter books in the library, and he had said to her that he had nothing against having books like that, but why did she have to have them?

By this I understood that, at the very least, this was a principal of the Golden Retriever personality type, a peacemaker who doesn’t stand up for principles where that brings interpersonal conflict. That’s a red flag for me, as I enjoy bringing up and discussing controversial issues in order to learn and teach, and do try to adhere to principles of truth even when that brings on some heat. Not that peace making isn’t an important principle also, and it could be a great thing to work with an administrator who prioritizes mutual good feeling. It all makes me wonder about the balance between teaching from who I am, which includes teaching about evolution, sex ed, whatever, because these are important science, and the need to respect local community values and parental authority over children’s education. That last was big for me as a homeschooling parent–I didn’t appreciate a paternalistic attitude in school personnel, as I viewed them as having only delegated authority and only over a certain aspects of children’s lives. But I do have values to inculcate as a teacher, too, and that includes a respect for reason, logic, and empirical evidence.

I got a call from the principal as I was pulling into the fabric store on the way home. He offered me the job, said he had already spoken to my references, and would be please to hear my answer that Monday, if that worked for me. I thanked him and said I would give it careful thought. I accepted the job on Monday, not having been able to give the final word to my red flags, glad to have a full time opportunity, and knowing I would benefit from the need to learn the curricula for all six courses I would be teaching. Six is a lot, but only Mondays and Wednesdays and heavily supported by home assignments supervised by parents.

My other source of discontent is that I don’t really feel that homeschool kids need the kind of support I want to give. The have supportive families, are economically stable enough to be homeschooled, and are mostly independent, self- motivated learners. I really wanted to get back into serving the tough kids, the kids who didn’t fit, the kids who had something that needed to be discovered and busted out in a special supportive setting, who were the ones mostly driving the best efforts of education leaders and making schools a more authentic place of learning and growth. I missed my school from last year.

There is one way in which I could see these homeschool students, the ones from the religiously conservative families, needing, at least in my mind, what I had to give. I could maybe get some of them them hooked on biology/ecology, more knowledgeable about the natural/created world, help them understand the value of rational scientific thinking about it and see it as a powerful aid to growth and developing purpose rather than a tool of the enemy. I grew up on the hymn “This is My Father’s World,” my earthly father reinforced the Bible’s teaching on stewardship, and I enjoyed and still enjoy reading the Psalms for the way they celebrate the beauty and power of the creation. Later my conservative Christian teachers emphasized, in reaction to New Age religion, that we are to worship the Creator rather than creation, which I had though was a no-brainer, but whatever. The only people with whom I shared the values of living lightly, recycling, cutting down on energy use and preserving biodiversity, besides my father, one Regent College professor, and several friends who I was able to influence, were decidedly non-religious. Inter-Varsity Press, NavPress and Multnomah Press books on how to live the Christian life, think critically and biblically about the issues, were light on stewardship. I was aware that liberal Christians were more into environmental conservation, but they were not very helpful in the struggle with personal morality and purity of thought life.

I’m planning my biology and environmental science classes now, and intend to do what I can to support critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and the development of an environmental ethic rooted in a value for sustainability. In other words, let’s understand natural systems, lets’ understand how humans depend on and affect them, and let’s not promote the destruction of human society. Valuing all other life forms will have to stem from long term self interest with a primal drive rooted in our selfish genes. There is no conservative without conservation, no religion without human society, no traditional values without sustainable traditions. There is no intelligent design of humans in God’s image if those humans don’t know how to design intelligently.



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On to Montreal to see Sister 1

I spotted my sister before she saw us–she was standing outside her rented car looking over where we had just come from. Wasn’t sure if it was really her, as it was dim, and she was just far enough away, and I hadn’t seen her since 2009. I called out and she turned and smiled in recognition as we started over. I guess I looked pretty much the same, plus signs of the years and darker hair. But my daughter she looked at in a kind of wonder. It had been seven years, my daughter had been ten at our last visit, and was now six inches taller that her aunt, a tall, slim beauty.

We loaded up the suitcases and headed out in Amber’s rented car before the attendants could ticket it.

Amber is seven years younger than I, and when we were growing up, that was a lot. She and my youngest sister were close to each other, but to me, both were little playmates or annoyances, depending. I played with them, might have changed a diaper or two, sewed dresses for them, but they were like a different generation, me in seventh grade at a different school by the time Amber started kindergarten. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, nor do I resent it now, they were the reason Mom had her hands so full in my upper elementary to teen years.

In later years, though Amber graduated from McGill in music and stayed in Montreal, and I finished up my education degree and moved out west, we reconnected at times, with visits at the homestead, and once in Montreal. There was the connection of evangelical Christian faith then, found separately and in different ways, as well as the experience of independence of adulthood, and reflecting on the setting in which we grew up. Whenever we met we had lots to talk about and have felt at ease doing so. Still, we don’t know each other well, with only a few days every few years to go on. I have drifted away from her beliefs in many ways, but the awkwardness of that is not as it was. On my side, mostly, I guess–she has never been pushy or judgmental, and is a loving, service-oriented sort of person, and generally fun to be with. And she laughs at my jokes.

The day before was Moving Day in Montreal, just after all leases end or are renewed by law, and her new flat was full of boxes, taped, labeled and stacked. The street outside held evidence of several moves, including a set of bedroom churches bagged and labelled “punaises,” which late I found means bedbugs.

We helped Amber get her basic kitchen equipped and flatten some boxes. Her belongings were basic, but we found what we needed, and fried up something or other for supper. We each got a room and hit the sack after talking late.

You never really know some people–ever mysterious and wonderfully so. But at least with family there can be a given that you’ll stay connected over the years and keep at it, however slowly. Maybe getting to know siblings is confused by projection of self, in addition to various kinds of growing-up baggage. So many similarities, just by the fact of having the same parents and, in our case, our shared physical environment. The same people lived nearby, mostly still do in some form. One of my best friends had a sister that was one of Amber’s. We went to the same schools and had some of the same teachers, and our neighbors never changed, just grew up along with us, and eventually inherited the family place. We know the tides, winds, slow springs, humid Julys and tingle of first frosty October mornings followed by warm afternoons. We know the creak of our mother’s knees and sound of feet hollowly stepping up thirteen stairs, the particular thump of each bedroom door, the smell of newly mown hay and the first spread of cow manure on the nearby fields.

My daughter was helpful on this journey, pointing out qualities I had overlooked, similarities and differences she saw, and sometimes critiquing my less than perfect ways of communicating (mostly with my mother, as we shall see). Concerning my Montreal sister, I agree with my daughter’s comment, after all our visits were over, that she is the least like all the other siblings, or like our parents. For some reason, we don’t really count my youngest brother in the group, because he’s always marched to a different drummer, and been responded to differently, as we also shall see..

Amber looks different, for one, with her auburn-brown hair and chocolate brown eyes, wide mouth, pale skin and freckles. Though we were all brought up with music, she was the only one that went whole-heartedly into music study, majoring in piano performance at McGill. She was a Bach fiend, winning lots of prizes at our local adjudicated music festival and holding her own even among the big fish at Montreal. She was so intent–loved to practice, outgrew two piano teachers, started accompanying a church choir all before heading to college. Our old wooden farmhouse with the finished pine floors resounded each day with wonderful sounds until she left. Mo and Dad would have sent the piano to her, if it had been practical.

I was off doing my own thing in those years—studying education, moving out west, and then getting engaged. We did all major in doing our own thing, not resenting each other for not keeping in great touch, but enjoying the connections we had from time to time. Our brother Matt married his sweetheart Heather in Ontario, bringing the family together there for the wedding in 1993, and we three sisters sang “Wherever you Go, I Will Go” at the ceremony, then watched them drift off into a lake on a houseboat honeymoon.

Amber takes a relaxed approach to life and music now. She enjoys her job working as a student advisor in the engineering department at McGill (where she once met Justin Trudeau, though she didn’t recognize him). She got a promotion, then dropped back down to her former position, because she enjoyed the pace and interactions more. She no longer plays Bach, but once she found the Lord (in charismatic movement of the ’90s connected to the “Toronto Blessing” happenings), gave her music to God entirely for worship, on her own and for her church and its offspring in various parts of the world. Our mother was not amused, but felt she’d grow out of it and go back to classical. Never did, though. Just more of a secret internal reality working out in mysterious ways.

I was first up on Sunday and took a walk along the St. Lawrence River a few blocks south. There’s a few miles of park, with trails paralleling the banks. It’s a huge river, a major shipping route from the Atlantic up into the interior via the Great Lakes, but no ships were noticebale from this side. I saw a heron, red-winged blackbirds, one tiny toad, ducks, moths, and a few cyclists and joggers. I stopped by a shallow pond and wondered why it held only plants, until I noticed there was a plastic liner blocking the water from the soil. That nixed it for amphibians and probably most aquatic insects as a habitat.

We had buckwheat pancakes, eggs, and coffee for breakfast. Amber had decided to skip church–surely always a priority otherwise, to hang out with us. The day before she had mentioned it, and I said sure we’d come, but either she sensed that I was only slightly into it and maybe just being polite, of just wanting to attend out of curiosity about her life, she offered to spend the morning hanging out with us, to her credit, I think.

After a slow morning, with eggs and bagels, we hoisted our day packs and headed to the metro and zipped downtown for a hike up Mount Royal in the center of town.

Processed with VSCO with m3 preset

It was a warm day for walking, but with a blessed breeze again. After lunch at the Lola Rosa, up we strode, taking the long route that zigzagged up instead of the series of stairs. There were bikers, strollers, and stroller pushers. There was a boy annoyed at his parents for going the slow way, while he wanted to vauly up the steps joining the switchbacks. Half way up there’s a park that reminded me of a Seurat painting, but for the concrete border around the pond.

Park, Mount Royal

At the top is a large, airy hall of stone with a central room that could be used for balls, symphonies, and large weddings or funerals, surrounded by a few shops. Outside on the plaza a colorfully painted piano had been set up for public use, and some people were gathered around as someone plinked away. The main city was visible from the edge of the summit, with the Fleuve St-Laurent (the river) in the background.

view of Montreal

After walking down Amber showed us the underground mall network, miles of tiles, artificially lit stores that must be a haven from the cold come winter. Caught the metro back, watched “Ant Man,” and slept among the boxes. The next day we bused out to the airport for our flight to Halifax.


Posted by on August 6, 2016 in Places & Experiences


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