On sleeping in the woods

Last spring, in early June, I had an opportunity to sleep in the woods, in the open, tending my own fire overnight. I wasn’t really alone. There were at least a dozen people somewhere within shouting distance, some with their own fires, flickering tiny but reassuring flames at the edges of my sight.

My intention for the night, my goal, was to sleep. Not to spend the night in vigil. At that moment, holding the memory of years of insomnia followed by exhausted years of night-time parenting – breastfeeding, tending to fevers, catching vomit in bowls, changing sheets – I was feeling quite sure, quite stubborn, that all-night vigils were overrated.

But I wanted to learn to sleep in the open, comfortably, without fear, without a fuss.

I found out, however, that fire is a charismatic companion. It always surprises me anew to realize how many hours it is possible to lose track of while gazing into a fire; how magical, reassuring, and even entertaining its presence.

I’d had one experience of sleeping apart from others in the open before. It included many mosquitoes, no fire, and no sleep. While there was a lot of good in the experience, it was a long night. Not this one.

I nestled down in my sleeping bag, watching the swaying leaves and branches above me form shadowy pictures: animals, birds, human faces. I looked down from the slightly elevated path on which I lay to see arched tree saplings, possible gateways to worlds unknown, beckoning me through the shadows. I felt the velvety weight of darkness around me. I watched the journey of the moon across the sky.

I listened to the faint rustling of tiny creatures in the leaves around. I listened to distant airplanes, distant trucks on not-so distant highways. I imagined them all as waves, deeply lulling waves against the shores of my consciousness. I started to drift, just a little.

The fire dimmed. I jumped up, sawed a little more wood, fed the fire again. I couldn’t let it go out. I was invested in its survival. And I felt, in an instinctive way, that it was ensuring mine, although rationally, on that warm June night, I knew this not to be true.

In that nighttime state that was both dreamlike and highly alert, I felt like the fire was alive: a friend, a lover. I wanted to watch it all night. To breathe in its smell. To gaze into its depths. To vow eternal love. Me and the fire. We would always be together. Nothing else existed. I needed nothing else.

“I’m going to be a fire tender.” I whispered to myself, after several hours of this half-waking dream. I didn’t know what I meant by that, not fully. But nevertheless it felt like a promise.

Eventually, after adding some last sticks at 2 or 3 am, I drifted into asleep. I fell asleep deeply, so deeply that later on, my sister, who had been sleeping at a distance on one side of me, said she stepped directly over me in the early morning as I lay on the path.

When I awoke it was morning and the fire was out. I thanked it for its company. I gently scattered the remaining logs, buried the ashes, poured water on the coals. I put the fire to bed.

Later that morning, when all of the individual fires had been quenched, and the whole group sat around a large mutual fire, we all shared our stories. I was moved then to hear several others also speaking of their fire as a companion, the tending as the tending of a relationship, an animate bond.

It was a powerful experience, one I return to often in my heart. The last day of a week of intense experiences that had coincidentally clustered together at that time, in what I would later see as pieces of a rite of passage that I had been for some time courting, so close to heading into my forties.

We all need those moments, when we step away, look at ourselves from a distance, release what we no longer need, speak our intentions clearly, grieve, celebrate, honour where we’ve been and where we are right now.

A week earlier I learned something through a small but symbolic experience of stepping forward into community: about letting myself be vulnerable, about trusting others to support me and to honour my small offerings. And, within that same week, a day alone in the woods; a ritual of burning things I wanted to leave behind in my life; a speaking out loud of intentions for the future. Learning to trust myself to find my way.

A stressful week, logistically – childcare, packing, too much driving – but mostly the kind of stress that comes from internal pressure, from overloading myself physically and emotionally with my own expectations, my own need to prove something to myself, or maybe to others.

The gift of that kind of stress is that it can break you down, if you let it: break you down to a point where you see what is essential. I can look back now and see how many things shifted internally for me that week. How necessary and powerful it was as a threshold where I left things behind – beliefs, expectations, fears – some that I had been carrying around for decades.

I realized recently, looking back at that week again, that instead I now carry its experiences – and others like them – in my heart. Like memory beads on a string, I can take them out whenever I need them in my everyday life: to look at them, stroke them, polish them to a brighter shine. To give myself courage, spiritual sustenance. To remember to breathe into trust.

If I can tend my own fires well, I can better tend those around me.

As years ago I used to pull out difficult experiences – worries, anger, perceived shames – and brood over them, I now hold close to me what I most cherish. I’m learning to nourish those flames.

And I long to sleep in the woods beside a fire again.


Sleeping in the Forest – Mary Oliver

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.


Things my children have taught me.

When Malcolm was two, he would sometimes spend the first hour or two of the day screaming. Walking around while crying and screaming. It’s almost hard to remember now.

How much easier communication is now that he is an articulate six-year-old.

Now Malcolm tells me: “The house is too quiet. Our house is always too quiet.”

I’ve spent years turning off the radio when my husband leaves in the morning. I LOVE quiet. I want to hear the birds outside the windows, even when the windows are closed.

Now Malcolm sits on the couch and asks me to turn music on. He would like to have music on all the time. He loves music, talking, noise, company.

A few days ago, we were talking at the dinner table. Maybe it was the moment when we were saying our gratitudes for the day.

I said, perhaps at the very end of my turn: “I’m so glad I’m getting enough sleep these days. Sometimes I still go to bed too late, but when I think back on when you were smaller, I remember how tired and grumpy I was all the time. Sometimes you would scream all morning and then I would scream back at you to stop.”

Malcolm looks delighted by this. “I think I must have loved that,” he says.

I’m incredulous. “Really? Do you think you were screaming because our house was too quiet?” I ask him. He grins, nodding.

This seems too good to be true. But I am relieved that he remembers it that way.

It is such a gift to find a window into his perception of the world.

Malcolm sometimes reminds me of my maternal grandmother. Her feelings were always out in the open, in a way that I couldn’t imagine for myself at the time. She embraced, cried, scolded. I was guarded, cautious, shy. I tried to contain my big feelings, not to let them spill out.

Now, living with my extroverted child, I’m inspired. I’ve learned to reach back to my own earlier child energy, which was always there, hiding somewhere behind seriousness. I feel myself bouncing like he does when he’s happy; I throw my arms around people I love. I can see now how that is possible. I’ve always loved deeply; but now it’s no longer a part of myself I need to guard.

Lachlan, who is now nine, has also challenged me and taught me. He speaks his boundaries clearly; he speaks when he feels injustice; he looks around and sees the patterns around him. He is learning to temper honesty with kindness, but I admire his honouring of the truth. I am also seeing how that is possible: to speak the truth, peacefully. Even sometimes with wry humour, like Lachlan does. To trust that the world won’t end because of it; that people can handle it; that my concerns will be addressed.

When you have a child, a stranger is dropped into the centre of your life, even right into your body; a stranger who you love fiercely and inexplicably, but you don’t necessarily understand.

Whatever you thought was your subjective self, your individuality, becomes more permeable. When someone is living inside your body, where do you end and they begin? When your body is their lifeline, their means of survival, how do you untangle your own point of view?

But once they’re out in the world, separate from you; well, your body might be your own again, but your heart needs to continue to grow. To fit into it that expanding perspective that’s not the same as yours.

And once you stretch your heart, once you learn – even just a little – to see the world through your child’s eyes, then seeing the world through other people’s eyes becomes that much more possible.

It’s an opening, a window, a tantalizing glimpse into the possibility of understanding.

That’s one thing that my children have taught me.


This Old House

When I was a little child, I would often visit my grandparents at the farm where my father grew up. In a small village in Poland, less than an hour away from the grey Soviet-era apartment block where I lived in the city, the farm was the home my grandparents had lived in since the 1940s; the home where my grandmother had borne five of her six children; the home where the village school operated for a time, with my grandmother as teacher, until a building was constructed for this purpose.

I don’t think the way they lived was much different from what it would have been one or two or even five centuries earlier.

When in my first pregnancy I first considered giving birth at home, my father was the first person who gave me confidence.”You have five hospitals within twenty minutes of your house” he said. “And the baby’s due in May. There can’t even be a snowstorm.” I imagined his mother giving birth at home, with no car, the nearest hospital hours away by horse and wagon. I knew as soon as I had my first child that if my grandmother could boil cloth diapers in a pot on the wood stove to sterilize them, I could at least load them into a washing machine. Later, when I decided to homeschool my kids, my sisters joked that this too was predestined by father’s experience. 


The wooden house was, I believe, originally built more than a hundred years ago with a regular floor plan: a front door with large rooms on either side, a kitchen, and a large bedroom. But for a time one of the front rooms was used as the schoolroom. For a time, the other front room was where the village doctor lived. Then the schoolroom was converted into the room where the frames were stored from the beehives, honey was extracted, beeswax was melted and shaped. As for the doctor’s room, it still housed a bed, but it was rarely used other than for storage and the occasional guest. The front door of the house was closed firmly shut.


As long as I could remember, the real life of the house started in the kitchen, entered through the back door and through a small mudroom. The kitchen was dominated by the giant wood stove, with a deep bread oven above. A wooden table, a wooden bench, one wooden armchair with a cushion, some stools. Later some plastic chairs. Bumpy linoleum-covered floors. A curtained-off area in the kitchen was the washing area, where my grandmother – until well into her eighties – hauled buckets from the well and used them to fill large metal bowls for washing dishes and people. It was a well-organized system. A small metal tub by the stove was where children and later grandchildren were bathed.


Off the kitchen to the left was the room where my grandparents slept. In the absence of a hallway, my grandparent’s narrow bedroom needed to be crossed to enter the back room, which housed three beds for their children to sleep on, and a square table that could be used as a dining table for holidays and guests. Each of the bedrooms had a tiled wood stove of its own.


Behind the house was the root cellar. The vegetable gardens. The fruit trees. The beehives. Two barns: a brick one for animals and a wooden one for grain. And behind the grain barn were the fields where my father and his siblings grew up working the land with their parents.

Beside the animal barn was the outhouse. But at night, my grandmother would tell us, there was no need to walk all the way over there. Just behind the house would be fine. Or, if we were too cold or afraid of the dark, there was a chamber pot behind the washing curtain, which was always empty again when we got up in the morning. My grandmother was always the first one up.


I realize now that so many of my earliest sensory memories are from this farm. The smell of the grain barn, with its sloped piles of wheat and rye reaching up to the ceiling, the dizzying dives of the swallows with their forked tails, the huge storks’ nest perched on the barn roof. The squealing of piglets trotting in and out of the barn, and the grunts of the huge sow, their mother. The sweet smell of beeswax, still one of my favourite smells in the world. The curious and distinct and warm smell of the house itself. The clang of the metal buckets and basins used for washing. The warmth of the wood stove, which heated most of the house, and along with the chickens and the pigs helped dispose of anything that was no longer needed.

Drinking foaming milk from a cup dipped straight into the milking pail. Fresh cheese being made, whey dripping from a cheesecloth. The grain of the giant wooden bowls used for kneading dough.

I say this is how it was, but not much in the house itself has changed. The furniture is the same; the same pictures hang on the walls; the old milk pails stand inside the closed front door; the front room is full of frames from the hives. However, there is now running water in the screened-off area in the kitchen, which is still used for bathing as well as for washing dishes. The well is blocked off. There is now – very recently installed – a flush toilet, behind another small curtain in the kitchen. The grain barn was torn down decades ago. There are only chickens left in the animal barn. The beehives are active, but as has happened everywhere, many of the colonies have disappeared. My uncle has built a comfortable gazebo on top of the still-used root cellar. The fields were sold long ago. The roads are paved.

The houses in the village have mostly been rebuilt and renovated. Some of them are supported by jobs in the city. But small plots of crops checker the fields like a patchwork quilt. The front gardens are exuberant with flowers.

There are still reminders, in the house and in the village, of earlier times of turmoil: a bullet hole in a bedroom door, a monument across the road. After the clouds and storms that have passed through these lands in the past century, there’s a stillness here now. A deep breath out, a feeling of gratitude for the calm.

Is it possible for any place to remain the same while the world around it changes? And is it fair for me to come here, from a distance, and expect to step back into the past?

Both my grandparents have died, my grandmother not so long ago, each living in this house until the very end of their lives. Both of their deaths have stories connected with this place, my grandfather’s with the bees and hives, my grandmother’s with the root cellar.

Perhaps I’ll tell those stories another day.



I had an uneasy relationship with gratitude growing up. A sense of superstition, perhaps, that had come to me from my Polish ancestry. Expressing gratitude was like gloating. It was tempting Fate. Hiding your happiness was… safer, in some way. Joy was too fleeting, too easily taken away. These beliefs were passed on to me somewhere in my genes.

Being grateful for something also seemed to imply a sense of ownership. Gloating about what was yours. It was better to be humble. To talk about what was imperfect, what was missing. Just maybe to complain a little, so that you didn’t draw attention to yourself. So that Fate wouldn’t notice you. So that it wouldn’t all be taken away.

My perception of what gratitude is and what it means has wholly shifted. But I still see that confusion out in the world: when people express joy about the moments of beauty in their lives, when they dig deep to count their blessings, when they honour the richness of existence. Suspicions are raised; accusations are levelled.

But gratitude isn’t gloating. It’s capturing a moment that is always fleeting, that always holds in it the potential for grief. My gratitude comes from seeing how precarious it all is. I’ve come to believe that my job is to witness each moment in my life, to find the beauty. Gratitude is being present, feeling the joy of it right now, as it is. Despite imperfections; sometimes despite pain.

I’ve started to see it as an honouring. An honouring of every element of the universe that we breathe into our beings, that allows us to exist. There’s fierceness to it, and tenderness.

I’ve realized that if I shift my language, if I say “I’m grateful to” instead of “I’m grateful for” – the sun, the rain, the earth beneath my feet – I feel like I’m more accurately expressing my thanks: for the agency of all living things; for their separate existence, which sustains me, but which doesn’t belong to me. I like to remind myself of this.

Someone said to me a year or two ago, with some sullenness: “But sometimes I just don’t feel grateful”. I was surprised at how strongly I reacted to that. I realized then, that for me, gratitude was no longer optional.  It was a necessary acknowledgement of what kept me alive.

A ritual that allows me to live in harmony in the world; a powerful ceremony; what some would call a prayer.    

Kids on trains: travelling with kids and why it was easier than I expected

Before we took our trip to Poland last month, I didn’t give a lot of thought about how much time we would spend travelling from place to place. My parents organized the trip, and my mother had some strong opinions on driving in Poland and was quite sure that she didn’t want to rent a car. So each time we moved from city to city, we dropped by the train station and bought tickets, usually the day before departure. Having spent very little time thinking about our itinerary beforehand, I hadn’t realized how long some of our train trips would be. Perhaps if I had I would have been a little nervous.

Six hours from Warsaw to Gdańsk, seven from Gdańsk to Lublin (which, because of mechanical failures and other mishaps, turned into ten), a five-hour bus trip from Lublin to Kraków, and another five (or was it six?) hours on a train from Kraków to Siedlce, our last stop before flying out from Warsaw (an insignificant one-hour train trip away). A few short train trips, bus rides and car rides (with my uncle) interspersed the longer one.

When I thought about it afterwards, I was impressed that we had spent at least 30 hours in transit, not counting our two flights.

I love trains, especially in Europe, where it’s possible to walk around from one wagon to another, stand in the corridor with the window down, feel the wind in your hair, and even occasionally find a dining car.  But how does that work with kids under the age of 10?

It worked beautifully.

We don’t own any tablet-type devices, and while we have smartphones at home, I don’t have any interest in giving them to the kids to play with. Plus there’s the loud frugal voice in my head looking on in alarm: “But they could BREAK that!” When I’ve travelled on trains with my kids in Canada, which we used to do regularly, this has put me very much in the minority. We had a few trying train trips when Malcolm was a (very vocal) baby and toddler, when people would stare at us and elderly ladies would inquire with concern whether we had misplaced his pacifier. But we persisted, read books out loud, made up stories, played old-fashioned road games like I Spy, had lots of drawing supplies and snacks on hand. We worked at it. And it became fun.

The last few years we’ve been doing more driving, and that’s a bit harder. Harder to interact with the kids safely, impossible to move around, requiring total concentration from at least one of the adults (and intense and focused knitting from the other… ahem). But in Canada, driving makes it easier to be spontaneous, and it’s the only way to get to most places outside of a major centre.

So I was happy to rediscover train travel. Since trains (and buses and private mini-buses) were available to every nook and cranny of Poland, it seemed. And with kids ages nine and six, there was so much less effort required than in the past. I learned that six or seven hours on a train are exponentially easier than the same number in a car. And for most of the trips in helped (but perhaps just a little) that there were four adults to two children.

Lachlan, at nine, required very little interaction at all as long as he had a book to read. We’d brought two, Eragon (Christopher Paolini) and The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan). He devoured both of these in our first week of travel. A short hiatus of peaceful boredom followed, interspersed with looking out the window, card-playing, and Conan reading out loud to the kids from an old battered paperback edition of Tolkien’s Return of the King, which they had begun reading in a beautiful hardbound edition at home. In Kraków, my cousin, Ola, gave Lachlan a book of legends about the city, with stories in both Polish and English. This he also devoured.

And in an English-language bookstore in Kraków we picked up a copy of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. One of my favourite childhood books, so it thrilled my heart to see him immersed in it for the last few days of our trip.


As for Malcolm, the six-year-old, who until the 11th hour insisted he wasn’t going on the trip…  He proved himself to be a champion traveller. I learned last year that Malcolm can power his way through workbook exercises for the sheer joy of problem-solving and completion. We brought him a first grade math workbook and a Star Wars writing workbook. The kind of thing his older brother would have disdained and isn’t totally my style either, but is definitely part of Malcolm’s learning strategy. He set to work, and that kept him engaged for our first two train trips, until he decided that trains are too bumpy for writing.

After that we spent time:

  • Playing cards. Oh, how Malcolm loves card-playing! I can’t possibly count the number of times we each played Crazy Eights with Malcolm. Counting; sorting; learning how to deal with losing, pick oneself up, and try again….
  • Reading out loud from Return of the King and a book of five-minute mysteries we had picked up before we left.
  • Eating snacks and meals. We packed LOTS of food. Mostly fresh and simple things we could buy at any deli or tiny grocery story: fresh bread, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, raw veggies.  The occasional szarlotka (apple cake) or pastry.
  • Looking out the window at the world outside and marvelling at both its similarly to and difference from the landscape in Canada. I was amazed once when Malcolm did this quietly for an hour or more while everyone else read their own books.
  • Standing in the corridor looking out the window. This required me lifting Malcolm up (and he’s getting heavy!), so only happened in short instalments with the kids. Otherwise it was usually me and my dad.
  • Having our fortunes told by the kids: Lachlan was inspired by something he read to make fortune-telling cards. These featured symbols that apparently represented things like: “You will meet a very wise person who will teach you many things about the world” (an owl) and “You will go on many journeys” (a boot). Of course then Malcolm was inspired to do the same. His were a little more specific and a little more random: “You will find a lost civilization” (underwater ruin) and “You will go on a plane to a different country” (not surprising, a plane). At the time, it was all pretty hilarious.
  • Malcolm asking me math questions, and then me sneaking in a few for him. It’s interesting how both kids have learned a lot of math simply by asking questions and having conversations about things like odd and even numbers, temperatures, measurements, distances, currency. I’ve enjoyed tracking that curiosity in both of them. When they ask me math questions I usually slow down my process out loud to model what I’m doing and they eventually imitate that or find their own process.
  • Just hanging out and talking. Especially in the compartment-style trains, where we would often have other people in a compartment with us. It was fascinating to see my parents engaging everyone in conversation. I was especially impressed through the whole trip with how my father asks questions about everything and then remembers all those details later on.
  • Ignoring the children and reading our own books, writing in a notebook (that one was just me), or being mesmerized by the landscape ourselves. I also brought some – very tiny and portable – knitting.

Lots of these activities carried over to times when we weren’t on trains. Sometimes writing, drawing, and playing card games that needed more space were better done in hotel rooms and in the homes we stayed in.


This on top of all the museums, art galleries, castles, medieval cities, picturesque villages, local flora and fauna, traditional foods, family history and genealogy, discussions of cultural differences, and of course, the regular language practice…

Well, I fell a little bit in love with both the richness and the simplicity of learning and living on the road.


Some day, I’ll have the technological sophistication to blog on the road. Maybe. Then I won’t disappear for weeks at a time. But for now, I have a notebook and paper and a point-and-shoot camera, and my thoughts and reflections gather and weave together for weeks, until the strands that felt clear and precise in the moment are hard to pull apart from the whole. I jot down rough notes and immediate emotions, and I tell myself that I like having the time to experience and then reflect. But in that moment between immediate experience and the distance of time, a single story can be hard to pull out of of what feels like a million impressions. “At least a million,” as my six-year-old would say.

On a park bench in Warsaw.

On a park bench in Warsaw.

In our three-week trip to Poland last month, we visited Warsaw, Gdańsk, Kraków and Lublin (where I was born); spent a weekend at a family wedding on my mother’s side; and then most of a week in the country, in the small village where my father grew up, in the house where he was born. We saw all of my father’s siblings (three brothers and a sister), some of my cousins, and some of their children (all of whom have been born since I last visited 11 years ago). We visited my great-aunt and uncle, now in their eighties and so little changed from how I always remember them. We spent between 25 and 30 hours on trains and buses, with two kids and no electronics (more on that another day). We visited four castles. We wandered through cities that had been 90 percent destroyed during World War II and then meticulously rebuilt by the incredibly resilient inhabitants. We visited many churches, as tourists and not worshippers, in a country where the Catholic Church is omnipresent and religious observance is strong and sometimes inflexible.

Lion fountain in Gdańsk,

Lion fountain in Gdańsk,

We spent most of that time as three generations travelling together: my parents, my husband and I, and our two children – nine and six. This meant – although there were many child-endorsed visits to medieval castles – that the adults had some time for activities without kids. Conan and I, without the kids, visited some intense and moving museums, some of the best museums I’ve ever encountered, all recently built. Interactive and multimedia are overused buzzwords, but I saw them fully realized when applied to telling the story of the Warsaw Uprising, or the Nazi occupation of Kraków, or the months before and after the strikes in the Gdańsk shipyard that eventually led to the fall of communism in Poland. Architecture, installations, artifacts, day-by-day narration of events leading visitors through the space, film footage, interviews with survivors, written testimonies, music, sometimes even items to handle and smell – this was museum curating at its most creative, dynamic and relevant.

Lachlan cracking fresh hazelnuts by the beehives in Dratów.

Lachlan cracking fresh hazelnuts by the beehives in Dratów.

There was a lot about Poland that drew me in, that always seems like part of me: the old farm in Dratów, which holds some of my earliest sensory memories (more on that another day as well); Kraków, the first place that felt like home when I first went back to Poland when I was 18, a city that puts me under a spell, where I never feel like a tourist even when walking in a throng of other visitors; the countryside we drove through on trains and buses, watching small and diverse plots passing in beautiful succession: potatoes, corn, apples, hops, hazelnuts, tobacco, strawberries. Books on herbal medicine and on wild food seemed to be everywhere – homes of relatives, even small bookstores in train stations. We ate homemade preserves and drank homemade fruit liquers, ate freshly-picked mushrooms and freshly grown fruit and vegetables.  We bought freshly-baked bread every morning in tiny urban markets. Even down 100 meters under the ground in the Wieliczka salt mine, the food was fresh, seasonal and traditional.

Sometimes I stood for what seemed like hours in train hallways – as one can in Europe – with the window down, leaning my arms on the sill, wind whipping my hair, the countryside flashing by, asking my dad questions about the trees and plants sailing past. Lulled by the rocking of the train, while puzzling over botanical names in Polish, English, Latin. Those were perfect moments.

Inspecting propaganda posters at the Gallery of Socialist Realist Art at Kozłówka Palace.

Inspecting propaganda posters at the Gallery of Socialist Realist Art at Kozłówka Palace.

And then there were the ghosts, of all different sorts. The past is so present for me in Poland. Ghosts in the cities that had been destroyed and rebuilt, ghosts of people who gave their lives to visions of national independence and personal freedom, ghosts in the streets where Jewish ghettoes had been places of imprisonment and horror during the war. The latter visited me in dreams and in waking, and sometimes it seemed that they gripped me and held me down so I could hardly breathe. And kinder ghosts, those of my grandparents, especially my two grandmothers, who were still alive the last time I visited, whose voices I could hear in my head, the touch of whose hands – elderly hands, at once both rough and soft – I could feel on my skin. Whose physical presence was missing for the first time.

Street art in Kraków.

Street art in Kraków.

Instead, there was a new generation of children to meet. Children of my cousins. What was amazing and beautiful was the way children communicate when they don’t speak the same language. Malcolm and his five-year-old second cousin spent a couple of hours stringing together random words in Polish and English, giggling madly, chasing and tickling each other, taking pictures with their mother’s cameras. Malcolm said at the end: “I think I am very good at communicating without words,” and I laughed and agreed. In another home, my kids bounced around for an hour with four other cousins they were meeting for the first time: jumping, wrestling, laughing, wild energy. Then they hugged goodbye and the cousins were on their way. Seeds of relationship planted for the future.

Malcolm's picture of Milenka and her picture of the wallpaper in my parents' hotel room in Kraków.

Malcolm’s picture of Milenka and her picture of the wallpaper in my parents’ hotel room in Kraków.

And then there are the things that are wholly strange to me. That’s always the difficult part. I’ve lived for most of my life in a country of many religions, many ethnic origins, many belief systems. I believe that there are many ways to truth. I can’t know who I would be if I hadn’t moved here, what I would believe. But the certainty – about values, about other cultures – that I often encounter in Poland, and sometimes in other parts of Europe, can make dialogue difficult. Where does one even start in the face of such certainty? It’s hard to find a way into the conversation. It shuts me down, and I have to work at speaking when something needs to be said. Even at home I can find it hard to explain myself. In a language that sometimes ties my tongue up in knots, with the vocabulary of a child, well, it’s hard to say much more than “I disagree”. There is such powerlessness in being able to understand clearly words that you don’t agree with, but being unable to articulate a response. I never stay in the country long enough to get to the nuances. But I sometimes feel a disconnect between the thoughtful analysis of the museum exhibits and the conversations I overhear on the street or in people’s homes. Perhaps that would be the case in Canada too, if I stepped outside the bubble of the big city I live in and the open-minded community around me.

A traditional paper-cutting of the Lublin region, part of an exhibit of Polish folk art at Lublin castle.  This was my favourite, because of the storks.

A traditional paper-cutting of the Lublin region, part of an exhibit of Polish folk art at Lublin castle. This was my favourite, because of the storks.

The tension between connection on one hand and claustrophobia on the other is always there when I travel to Poland. I pine for the cobbled city streets, the heart-stirring history, the ancestral farmlands, the family resemblances, and then breathe some relief when I return to the wider open spaces and perspectives of my adopted home. Every country has such a different personality. It’s partly the weight of its particular history, but it’s also the daily influence of the place itself. The landscape, the architecture, the weather, the way the towns fit together, the historical monuments, the flora and fauna, the density of the population. The day-to-day sensory perceptions that make up a reality, the context for a worldview.

Once you leave a place, you can’t ever truly go back.  Everything is different. You see everything differently.

Which doesn’t mean I can’t keep trying. To figure out where I fit; to feel the comforting presence of my ancestors; to revel in what I love about the land and the culture; to relish the relationships that just are, that pick up over distances of kilometres and years, with a long embrace and a warm smile. And now, also to show my children the roots of my story, of their stories. To trace back their threads of ancestry and influence. To spin a thread for them, however tentatively, into the future.