The coldest month

I have to remind myself that in January no matter what I’m doing I wish I were doing something else. Is there any way to make January easier? Or is it a matter of pulling through the cold and darkness, the lack of motivation, that feeling of what’s the point? January comes every year, and every year it passes. The days will get longer. The light is returning. Slowly, week by week the cold will pass.

I’ve been getting out for a walk by myself every day this week, sometimes twice. These days of windchills in the -20s and no snow are the bleakest of winter days. But I need to be out, to walk. It’s one of the consistent threads in my life, something that I fall back on when I need to figure things out (when do I ever not need to figure things out?). Walking and reading and writing are the bones of my life.

The cold doesn’t bother me once I’m out. And even on a grey morning like today, when the garbage bins are cluttering the sidewalks, and it’s hard to see the beauty of anything at all, there are the stark silhouettes of trees, frost patterns on windows, bare skeletons of tall plants with deep roots stretching down underground.

This week I walked with a full moon one evening, clouds moving across the sky, a surprisingly slim raccoon trotting on the sidewalk opposite, keeping pace. That squeaky crunch of the thin layer of snow on the sidewalk under my boots. The pain of the wind against the bones of my face, carving me out.

I’m trying to use the time that I have efficiently, but I’m slow. I’d rather be reading a novel, curled up under a blanket with a cup of tea, soaking in a hot bath, sleeping. One of my deep fears about myself is of my innate laziness. How much of what I do is to fight against that fear?

But winter is the time for dreaming. I hardly remember more than the haze of my dreams, but each morning I wake up from another life: sprawling many-chambered buildings, dark hallways, underground passages. In my dreams, I’m passing through hotels, wandering through forests, trying to get somewhere that I can never seem to reach. And people, so many people: coming and going, talking, embracing, falling in love again and again. Like an enchantment.

There is the ordinariness of everything that January makes stark. You either learn to love it, savour that there is such a life, that you’re alive and able to feel everything that you feel. You put your hand on your child’s small chest and feel the heart beating there steadily, and marvel at how this is possible. Or perhaps you try to escape, try to find somewhere else to go that is brighter, newer, more surprising, more enchanted. But, as you know, you’re still there, wherever you are. Wandering or staying – it’s those same dark hallways and underground passages in your dreams. You always come back to yourself.

There’s a fairy tale I’ve read to the kids many times, about a princess who rebels against her father and goes out into the woods on the night of the full moon. She meets a handsome knight enchanted by the Queen of the Elves; she dances with him all night, and in the morning returns home. Month after month she lives for the full moon nights and in her daily life she fades, withers, loses all interest, is almost lost to Life. But one night, she meets an old woman who tells her how to free her prince and herself from the enchantment. The woman tells her to hold on to him, no matter what happens, no matter what form the Elf Queen gives him. So she does: he turns into ice, a clawing bear, a snake, a fire, and she runs to the lake and dips him in the water. And she’s held on long enough, it’s dawn, the Queen of the Elves has lost both of them. They return home and live happily in their ordinary non-enchanted life, inside a fairy tale nonetheless.

I love fairy tales. They’re so much more true than facts sometimes. What is this story about, I wonder, why does it entrance me so with the ring of a deep truth? When I read this to my kids, I think of all the adult possibilities: obsession, addiction, delusion, depression, mental illness. I keep coming back to it, pulled into the shadowy realms of its enchantment myself.

I wonder often, as a person who has vivid daydreams that sometimes feel like visions, what is the difference between vision and delusion? Where is the line?

What is the Elf Queen enchanting me into, you into? When do you hold on and when do you let go? What brings you closer to Life and what drains it out of you? How do you hold on to magic, to dreams without being consumed by them? Are these questions about fairy tales or life? I don’t know for certain.

About a year ago I sat in a café, briefly, while my kids were in a class; I sat and read a book that made my mind spin with wonder; I wrote in my notebook, drank a cup of tea. I looked up and saw myself five years ago, ten, twenty, sitting in cafés, reading, writing, drinking hot tea. My selves met and embraced; we saw and recognized and understood each other. It was a moment of homecoming. And then I walked out into the cold again.

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.

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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.

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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.

Everybody’s lonely

Last year I came across some simple words in a book, quoted from a story the author had read in another book. Pretty far removed from me, right? And yet these words shifted something in me.

The words are spoken to an awkward young girl at a party by a mysterious older man who sees her struggling with self-consciousness and a hunger for belonging: “Everybody’s lonely,” he tells her. And with that, the girl’s view of the world changes.

I came across this story in Joanna Macy’s memoir, Widening Circles. She makes these words into a mantra. In those moments where I am inwardly spiraling too deeply into myself, it’s become my mantra too. 

When I was younger, awkward and pretending not to care, I often couldn’t see outside of myself. Rationally, yes; truly, no. The narcissism of youth. I would get trapped inwardly, unable to see the reality of other people’s lives. Always sure that they had something I was missing.

More recently, if I’m falling into self-doubt, sadness, jealously, fear, or confusion, instead of trapping myself inwardly, I’ve started pulling myself outward. Everybody’s lonely. Once I look out I can see it. The change in perspective is huge.

I’ve started looking for other people’s loneliness, cataloguing it to myself. I think of people I know – those I love easily, those I struggle with – and I tell myself their stories. Every one – even the most accomplished, the most eloquent, the most loved – is missing something that they want, isolated in some way, unsure about something deep inside themselves. It brings out a lot of tenderness in me to see it.

It’s fascinating, in a sense, this universal loneliness. And – dare I say – it’s beautiful, that we all have this in common, if only we can see outside ourselves?

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