I don’t know it all

Two weeks ago, I posted an analogy between a vacuum malfunction at a bad time to abandonment by a partner. It was tongue-in-cheek, of course. But with the news that’s unfolded since about COVID-19 and the mind-boggling implications, a clogged vacuum seems like pretty small potatoes.

In the interests of lifting spirits, I’d like to give you the dirt on what happened after my sister arrived.

For the first few days, we focused on catching up our conversations on many fronts and organizing old family photos. We had an appointment to use a scanner free of charge for three hours at a public library on March 6.

With the scanning behind us on Friday evening, I felt ready to tackle the floor attachment again. As I poked around the brush bar on the bottom in a vain attempt to access the offending clog, my sister looked over my shoulder.

“When we had a similar problem with our vacuum, we were able to remove the bar. Is there a way to get this one out?”

There on the end, was a “lock” and “unlock” symbol, and a slot for a coin to unscrew the cap to release the bar. My sister lent me a quarter.

Once the brush bar was out of the way, the clog’s minutes were numbered. After removing a few clumps of debris, I discovered a small plastic sack that appeared to have gotten it all started.

Suddenly a new tune was one my mind, “The cat came back,” but altered as “The vac came back.”

“Gee, taking off that bar was really smart. How did you and your husband figure that one out?”  

“We probably looked at the manual,” she said with as straight a face as she could muster.

Sure enough, the first item in my manual after the safety warnings was “Clearing brush bar obstructions,” with a diagram showing how to remove it.

I think I’ll use some of my time in retreat mode to create an operating manual for me. The idea of being open to and reaching out for help from others will rank fairly high. As will remembering that there may be a manual to help with the exact situation I am facing.

I don’t have to figure it all out by myself. None of us does.  


A fine time to leave me

A country song from the 70s came to mind recently.

“You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille,

With four hungry children and crop in the field…”

The trusty vacuum cleaner I’ve used for five years started to labour. It’s one of those transparent models that lets you watch the buildup of debris like hair, rug lint, crumbs, dandruff… I’ll stop there because you may have just eaten your lunch.

Several minutes of “vacuuming” and the canister still sparkled. It’s not possible my floors were that clean.

As usual, I have a good excuse. I’m applying for a program to use some of the skills I’m dying to exercise before I die. The challenging questions on the application form have diverted my attention for weeks. When cleaning is the subject, I’m a pushover for distraction.

Back to the vacuum story. The motor in the hand wand was producing suction. The tube between the motor and the floor was clear. I deduced that the floor attachment was clogged.

I was able to free gobs of hair, etc from the underside and from the top where the tube attaches to it. Still no action. I shoved the tool I use to unclog my bathroom sink drain in as far as it would go in both directions. Nada. Meanwhile, time was ticking.

The timing sucked.

My sister was due. My one and only sister. My one and only sibling. The one I hadn’t seen since last August! I mentioned my plight to a friend. She assured me my sister would likely be too tired to notice the dust with the little bit of sleep she would have had before arriving.

So I focused on getting her bed ready.

Further assaults on the floor attachment and the dirty floor might be noisy. It would be a shame to disturb her sleep, don’t you think?

If I needed an excuse to procrastinate around cleaning, maybe the timing was right after all.


Confessions of a Creative Chorister

Last winter, I lost enthusiasm for my church choir. Singing lyrics someone else wrote to a tune someone else composed in the precise manner our director wanted didn’t seem like a good fit for a free spirit like me. By June of last year, I knew I was done.

To fill the void, I joined a weekly community singalong group. The relaxed atmosphere invited me to open my throat and let ‘er rip.

Many surprises ensued. I relished belting out the tune. I hit higher notes than I thought possible. Others complimented my voice. I couldn’t believe it was mine.

I had always sung alto — in my school glee club, in family sing-songs, and more recently, in church choirs. I began to wonder if I am more naturally a soprano.

Over time, I started to miss my church choir. The social contact was one reason. And the practice it offers to shut off my monkey mind was another. I need all the help I can get in the focusing department.

After a rich conversation with the director, I decided to return, join the sopranos, and work on my ability to pay attention. I will also continue in the singalong group so my spontaneous side knows it will have its turn to play.

“Coming out” as a soprano unnerved me. I had underestimated how attached I was to my alto ego.  

Among the sopranos, the front row is for the shortest folks. People like me. I didn’t feel ready for that much limelight but complied to fit in with my new colleagues.

The first Sunday in February, my self-consciousness about singing soprano and standing in front caused me to hesitate about music I thought I knew. Ironically, the song was, “Keep your eyes on the prize.”

Two of the words we repeated many times are “hold on.” My mind wanted to sing “roll on.” Maybe there’s a reason for that. If I hadn’t rolled on to that other singing group, I don’t think I would have discovered the sweet spot in my vocal range or my true desire for concentration practice.

I’m settling into my role as a soprano. When we do “Eyes on the Prize” again, I think I’ll be able sing it correctly with gusto.

But the lyric twist I almost made may cause a twinkle in my eye.


My Spirit Animal

After protesting vehemently that I wasn’t ready for it, I recently made a snap decision to attend a workshop on aging. The leader invited us to bring a picture or stuffy of our spirit animal.

And how would I know what that would be? I turned to Google for wisdom.

One site suggested I should watch which wild animals seem attracted to me. I live in a large city. I see the occasional squirrel. They don’t pay the least bit of attention to me. That’s a relief. I don’t have much rapport with rodents.

I smell skunk once in a while. I’ve been told that smell is actually marijuana. Another relief.

Another site gave the native American spirit animal based on birth date. According to that, mine is the bear. “Bear people think deeply about life and observe it with equal care.” Interesting, but the idea of the bear created no buzz.

The quiz on another site identified my spirit animal to be the tiger. “By affinity with this spirit animal, you may enjoy dealing with life matters spontaneously, trusting your intuition and acting fast when needed.”

My breathing quickened. My last-minute decision to take the workshop on aging was a case in point. The barn cats used to like me when I was growing up on a farm. Cats are related to tigers, right?

“Do either of you have a stuffed tiger I could borrow?” I asked the next time I visited my grandchildren.

“Yes, we’ve got Tony, the Tiger,” they blurted almost in unison. Nathan clamoured to the holy of holies in his cupboard to retrieve him.

Avery wrinkled her nose.

“You don’t seem like a tiger, Grandma B.”

“What animal would you say I am like?”

“A bee.”

We’ve joked before that their name for me, Grandma B, is fitting because I like to take ideas from one place to another.

“What do you think, Nathan?”

“A butterfly, maybe? You like to garden. I think about butterflies in gardens.”

I have been through a few transformations in my life. Maybe he’s onto something.

Move over, Google. My grandchildren are a great source of wisdom, too.  


Worm Learning

Original bin

In June of 2019, I became the confident caregiver of a worm composting system. As I wrote in my blog, More new pets, I had learned all I needed to know to care for my new charges in a hour.

What could go wrong?

By the end of July, I noticed water collecting on the underside of the lid, a sign that moisture was building up inside the bin. I also noticed the remnants of a couple of worms who had wriggled out and perished in the arid environment of my balcony. A quick internet search told me that worms will try to escape if the environment is too moist.

Logic told the tale. The underside of the bin had only six small holes for drainage. The upper sides had only eight for ventilation. With the bin inhabited by worms, bedding, food, and worm castings, I couldn’t see how to drill more holes without mucking up my drill or contaminating the contents with bits of plastic.

When my son asked whether I had any wishes for Christmas, I jumped at the chance to suggest a slick worm composter I’d seen online. With the weather getting colder, I had brought the bin into my living space. The blue colour clashed with everything. An earthy aroma wafted about. A commercial version with an emphasis on design – and with lots of drainage – would be just the ticket for my struggling worm family.

What could go wrong?

The day I set aside to set up the new worm composter, I admired the charcoal colour that would blend with my balcony décor for three seasons and my living room in the winter. I attached the tap at the bottom that would drain away excess moisture. I looked for ventilation holes in the upper tiers and found none.

Upon checking reviews of the product online, I discovered that a buildup of excess moisture is a typical issue with this model. One woman posted a picture of hers wrapped in screening to prevent worms from escaping. It looked dreadful.

Before populating the new system, I decided to drill ventilation holes in the upper tiers and cover the holes with screening on the inside.

Ventilation holes
New composter

I haven’t spotted any fugitive worms in my living room. But I don’t want to speak too soon.

I am learning something from my worms.



The evolution of my Christmas tree star

On October 25, I got an unwelcome e-mail with the subject line: Hi Threadies, Felting Art Sessions on Oct 26th and Nov 30th are cancelled.

I’ve been a “Threadie” for a couple of years – we’re a sewing circle at my local neighbourhood house that’s intended to build community. All the materials to make felt toys and ornaments are supplied. Women and girls from eight to eighty and from various countries gather to sew. We help each other with our projects and enjoy each others’ company.  

In the summer, I found a pattern for a new star for my Christmas tree.

The ornaments I treasure most are made by hand by myself or family members – crocheted candy canes and Sesame Street characters my mother made when my children were the age my grandchildren are now, a set of salt-and-flour dough crèche characters I sculpted when my children were preschoolers, and some snowflakes my niece crocheted. The plastic, glittery star from my snowflake themed tree days had to go.

In the first couple of sessions, I cut out three felt stars – a small dark red, a medium white, and a large light red. By the end of September, I had accentuated the smallest star with beads of various shades of red and the white star with white and clear beads. In October and November, I had planned to decorate the outer star with red beads, sew on a backing, and stuff the whole thing with wool.

This cancellation created a dilemma because I no longer had access to the supplies. I hadn’t brought home embroidery cotton or red beads to finish the project.

I remembered I had inherited from Auntie Frances a box of embroidery floss that I haven’t opened in decades. Luckily, it had both white and red floss.

I didn’t have any small red beads on hand, but maybe there were some red buttons in my stash from my and my female ancestors’ past projects. I had a few, but not nearly enough to decorate the outer star.

However, I had lots of white buttons and some small white beads. I decided to integrate the white and red colours into a lively combo.

The star didn’t turn out the way I imagined it would if things had gone according to plan.

In my mind, it turned out much better.



Jim Taylor’s blog* about weeds prompted this week’s posting. He likes to get a dialogue going, and I took the bait. Here’s what I sent him.

“Hi Jim,

I enjoyed your “man-against-nature” depiction of the war in your yard, where the weeds may not be winning but yield a lot of power. As a lifetime gardener, I can relate. I recently took a course from the “Master Gardener” organization and have developed a fresh perspective that I’d love to share with you.

First, some science. Weeds are messengers. They are a symptom of disturbed soil. The more you disturb the ground by digging the weeds up by the roots, the more that the seeds of their cousins get a chance to germinate. The cycle continues, as you’ve observed, to your chagrin.

I suggest a cut-and-cover strategy instead. Cut the weed off at its base and cover the ground with mulch – straw, dried grass clippings, compost – whatever organic matter is handy. You can even add the carcass of the weed if it hasn’t already gone to seed.

When the weed’s root sends up a new shoot through the mulch, as it probably will, cut it off before it develops many leaves to feed the root. After two or three attempts, the root will die of starvation, and its remains will feed the soil for the plants you want to nurture.

Add lots of dried leaves to the mulch in the fall. Leave them on in the spring, and keep adding to the layer of mulch. The earthworms will integrate the tasty bits it into the soil, so adding mulch will become the new ongoing cycle. And your soil, and therefore your plants, will be much healthier.

Next spring, you can cut off the odd weed that has the gall to breach your mulch barrier and busy yourself with environmentally-friendly pursuits like watching the beautiful blossoms and continuing your delightful blog.

That would be a win all around, I’d say.

* Jim is a prolific writer with a theological bent. If you are looking for an interesting perspective, you can request a subscription to his blog, Softedges, by emailing jimt@quixotic.ca


More New Pets

Last Saturday, I brought home new pets. As readers of my blog know, I sponsored a traffic circle garden in place of a pet last summer. I don’t have to walk it, but I figured it would get me out into the fresh air and help me meet more of my neighbours. The strategy is working.

A dry layer of straw or paper scraps plus a lid keeps it all discrete.

Buoyed by this success, I decided to attend a workshop in vermiculture conducted at a city-owned composting demonstration facility a brief walk from my home. For the $25 price of admission, I got a worm bin to keep in a balcony corner, a supply of carbon-rich material like straw, earth, and newspaper, some food scraps, about 500 red wriggler worms, and an hour-long lecture and demo. I’ll be able to feed the worms some of my kitchen scraps. About every four months, I can harvest compost to use as fertilizer for my house plants, balcony planters, and circle garden.

I feel like a new mother, only more confident, as I learned in the space of an hour everything I need to know to care for the lives I’ve taken into my hands. When the worms multiply, I can feed them more of my scraps. If I have a population explosion of worms, I can donate the surplus back for the facility to use with their school programs. If I encounter a bad smell or attract fruit flies, I know what to do. If the outside temperature goes below 5 degrees Celsius, I can cover the bin with a blanket to avoid bringing my livestock into my living room. Easy peasy.

En route home triumphantly with my worm bin, I met a neighbour who was trying to wrestle the front yard jungle that had come with her condo into a garden. We had a great time trying to identify some of the plants, and strategize what to remove or add. She was very interested in the worm bin and asked how to get on the waiting list for the next vermiculture workshop.

As we parted, I assured her I would watch the developments in her garden with interest. She said she’d be asking me how my worms are doing.

“That’s fine,” I said, “but please don’t ask too loudly when there are a lot of people around.”


Waking up

I used to refer to missing a weekly entry in my blog as a “blink”. Then I started to snooze for a few weeks at a time. Since Christmas of 2018, I’ve gone into all-out hibernation in the blog department.

Life on another front, on the other hand, has been more active than usual. From January to March, I enrolled in the basic training for people who aspire to the “Master Gardener” designation. The course involved a full day of classes and about ten hours of reading and research assignments each week.

“It will be intense,” they said. They did not lie.

My learnings have led to new insights.

In the Master Gardener program, we are taught the principle, “Right plant in the right place makes a healthy, happy plant.” Something I didn’t understand decades ago makes perfect sense now.

My Aunt Velma, one of my mother’s sisters, was an avid gardener. When she heard we had bought a house after I got married, she lovingly divided one of her favourite plants so I could have it in my garden, too.

“I call these rosabluebells because I don’t like the real name. The flowers come out pink and gradually turn blue,” she said. She may also have mentioned they do well in the shade. By my logic, if a plant did well in the shade, imagine how much better it would do in the sun.

So I planted the rosabluebells along the foundation of the south-facing wall of our house. I recall a visitor saying, “Oh, I see you have some lungworts.” No wonder Aunt Velma hadn’t shared the name.

Over time, other plants took over the area where I had planted the lungworts. I wasn’t as into gardening then as I am now and likely wasn’t that keen on having a plant with such an ugly name, anyway. They died out and faded in my memory. 

I recently learned that plants that do well in the shade typically developed as woodland plants and actually need shade and moisture. No wonder my neglected lungworts languished. https://plantdatabase.kpu.ca/plant/plantDetail/1007

In the Master Gardener program, we are also taught to use the Botanical or Scientific names for plants, rather than their common names. If that had been the general practice, my aunt would not have had to rename her prized plant.

Its botanical name is Pulmonaria.


Moment of Truth about Santa

On Christmas Eve, I had a conversation with a friend about the tricky age and stage when children begin to question whether the Santa story is factual.

It took me back to my childhood in a humble farmhouse in Ontario. Our mother was very creative and skilful in the craft department. She also taught us that it is important to please others.

One Christmas, “we” decided to delight Santa by decorating one of the beautiful Red Delicious apples she had purchased for the treat bowl at Christmas as a replica of himself. Wouldn’t he be surprised?

We got to work. A marshmallow became Santa’s head, fastened atop the apple with a toothpick. A red construction paper cone trimmed with cotton batting, saved from pill bottles over the year, became a hat. We got out the India ink and carefully painted a black belt around the fullest part of the apple. More cotton batting for his beard and coat trim finished off the effect.

A glass of milk fresh from our cows and a home-made cookie completed the snack.

On Christmas morning, the glass of milk had a thin white scum in the bottom, and the cookie had left only a few crumbs. There was no sign of the apple Santa. He must have taken that along for the journey. Maybe he wanted to show it to Mrs Claus before he ate it. We smiled, imagining the possibilities.

When I opened my tin lunch box at school in January, I was delighted to see Mom had packed a Red Delicious apple. I had thought we had finished them during the holidays, along with the large navel oranges we had only at Christmas.

Imagine my dismay when I saw traces of black ink around the circumference of the apple.

Perhaps I had begun to have lingering doubts, but those tell-tale black marks sealed the deal. I had a heart-to-heart with Mom when I got home. She was busted.

Do you remember your moment of truth around the Santa legend?