As I drove through an evening filled with sleet and darkness, the radio played Life Is A Highway, and the voice in my head scoffed. She can be quite patient, Voice In My Head, but I find she is increasingly trenchant. Even when we are both in agreement about say, a school of thought on raising children, Voice In My Head turns it over like a stone on the beach, checking for crabs and hidden barnacles.
She is a raised eyebrow.
She is a furrow.
She also a chime.
She reminds me not to leave the phone on that narrow ledge in the bathroom, to pay better attention, to tuck that bit of paper away in the correct file because you will need it sooner than you think.
She is an interruption, but I am learning to listen.
The car settled into the spot in front of our house with a slight shudder. As I turned off the ignition and the radio fell silent, I sat still for a moment, glad the windshield wipers had stopped their incessant swish. Glad the song’s relentless enthusiasm was quiet. Yet the chorus was still reverberating in my ears. Voice In My Head persisted, part whisper part scold: “there is no highway.” and, “Who is he, to think he has control over the car in the first place?”
She threw in the logo for Mothers Against Drunk Driving for good measure.
I unloaded the groceries from the trunk, ignoring the small chime that reminded me of what happened the last time I tried to save myself an extra tip through the rain. Slamming the trunk, I gathered all the handles of the bags securely and, hitching everything a little higher over my shoulder, grabbed an awkward corner of the 8kg dog food bag and heaved it all up the stairs anyway.
In the kitchen I unpacked the bags thinking that if I had been given a Life Is A Highway map marked with the mid-life pit stop called Schlepping just outside the town of Depleted I might have driven recklessly in the other direction, likely causing all sorts of mayhem for myself and those I scattered in my path.
She is right, I thought, we do not know the route. And perhaps that is for the best. I went on following the thought as I put the water on to boil - life is a series of tributary roads, some of which you choose, others you do not. They fan out before you, spring up unexpectedly, look tempting but turn out to be a detour. Some roads appear only when you stop long enough to notice them, or when someone helps you read the signs. There are highways, maybe for a while, with names like University, First Job, The Baby Years, but inevitably, there are traffic jams, you are re-routed, end up somewhere you never expected. There can be no road map because the map changes all the time right under your feet.
Some roads, out of desperation or courage or a bit of both, you make for yourself.
In the kitchen, Voice In My Head seemed to settle herself. She grew quiet, and I went about making dinner, the all-encompassing sounds of family life drowning out both the song and the scuttle of crab feet looking for new hiding places.
I remember sitting under the low, wide tree in the front yard of my grandparent’s farm. I do not know now what sort of tree it was, it may even have been a bush, but I was a child covered by branches and gentle shade, and it seemed a tree to me. Nearby was an aging pear tree, whose branches offered a safe haven. Across and opposite, just a scamper away, was the front door of the farmhouse. Next to me was my grandmother’s button box: an old coffee tin with a black lid, a tall square-ish shape, the outside depicting workers with kerchief wrapped heads bending over bushes in a field. Inside, full most of the way to the top, was a mesmerizing jumble of buttons.
There is a great deal of work on a farm. We were left to figure out what to do with ourselves if not being useful or doing chores. Yet, my grandmother must have taken the time to thread the needle, knot the thread and get me started on a strip of fabric. My memory only holds the quiet shade, the concentrated effort of sewing, and the fascination of the buttons themselves as I worked to affix them to the fabric scrap.
When my grandmother died, I asked for her button box. In it I found the strip of fabric worked patiently by my small hands one summer afternoon and tucked away in the tin for all these years.
When I pulled out the sample scrap, memory and present moment merged as I saw the big plastic heavily textured turquoise button with large holes. A 60’s treasure. A lumpy brown leather button, likely one of Grandpa’s, off the cuff of a tweed jacket. Flat military brass buttons emblazoned with anchors, Grandpa’s again, a loop on the back for affixing to heavy woolens. Small white buttons with four holes. Difficult to navigate, they hung on by a single stitch, done wrong, from the outside of the button’s edge in. A buckle from a kilt.
That small box holds a family history of out grown clothes, stories told in fastenings. I plunge my fingers in from time to time, sorting through the smooth and bumpy, bone and mother-of-pearl looking for something that will match the cardigan with a missing button, and there in my hand is a memory instead - my gentle Grandmother wearing the green jacket she saved for special occasions, my Gandfather in his heavy coat. In those moments I can almost smell the tobacco-gunpowder-mothball-cedar-smell of the bureau in the front hall at the farm, the bureau which held the hats and scarves, lost gloves, pins, coins, loose buttons, and books of matches, and I am suddenly small again, my grandparents nearby once more.
Forgive me if I sound like a scold, but all this has made me wonder about what we are giving our children to play with now. What will our children find amongst the plastic and gagets to bring them back to calm afternoons in the time of their childhood when they felt safest? Hand held video games? Re-runs of Dora? Do we leave enough space for them to tuck quiet into the corners of their hearts so that in years to come they may find small stores of grace.
I stood in the calendars and journals corner of Banyen Books – Vancouver’s iconic hub of all things energetically alternative – and berated myself for not finding a kitchen wall calendar sooner. I had waited too long, the year had turned, the old calendar had come down and now the organizational corner of the kitchen felt unmoored. Consequently, so did I.
The problem was that I was trying to find a solution quickly and all that remained of the stock at the end of the first week of January were calendars with zen-like black & white watercolours and vaguely irritating inspirational quotations, the Dali Lama, personal journeys, emotional healing, or monthly mendala calendars. I considered the oversized WWF calendar but the endangered tiger on the cover looked accusatory. I wasn’t sure I could handle him or the Dali Lama reminding me on a daily basis of my inability to save either the world or my own sanity.
All I wanted was to keep track of the school dates, doctor’s appointments, family comings and goings. I was looking for something unobtrusive and functional. Botanical images on recycled paper with enough room to write “shots for dog, 4pm” seemed reasonable, but on this rainy, harried January afternoon, unattainable.
The wall calendar for which I settled, because I was running out of time, because the art was pleasing and the date squares roomy, promised emotional freedom. I rolled my eyes inwardly and figured once I’d paper-clipped the dentist’s reminder cards and ‘next dozen bagels free’ coupons to the calendar, the quotations would be effectively obscured.
January depicts an unfurled lotus flower floating on crowded murk-green lily pads with this quote:
“The path to emotional freedom is the hero’s journey; every choice you make to triumph over negativity, large or small, is about transforming energy. The potent nature of such ongoing transformation makes you stronger, brighter, and more resilient, which in turns acts to illuminate the world.”
Several times this week as I have been running between the to-dos, momentarily poised in the kitchen with phone, keyboard, various demands ringing in my ears and tugging at my emotions I have stopped, eyes resting on the text next to the soft-focus lotus, and reconsidered my next reaction.
Funny how life sometimes gives you exactly what you need.