Days well spent

A year ago around this time my hubby and I were finalizing our September trip to Ireland, and I was looking forward to taking lots of photos for this blog. A year ago we weren’t all living the pages of a science fiction novel.

We never know where life is going to take us, do we?

While we wait out this odd limbo we’re in, we think about what ‘afterward’ is going to look like. No one knows what the future will be, so to my mind let’s make the most of the unexpected time we have on our hands in the present.

Here in Ontario home renovations are booming – all those projects people have been wanting to get to but never had enough time.

There’s a bonanza of flowers and plants at one of our local nurseries, rows and rows of gorgeous colour and texture to explore like a yard sale in the Garden of Eden. I could have wandered through there for hours, but I wanted to get home with my treasures: a glorious flame-red canna lily to plant next to our moody purple smoke bush, and a vibrant pot garden.

I have very little skill as a gardener (didn’t get my mother’s green-thumb gene), but I love plants and I needed to add these two bursts of energy to the front of our house. I needed to add some brightness to what feels like a faded version of our world these days.

This is a great time to stretch yourself, to discover new things. In the ‘afterwards’, things will have shifted. I suspect we’ll be labelling things as “pre-“ or “post-“ COVID, and like any major upheaval the most successful survivors will be the ones who were most adaptable.

You’ve probably seen a TV show about the rambunctious troops of macaque monkeys that have taken over the city of Jaipur in India. National Geographic produced two entertaining series about these hardy little survivors called Monkey Thieves. The macaques and their rivals, the grey langurs, have been driven out of their normal wild habitat by the expanding human population, but they’re making the most of their new city homes. Macaques are extraordinarily adaptable – clever and resourceful, they’re willing to eat just about anything and sleep almost anywhere. Rather than dying out, they’re thriving in Indian cities to the point of becoming nuisances.

Koala bears, by contrast, are critically endangered. They eat only eucalyptus leaves, and of the 700 varieties of eucalyptus in Australia, they’ll only feed from a tiny percentage. We humans have backed them into an ecological corner which they may not survive.

So this is a great time to, like the wily macaques, explore and find out what you can make use of. Try things you might not have considered before – who knows what you might find you like and are even pretty good at.

Early into our home ownership, as a young married couple in a bad economy (mortgage rates were as high as 18%) we couldn’t afford much in the way of Christmas decorations. I saw a beautiful grapevine wreath in a store that I just couldn’t swing, but we had a home-crafting store called White Rose that carried all the basics, and I thought that maybe I could make my own wreath for a fraction of the cost. I had no idea what I was doing – no inkling of things like glue guns, even – but my version turned out just as pretty as the store-made version, much to my surprise. Making my own holiday florals has been a passion of mine ever since – I hunt through different sources to put together very personalized wreaths and table arrangements to compliment our house colour scheme, and tweak them as I find interesting new objects I’d like to add or swap in. I did actually sell custom-made creations for a while, which was fun but not my ultimate goal so I didn’t keep it up.

A fresh Christmas arrangement that I put together every year

One of the things that did stick professionally was photography. During a summer job while I was in university that involved mapping a local conservation area for visitor use, I was asked to take some photos and put together a promotional brochure – not my forte as a biology major, but my brother had loaned me one of his cameras and I got some good photos of a Great Blue Heron on the edge of one of the ponds. I never had ambitions of becoming a professional, but over the years I’ve taken photos for a real estate agent, the college I worked at, and of course thousands of travel photos that allowed us to show the rest of the world to our non-travelling friends and family. I love to take photos that capture all the cool little parts of a place that are rarely portrayed in the destination marketing, all the personal experiences that have brought a place alive for us.

This photo of a pair of stuffed faux llamas decorated in all their finery in the artsy little city of Arequipa in Peru is one of my personal favourites. Arequipa is one of the coolest places in Peru but most tours unfortunately skip it. It’s full of culture and colour, though, as well as delicious food, an amazing convent complex that’s a small city on its own, and even the famous Ice Maiden herself, found at the top of Andes a few years ago. (More about Arequipa in an upcoming post!)

One of the biggest changes to my life occurred after I decided to get over my fear of public speaking. It has empowered me and transformed my life in ways I would never have foreseen.

Burdened with one of the most common fears people have, I was able to practice avoidance strategy until I began working at our local college and found myself having to say things in meetings. I absolutely dreaded even introducing myself. After a while, though, I got tired of dodging opportunities. One of the vice-presidents at the college had started up a chapter of Toastmasters and an acquaintance of mine who was already a member recommended that I join. Finally I got up the nerve to do it, although I lurked silently in a back corner of the meeting room for weeks. The members were kind enough to give me that space – otherwise I probably would have bolted in the first few minutes.

Eventually I started working on the speaking projects and got used to getting up in front of the room with the entire group of members focused on me alone. I wasn’t a natural by any means and I had to work hard at learning the basic skills, but I achieved my primary goal, to be able to say something in a meeting without freezing like a deer in headlights.

About two years into the program I was unexpectedly contacted by our local public library to come and do a presentation about Kenya – they’d seen some media about a trip that I’d run to Kenya for the college. My first instinct was to duck out of it, but I’d joined Toastmasters for a reason and I wanted to take this next small step. I was still pretty novice and quite nervous, but I had great photos and stories from the trip. I found myself enjoying the experience, something that I would have laughed at skeptically just a handful of years before that. When some of the attendees came up to chat with me afterward and told me that I was a good storyteller, I jumped a hurdle I’d never banked on.

I’ve done many talks for the library and other organizations since then. One of my favourite stories: all the while that I was doing a later presentation about Peru and Bolivia, a fellow at the far end of the front row was tapping into his cell phone. He wasn’t disturbing anyone, so I left it alone – all the other attendees seemed to be getting a lot out of the presentation. During Q&A at the end of the talk, I assumed that he’d be the first to bug out, but he startled me by asking if the remote temple of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes would be accessible from the town of Copacabana, which he was going to visit in a few months. I’d only included a handful of photos from the site in my presentation, as the brief finale of our trip on the way to our end destination of La Paz, but they’d made such an impression on him that on the spot he decided to see Tiwanaku himself.

When you can get up to talk to people and have a personal impact on their lives, that’s an amazing feeling. By the time I’d served on our regional board and also on the international team that developed the updated Toastmasters program in the past decade, I’d become a different person – comfortable in any situation, confident, well-spoken even in a pinch. Pushing myself to overcome the fear has opened a lot of doors and taken my life in so many new directions.

Dare to imagine what else you could be. Most people have time on their hands now, and there are plenty of opportunities to try out something different. Even if those different things don’t become your passion, at the very least they’ll have expanded your skill base, and in the best-case scenario they may send you on your own amazing journey to a new post-COVID life.

In the meantime, they’ll also serve as a multi-purpose way to pass the time, especially to take your mind off the news. At a virtual photography conference I attended last month, one of the speakers, Caroline Jensen (a Sony Artisan), talked about “Stress Relief in Your Own Backyard” through macro photography. This technique of focusing in on the close-up details of a flower, a butterfly, or any other pieces of nature, keeps you completely absorbed in the moment for hours at a time. She even recommends it as a way to help children cope with their own anxiety.

It opens up a new world in the familiar places we’re all currently restricted to. I live near the Welland Canal, and walking alongside to watch a fascinating ore freighter chug by the other day, I spotted a variety of pretty wildflowers growing along the banks, small enough that most walkers probably passed them by. Great practice for a photographer though 😊

Nature is one of our best sources of therapy during challenging times, and for the most part it’s free to access, especially if you don’t happen to have a back yard of your own to spend placid time in. On any walk in your local woods, you might spot a bright little chipmunk, or admire the sculptural forms of a fallen tree.

If you’d like to try out some macro photography yourself, you can find Caroline’s Quick Start guide here, along with some of her wonderful examples.

I’d like to leave you with a great short TED talk, just a little less than 10 minutes, that was mentioned during the photography conference. Louie Schwartzberg is a renowned photographer who’s spent his career taking time-lapse videos of flowers blooming, and what a magical gift it is to watch them do their thing. His talk includes wise words from a Benedictine monk that, although the talk was done in 2011, couldn’t be more applicable to our present confusion and uncertainty. It’s about how to appreciate nature and the world around us, and to take comfort in each day as the gift that it is.

A few of my favourite things about…Canada

Like citizens of most countries, we Canadians like to gripe about our home turf, but the more we travel the more we realize how fortunate we are — a stable government, a great health-care system, many freedoms, and so much more. In honour of our national holiday coming up in a few days, here is a pictorial look at a few of the things I love about Canada:

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I love these beautiful, majestic birds, despite how much they poop — they are a gift!

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Fenwick Berry Farm displays some of the lush produce we are truly fortunate to be able to grow and buy

Supper Markets
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These delicious outings have become popular in recent years

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An amazing piece of engineering that has been lowering ships from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie for over 150 years, and that continues to fascinate visitors from all over the world

The Great Lakes
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These lakes are so large that friends who visited from Australia asked if they were lakes or oceans!

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They shelter us, provide maple syrup, and turn vivid colours in the fall

Autumn Colours
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Autumn is our most spectacular and enchanting season, IMHO

A rich Indigenous heritage and culture
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The Indigenous Garden at Niagara College, Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus, showing the  harmony and respect for nature that permeates Indigenous life

An abundance of bees
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I’m always happy to see bees in our ecologically troubled times

Halloween
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Halloween is my personal ‘happy place’, and I’m even happier that this wonderfully wacky holiday is celebrated so widely

A love of Breakfast
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We can enjoy this most basic comfort meal at a wide number of restaurants

Gorgeous winter scenery
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Even while we curse at winter storms, we can’t help but admire the scenery, as well as…

Mother Nature’s ice sculptures
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Poetry brought to life

Music
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Outdoor concerts are everywhere, and are a great way to enjoy a nice summer evening

Craft beverages
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Artisanal wineries, breweries and distillers are livening up our food and beverage landscape

Miles of open road
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Thousands of miles of good roads to explore, like the Trans-Canada Highway

…There are far too many things to list here — these are just a few that I happen to have photos of. I invite you to share your own personal favourites with me in honour of Canada Day!

Stop and smell the lilacs

We could learn a lot from animals. Whenever we took our dogs out for a walk, Ramses, the male, loved to find a shrub with branches just at the height of the top of his head. He would then spend several minutes moving his head under a branch, letting the foliage tickle his fur. His face was a picture of bliss while we watched bemused and the female, Isis, pranced around impatiently.

I’m sure you’ve seen many videos of animals enjoying themselves – romping in the snow, rolling around in the grass, grinning happily as they share a surfboard. Animals have a wonderful capacity to suspend all concerns and immerse themselves in something fun, and an equally remarkable capacity to soldier along through adversity while still finding joy in their lives.

We need to do the same: take the time to enjoy even small things as often as we can, perhaps even dedicate an entire day to it. One pastime that most people can enjoy is called a Savouring Walk. The idea on these walks is to appreciate all the positive things you see – a pretty flower, a fresh breeze, perhaps the sun as it slowly sets in rich colours.

It turns out that appreciating the things that lift up our souls is great for our mental wellness in so many ways: relaxing us and easing stress, balancing out some of the negativity in our lives, connecting us to the world around us, and ultimately making us more resilient.

I’m fortunate to live near a beautiful botanical garden, the Royal Botanical Gardens in southern Ontario, and it’s lilac time! This past weekend a friend and I drove over to enjoy some much-needed floral bounty amid the barely-spring weather we’ve been enduring. I’ve always wanted to see the famous Lilac Dell in bloom, and we lucked out with a decent afternoon for our excursion.

The RBG is the largest botanical garden in Canada, and a national historical site. With the poor weather, not everything was blossoming yet, but the prevailing atmosphere of peaceful nature was still very relaxing. We visited the Rock Garden first, where there were a number of photographers out focusing on the colourful masses of tulips, and Hendrie Park, where hopefully soon the roses will be back in all their glory. We saved the Lilac Dell for last to let it dry out after a morning of rain, and people were gently clambering up and down the hillside delicately sniffing the fragrant blooms. I’m very happy to report the absence of any selfie-obsessed idiots destroying things.

It was a lovely, rejuvenating afternoon. I recommend finding any similar setting for a quick recharge, but for anyone not able to get to one, I’m happy to share some of the photos so that you can enjoy a little virtual beauty.

DSC01422Some of the wonderful lilacs in the Dell

DSC01370A bounty of tulips drew numerous photographers

DSC01397Plants tumble in profusion down the sides of the Rock Garden

DSC01342A maiden delicately cradles a bird in one of the Rock Garden water features

DSC01373Sunshine in petal-form

DSC01368We spotted a brilliant green Tiger Beetle out for some afternoon warmth

DSC01321Anyone for a funky-looking seat?

DSC01351Exploring some of the enchanting paths in the Rock Garden

DSC01374  Beauty in bloom

Luray Caverns – Mother Nature Wins!

Hi folks — feeling a bit under the weather today, so this week’s post is a celebration of Mother Nature, who IMHO always wins the contest for artwork. Case in point: Luray Caverns in Virginia. The Caverns were discovered in 1878 and became an overnight success (after millions of years of formation, of course). Although not the largest cave system in North America, Luray is very walkable and superbly lit for visitors to enjoy the many spectacular formations.  I hope these photos inspire you to visit!

DSC00295-001The caverns range from small to massive

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Formations, some dry, some still wet and forming, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. This one is called The Fish, for its resemblance to a string of caught fish at a market.

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This odd formation is called The Eggs.

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There were so many fascinating formations we couldn’t recall the names of all of them.

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Many formations are still dripping, and have formed large pools below. They form stunningly perfect reflections in the still waters — so perfect that you have to look really closely to understand that the bottom part of what you’re seeing is a mirror image.

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One of the really cool things is a cave organ. It plays a slow and soft electronic tune which resonates through the chamber by…DSC00322-001

…small armatures that gently strike some of the stalactites. Visitors have to be very still to enjoy the soft music.

Visit the website for more information about this wonderful adventure.

Lessons in a sunset

Savute sunset, Botswana 2007 - photo by E. Jurus
Savute sunset, Botswana 2007 – photo by E. Jurus

I was driving home this evening from a funeral home; a friend’s mother, who’d been ill for quite some time, passed away unexpectedly from a sudden heart attack. As I crested our local skyway, in the distance a beautiful sunset lit up the sky in a rare burst of glory. It seemed a metaphor for life — moments of grief counterbalanced by moments of beauty. We all know the impermanence of life, but it’s hard to accept when we lose someone close to us. If I’ve learned anything from all the friends, family and pets we’ve lost over the years, it’s that time doesn’t really heal wounds, it just makes them bearable so that you can do what you have to do to survive, which is to move on. After I lost my beloved dog Ramses 8 years ago, it ripped my heart out; it took me months before I could even say the words “he’s dead”. Gradually I was able to go a day or two without crying, then maybe a week, then longer and longer, but even as I write this I feel the pain of his loss and miss him enormously. I wouldn’t change having had him in my life — his love and courage taught me a lot. And so life goes on, and after our adorable second dog Isis passed away the following year, also from old age and sickness, my husband and I went on a trip to Africa that we’d been putting off for a while, and we discovered magic and some healing in the beauty of nature.

This evening I couldn’t stop anywhere to take a photo of our local sunset, so instead I offer you one of the magnificent sunsets we enjoyed on that first safari. As I drove down the far side of the skyway, watching Nature’s artwork in the sky and musing on the meaning of life, I watched an idiot driver cross two lanes of traffic to take the exit ramp, just barely missing the concrete abutment. Sigh. The lesson of the sunset was clearly lost on whoever the driver was, as was the concept of driving safely. Here are two thoughts to take home with you:

1. We only get to watch so many sunsets in our life — don’t squander them!

2. Nature is the mother of all that’s great on our planet — we can only use the tools she gives us to make beauty, or ugliness. Which would you like your legacy to be?