Are there benefits to moving?

AgfaPhoto

We’re moving. As I contemplate the demands and logistics of organizing, packing, and notifying friends, family, agencies of our new address, I wonder if there is an up-side to moving. The answer is, yes.

I haven’t moved often as an adult, but throughout my teaching career, I did change schools and that isn’t a lot different than a house move. Packing up the classroom – files, books, teaching materials necessitates much the same organizing and sorting.

Classroom contents such as textbooks belong to the school, but every teacher has a truck load of their own materials. My own books, posters, manipulatives, pictures, etc. go into boxes. Then, with each move, I face the filing cabinet, go through each file carefully—something I often haven’t had the time to do in years. Many things can be discarded as obsolete. Files I’ve used often and know I’ll use again get packed along with the rest. And often I stumble across gems that elicit an “Oh my, goodness, I’d forgotten all about this.” Ideas for teaching that I’d used with success in the past and somehow let fall by the wayside. They’ll be put to good use again in the new school.

Our last move was from a house to a condo and the process not much different from that described above. Decisions were made regarding which pieces of furniture to take and which to sell. The accumulation of “stuff” in the basement sorted, some of the items to be sold, others to be donated or junked. Cupboards and closets opened and emptied.

“I didn’t know we had this,” I said (more than once) as I sifted through boxes from the bottom of the closet.

“If we didn’t know we had it, do you think we can live without it?” my husband asked.

Settled in our new home, everything unpacked, pictures hung, I’m determined to keep our belongings minimal, to avoid the “acquiring” mode of my younger self.

Now as I prepare for this move, I see that I’ve partially succeeded. We still have too much stuff and much of it will have to go as we sort and pack. Some of the decisions will be harder than others. Do we really need those glass plates that were wedding presents, but never used? Do we really need two sets of dinnerware? We haven’t used the fancy ones more than once a year. What to do with those afghans Nana knit for us? Ah, we’ll give them to the grandchildren.

Where, in all this work, is the up-side of moving? Is it in the flood of memories that come with the finding and handling of items we’ve had for so many years? Is it in the freedom of parting with items we’ve had for so many years?

For me, the process of moving has invariably been positive—a cleansing of sorts. It’s rejuvenating to leave the old behind and move to the new. It’s liberating to divest oneself of material acquisitions. Of course I’ll keep the things I hold dear—family antiques, books, special souvenirs of Mali—but the rest will be downsized once again and I won’t miss any of the things I leave behind. Perhaps this is a piece of the freedom we all aspire to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One party, two parties …

barbecue

“Do you think you could cook burgers for 27 kids,” I ask.

“Sure, but why?”

“I’d like to have my grade nine home room class over for a year end barbecue.”

Permission slips signed, parent drivers lined up, date and time set, and the party is on. The kids swarm our house and yard. I find several boys taking turns toting our children around on their shoulders. I cringe when they climb up into the playhouse with our kids. Can it possibly hold all that weight? It does.

A clutch of girls are chatting on our bed, another group on the deck. They eat, talk, laugh, and clean up before their parents come to take them home. On their way out the door they ask if they can do this again in grade 12. My husband says sure.

Three years later, there’s a knock on the door. Four boys from the grade nine class have come to ask about a reunion party. My husband and I look at each other. We’d forgotten all about that request. Sure, we say. A date and time are set.

This go round 30 kids arrive in their own cars, many of which are much nicer than ours. We see heads peeping out of the neighbors’ windows and imagine them saying, “What are the Jones up to now?” This time the kids bring the food and do the barbecuing.

Our children are too old to be toted around on shoulders, but they enjoy the company of the teens who hover over them attentively. We eat, talk, and laugh until the wee hours of the morning knowing that these parties will forever remain fond memories for us all.

 

 

Picture taking – virtue or vice

Mali 6

 

Writers create worlds with their words.  And if the writer is a master at his or her craft, the words allow the reader to “see” a vivid picture of the scene, understand the characters, and thrill with the action. For many readers, creating their own images and impressions from word pictures is what makes reading superior to visual media.

Yet, as I type this, the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words” reverberates in my head.

How do I feel about picture taking?

Very guilty:

Many years ago, I sat on the upper deck of the General Soumare plying its way up the Niger River to Tombouctou. We docked at Goundam and watched, fascinated by the desert life on shore. Without moving from my chair, I reached down into my purse for my little camera. I had it partially out of my purse when someone in the circle of Touraug women spotted it. They began to rise and depart. I dropped my camera back into my purse and they settled into their circle again.

Guilty and angry:

I time travelled to the Dogon area of Mali. I use the words “time travel” deliberately as we were amongst people surviving in Stone Age conditions. What they lived on was hard to fathom. Of course I wanted pictures. I raised my camera to capture a mother and her child. The moment she saw my camera, she picked up her child and posed, then held her hand out for money. I put my camera away. It wasn’t surprising that she would want money—any little bit would help the villagers to survive, but I was angry too, furious that careless camera toting tourists had created this situation. There are many better ways to support the poor.

Angry and insulted:

At one time we lived in a unique river-side community in our city. Cyclists on the trails careened to a stop to talk about our houses. Cars drove by slowly, passengers gawking out their windows. Invariably, cameras appeared—the tourists ready to take pictures of the quaint locals infuriated me. Is that how others felt when I wielded my camera?

Guilty again:

I take pictures for my blog—many of them in Mexico. They’re not very good photos, because I feel that I’m intrusive of people’s lives and homes so I snap quickly and hide the camera. I don’t believe I have a right to invade their lives in this way.

Regretful:

Of course I come home with regrets for the photos not taken.  I would dearly love that picture of the man on the horse waiting at the red light alongside my car or the man walking his cow across the main street of town.

Pictures are important, providing glimpses into the past, evidence of crimes, sights to marvel at, an opportunity to travel from your armchair, but at what cost to the subjects of those pictures?

 

EMBRACED – on sale now.

 

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00038]

EMBRACED

CHARACTER: “God, I’m stupid. Whatever made me think Rice Krispies would lead me to an answer?” She sighed. Yet another failed attempt to identify the sounds. She dumped out the cereal, rinsed the bowl, and left it on the counter for morning.

SETTING: The play of clouds and moonlight over the water and mountains beyond calmed her. She licked her lips and tasted salt. From the heavily laden sea air or from tears? A few notes of music echoing across the water caught her attention. A bagpipe of all things.

SCENE ENDING SENTENCE: I don’t know why I think they’re messages from outer space.

EXCERPT 

“More drawings?” Curtis gestured at the papers she held.

Abby looked down at the pages and willed her hand to stop trembling. The three pages of code drawings seemed to shimmer and shiver with a life of their own. “Yes. Three pages. From Friday, Saturday, and last night. They’re pretty … they’re … pretty well done, I’d say.”

But Curtis was no longer listening.  He waved the papers she’d just handed him and almost shouted with excitement. “These are amazing. Way better than the first drawing you brought us.”

Abby stifled a small grin, but she had to agree. The drawings outclassed her scratches a million times over. “My friend developed instant artistic talent.”

“I’ll say.” Curtis shuffled the pages back and forth. He shook his head slowly and muttered “wow” over and over. Finally he looked up at her. “Miss D, thanks for getting so many. Now we have four to compare. We’ll see if there are any repeated patterns or sequences of symbols. Your friend is great to share these with us.”

“No problem.” Oh God, I’m such a liar. Of course there was a problem, and not just because she was lying to Curtis. My friend. How lame was that? The mere existence of the pages was the real problem. Some nights the clickings chattered incessantly in her fillings, almost driving her crazy. Those were the nights of very little sleep. The weekend had been eerily silent. That was a new phenomenon since Friday, no clickings, instead Coder Guy had begun leaving the pages filled with drawings. Either way—no escaping the code.

A while back, she’d grown tired of sharpening the pencil she used each night and replaced it with a pen, which was now almost out of ink. She’d have to remember to get out a new one tonight. Or maybe not? What would happen if there was no writing utensil?

“What’s so funny?” Curtis asked. Abby hadn’t realized she’d laughed out loud. The lack of pen wouldn’t stop her night visitor. She stifled another burst of laughter she knew bordered on hysteria. Truth was, much as the pages of code scared her, she’d be devastated if no more came. The person—being, alien, Coder Guy—was an integral part of her life now; his existence had established a rhythm that kept her balanced. Or so she thought. Maybe she was completely off her rocker.

Whatever the case, she didn’t want to lose that contact. Coder Guy’s presence warmed her, kept her from feeling alone and lonely.

 

The Fairies Have Been Hard at Work

Another walk in the woods and we find these:

 

Ginseng brandy and the guest

ginseng

“Would you like a shot of brandy?” he asked his guest after dinner.

“Sure. Thanks.”

Drinks poured, settled in the living room, the guest said, “Hm, good stuff. Where did you get it?”

“It was a gift from an old Chinese guy I know.”

The guest straightened. “In Chinatown.”

“Yeah, sure, why?”

“Can I see the bottle?”

After a close inspection, he said, “We’ve been trying to track down these guys for ages.”

Uh, oh. The guest was a liquor inspector. This might not be so good. “Um, why?” he asked.

“This stuff is illegal, smuggled in with the food they import and we’ve never been able to catch them.”

Now he was in a quandary. Would his guest ask for the name of his friend? What would he answer if it came to that? He held his breath.

The guest put the bottle down, took another sip of the brandy and after a long pause, said, “Damn fine stuff.”

 

 

No Room for Error

pilots

Recently I called my doctor’s office to inquire about test results and was told that everything was fine, but that the lab had neglected to complete the one test that was crucial for my doctor to make a decision on medication, should it prove necessary.

When I went to the doctor’s office to pick up a new requisition, I commented that I was upset about the error. The receptionist told me not to be too hard on the lab staff as they were only human and they received so many requisitions.

Of course people make mistakes, but there are professions that don’t allow for error. This particular situation was not life or death for me, but what if it had been? Recently I met a woman dying of cancer. Her doctor had told her repeatedly that she was too young to have cancer and now that the cancer has finally been diagnosed, it’s too late to effect a cure.

Pilots, transit drivers, ferry captains … are all responsible for a great number of lives as they go about their daily jobs. How much room for error are they or should they be allowed? Pilots have an advantage in that they are not alone in the cockpit. The captain has the luxury of being able to check and cross check all procedures of the flight with the co-pilots on board.

A doctor interviewed on television suggested that his profession should adopt the pilot mode of co-operation and cross checking, particularly in the operating room as opposed to the “one man knows all” attitude that currently prevails in his profession. He claimed that surgical treatments would improve dramatically with a team approach.

And authors? Where do we fit in this picture? In one novel, a well-known and well-respected author (with a huge publishing company and its staff behind her) had one of the major characters in two places at the same time.

Does an error like that matter? Probably not. We can figure it out for ourselves, but it does spoil some of the pleasure in reading the book.

Errors of that nature could be much more serious in a non-fiction work. But in fiction too, accuracy is important.

A survey of fiction readers found that the one element most important in terms of enjoyment of the book was what the reader felt they had learned something. In Domingo’s Angel, I learned about conditions in Spain during Franco’s regime. In I Do Not Come to You by Chance and 419, I learned about the conditions in Nigeria that drove young men to participate in the flood of email scams we received. I like to think that the authors had done their research and that what they presented was as close to the truth as possible. (From what my friends in Nigeria tell me, both authors were spot on.)

Since I became a self-published author, I’ve been reading books by fellow indie authors. I don’t claim to have completely error-free books, but my writing partner and I are like those pilots in the cockpit. We send files back and forth for proofing and work very hard to find and correct all the little glitches. Knowing how difficult the job is, I sympathize with fellow authors and ignore minor mistakes, but I lose patience with books that have so many errors it seems obvious the author didn’t take the time to proof and edit properly.

With pilots and doctors there is no margin for error. How much of a margin should we concede to authors?

We indie authors want to be seen as professionals. We want to be respected for our work and devotion to writing. To achieve these goals we too, have very little margin for error.

 

 

Culture shock works both ways

jewelry

Culture shock. Travelling from Canada to Mali, you expect it. So many things will be different—the language, the food, the climate …

You get settled into the house that has been assigned to you. You begin your job of teaching English at the girls’ high school. You learn to check your motorbike for snakes sunning themselves on the seat before you get on. You learn that certain English words sound like “bad” words in Bambara so you refrain from using them.

You learn that greetings are never just a hello, but rather a long and drawn out process even if simply buying stamps at the post office or veggies at the market. Hello, how is your health, how is your family, etc. etc. And every encounter is preceded with a handshake.

You learn that price tags do not exist. You bargain for everything and if you don’t the seller will often refuse to deal with you.

You came to Mali expecting things to be different, you learn as you go and lose your heart to this arid poverty stricken country, to the people who struggle and work so hard, to the warm smiles of the children.

And then you come home. And suffer culture shock again. Only this time it’s worse. You know your country and your language and your society and nothing of that has changed. But, you have changed. You see it with new eyes.

Everything is too fast. The rush of people flowing through the buildings and offices sends you running out the door in a panic. You extend your hand and people stare uncomprehendingly.

The abrupt greetings set your heart pounding. You’re not ready to do things so fast and impersonally.

Eventually you adjust, but you will never be quite the same and you will always long to return to Mali.

 

School shouldn’t be this much fun

 

balwin_home_photo

“Jones, if you don’t stop rearranging my stuff, we’re going to have to get a divorce.”

“Hays, if you were a little teeny bit organized, I wouldn’t have to clean up after you. Plus it’s not my fault we have to share a classroom. You’re the one who did the scheduling.”

I glanced at the students. Their mouths were hanging open. Our first year as administrators of the junior high school and it seemed David and I were setting a new tone, one completely unfamiliar to the kids. Obviously, we’d have to keep it up.

A few days later, I arrived in the room to find it empty. “Hays!” I bellowed, “What did you do with my kids?” Heads popped out of doorways to see what the ruckus was about. My students came out of the nooks and crannies they’d been hiding in, huge grins on their faces. Good, they were getting the hang of things.

Another time, I drove up to the school to see a grade nine class sitting in their desks on the basketball court for their math class. Someone, who shall remain nameless, had taken the desks outside (with student help) and when the teacher discovered the missing desks he moved the class outside.

For one of my classes, I needed students to get information on car insurance so I sent them to the office to use the phone. They called an insurance company to make inquiries, but the person on the other end of the line thought they were just fooling around and hung up on them.

David happened to arrive just then. They explained. He asked for the phone number and dialed. In a high squeaky voice, he said, “Hello. This is Mrs. Jones. I just retired from teaching and bought a new Jaguar.” The kids’ mouths hung open. He winked at them and continued. “How much would the insurance be?” The agent hung up on him too.

The point of all this kidding around? It was fun. It changed to tone of the school. Misbehaviors decreased. It was fun. For all of us.