Bee Days

Spring is here in Canada (finally!), and the leaves, flowers, and little critters are coming out of hiding. Including…queen bumblebees! They are emerging from their underground safe haven, looking for a place to establish a nest, and feeding their bellies with nectar from early blooms.

The past few days of mine have (happily) been filled with bees. Bee sightings, bee art, and bee news.

  • My mom was visiting and helping with the yard-work when she told me, “I think you might have a bumblebee nest under your shed out back! I’ve seen a big, fat queen bumblebee going in and out of a tiny space between the shed and the grass.” So of course I scoped it out. Sure enough, I saw a big, buzzy queen zig-zagging low to the ground and she disappeared under the shed. Yippee!! I hope she likes her new home.
  • I went to my first art show on the weekend at Globe Studios. Lo and behold, there was a local artist who specializes in artwork featuring…bees! So of course I had to chat with her. Her work is stunning and she is absolutely lovely. Her card is below and you can see more of her artwork Here.
  • On the weekend I also received a parcel delivery notice in the mail. When I picked up the parcel I saw it was from a dear friend out in Victoria, British Columbia. It was a painting! Of a queen bumblebee! Isn’t it amazing?! And it came with a note filled with love and encouragement. I am truly blessed. You can see more of this talented artist’s work Here.

  • Two days in a row, at separate locations, a queen bumblebee hovered in mid-air in front of me, at face level. No kidding. As if she was studying me.
  • Yesterday I received an email from my agent. Someone in the publishing world is interested in my proposal for a nonfiction bumblebee book!! It is only a statement of interest, so I can’t get too excited. But it is positive feedback nonetheless and I’ll gladly take it.

Here’s to Bee Days! I hope there’s many more to come.

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8 Elements for a Happy Mother’s Day

Today is a celebration of mothers everywhere. Here are eight happy ways my Mother’s Day has started off:

1. I slept in past 9:00 a.m.! When was the last time that happened??

2. When I opened the curtains I was flooded with bright sunshine and a joyful blue sky.

3. My son excitedly and immediately gave me a 3-D Mother’s Day card he made himself:

4. Then my daughter gave me a card she made:

5. When I walked into the dining room, a beautiful flower arrangement was waiting for me:

6. I filled my belly with my husband’s delicious French toast!

7. I received a special request from my daughter to go to a park today because she wants to play on the teeter-totter with me.

8. My daughter is currently skipping around the house, giggling, for no particular reason.

My heart feels light yet full-to-bursting. I wish this feeling to all mothers out there.

Happy Mother’s Day!

The Art of Waiting

I look outside the library window and see a chipmunk, foraging in the rusty-brown mulch by the trees. It finds little morsels now and then, holding them with its small, dainty paws, chewing away, as people pass by on the sidewalk.

I wonder what it’s like for the chipmunk to wait for spring? What goes on in its little mind, if anything, as the winter days slide by?

Currently I have three pieces of writing that I set free into the publishing world. Two pieces have been out there for a few months, whereas the other was set free only a week ago. Waiting for responses is hard.

Strike that. Not hard. Excruciating.

I fully understand why writers need to wait. Editors are flooded with manuscripts and proposals and queries every day. The stacks of to-be-reviewed submissions on their desk and floor rival the height of the CN Tower. So it’s going to take a while for them to get to my specific work.

But understanding this doesn’t stop the nervous, jittery prickles from coursing through my limbs each day.

Is today the day? Is today the day I get an answer?

I’ll even settle for a rejection! Just TELL ME!!

So I try to distract myself.

DANA’S 11 DISTRACTION MECHANISMS (SO FAR):

  1. Write something else: a sequel to what I submitted; this blog.
  2. Take a walk. Especially with our big, black, friendly dog.
  3. Enjoy the flowering trees in our neighbourhood.
  4. Look at–really look at–my daughter’s chalk drawings on the front porch.
  5. Mentally rehearse my reaction when my agent (yes, I have an agent!!!) eventually gives me good news.
  6. Play Monopoly with my 7-year-old son. And marvel at his mathematical and financial prowess.
  7. Obsessively research a new topic and sign out every possible book on the subject from the library.
  8. Play “I Spy with My Little Eye” with my daughter. (Who knew a 5-year-old could be so tricky?)
  9. Go out for breakfast with a dear friend.
  10. Treat myself to a Nanaimo bar. Maybe two.
  11. Reflect on what (and who) I am grateful for.

3 THINGS DANA HAS REALIZED THROUGH THIS PROCESS:

  1. I am terrible at waiting.
  2. There is an art to waiting.
  3. The art of waiting is to live your life.

A big truck barrelled past the library and the chipmunk zipped off for cover. I am still here at the window, and the nervous, jittery prickles surface now and then.

As I wait for answers, life goes on. It doesn’t stop while I chase my dreams. I need to remember to live.

The look she gave me

This morning I dropped the kids off at school. Usually my husband does it but he had to go into the office early today. So after some intense Shoe Drama (“I left my indoor shoes in Daddy’s van! I won’t have indoor shoes at schooooooool!”) we piled into the car and off we went.

We had to park up the street a bit because of the yellow and black school buses that swarmed the main school parking lot. My daughter held my hand while my son walked ahead by a few paces. As we followed the sidewalk they explained to me the drop-off routine: kids on their own use the fenced-in path, but kids with parents don’t. And I leave my son with his friends but I take my daughter to her lined-up kindergarten class. Got it.

We spotted my son’s small group of friends. “Bye, Momma,” he said, as if it was an afterthought.

Before my daughter took off in a similar fashion, I quickly bent down and kissed the top of her head. “Bye, Momma,” she blurted as she let go of my hand. She ran over to her line-up partner: a smiling girl with curly, fire-red hair.

I watched my daughter stand in line next to the brick school wall, her back to me, wearing her happy, polka-dot spring jacket and Paw Patrol backpack. “Bye, Lexi,” I called.

She turned. She looked at me with a look I will never forget. A look that said she’s fine, Momma, now go!

A look that said I’m older now, can’t you see?

A look that said, I’m growing up, whether you like it or not.

I felt a lump in my throat. I turned to leave so that I wouldn’t embarrass my daughter with a drawn-out good-bye. But mostly I left because a swoop of emotions clutched at my heart.

I was in such a rush moments before…now all I want is for time to slow down.

(Oh, and the shoes? Daddy had put them in the car before he left. My daughter saw them on her seat as soon as she opened the car door. Crisis averted. Thanks, Daddy.)

A Study on…Alpacas!

I admit that I didn’t really start to appreciate alpacas until I was in a yarn store one day and came across skeins of alpaca wool. Baby alpaca wool, to be exact. So soft! So lovely! I could easily blow wads of cash on that stuff.

I splurged at least a couple of times on alpaca wool and ended up making two of my most favourite scarves:

Besides their amazing wool, I think alpacas are downright adorable. They just fill me with happy. Their gentle demeanour, their huge eyes… They’re like big Muppets.

But I also wonder what goes on in that brain of theirs.

Image courtesy of dreamlandalpacas.com

(Image courtesy of dreamlandalpacas.com)

Lo and behold, in the recent issue of the journal Animal Cognition, there is a published study on alpacas!

The research looked at the phenomenon of spatial perseveration errors: a fancy term for the tendency of an animal to stick to a learned route when another route is available. If an animal chooses a new, available route, this suggests that the animal has a degree of cognitive flexibility.

The authors gave alpacas the task of entering a fenced-in enclosure with a barrier across the middle. On either the left or right far side of the barrier was a gap. If the alpaca went through the gap, it encountered a jackpot in the form of a feeder filled with alfalfa. There were 51 alpacas who participated in this study, and some had to go through the gap one, two, three, or four times, before the gap was moved to the opposite end of the barrier. For the test, the authors watched to see if the alpacas headed toward where the original gap used to be, or whether the alpacas moved in the direction toward the new location of the gap.

It turns out the alpacas were able to solve the task: they moved toward the new gap significantly more often than chance. What is particularly interesting is that the alpacas performed better than horses, donkeys, mules, and even dogs, when they were all given a similar task.

Does this mean alpacas are smarter than dogs? Well, no. It means that alpacas showed a little more cognitive flexibility in a particular task. That is, they show some degree of adaptable problem solving ability. Which also means that there’s a lot more to alpacas than simply being animals that stand around looking cute while their wool is being harvested for human use.

I wonder what other surprises alpacas have hidden in that brain of theirs?

Reference

Abramson, J. Z., Soto, D. P., Zapata, S. B., & Lloreda, M. V. H. (2018). Spatial perseveration error by alpacas (Vicugna pacos) in an A-not-B detour task. Animal Cognition, 21(3), 433-439.

The Kindness of Strangers

I believe the world is full of kind people. Here are four of my own memories of particularly kind people I had never met before, but who helped me nonetheless.

1. The German Dog Walker. Years ago my brother and I travelled to a small town in Germany. We managed to figure out the train from the airport to the small town, but we struggled with directions to the inn where we would be staying. This was the age before smartphones, so all we had was a written address and a map. We saw a tall, middle-aged, lanky lady walking a tall, lanky Irish Wolfhound-looking dog. We asked her if she knew how to get to the inn. She hardly spoke any English (and there was hardly any English around in general), but she motioned for us to follow her. So, dragging our suitcases behind us after a very long day of travelling, we started walking. I remember that every so often the dog would turn around and look at us, perhaps to see if we were still there and/or to keep encouraging us to follow. Well, we walked and we walked…until we arrived at the inn! The lady and the dog had walked us all the way there. To this day I wonder how much they both had to veer off their walking route in order to help us out.

2. The Museum Ladies. I was so excited to see Gunther von Hagen’s “Body Worlds” exhibit, where actual human bodies are preserved using the process of plastination. I remember there was a section of the exhibit where just the capillaries remained of animals and various body parts: they looked like 3-D objects made out of intricate, bright red webs. There was a chicken–just its capillaries remaining–and as I studied it my vision began to shrink toward a point, with darkness around the edges. I started to feel a little woozy. Next thing I knew the right side of my face felt pressed up against something, and I could hear a female voice asking me over and over, “Can you talk? Can you talk?” I opened my eyes and realized I had passed out in the middle of the museum! Two middle-aged ladies were crouched beside me, coaxing me awake. They summoned a museum staff member. I ended up being completely fine, and I still wonder why I fainted. I’m not good with blood, so maybe seeing all those capillaries was somehow subconsciously overwhelming? In any event, I’m grateful to those ladies for making sure I was okay.

3. The Coffee Man. One day I was at a coffee shop and before I could place my order, an older gentleman stepped up beside me and said, “I’m not coming on to you or anything, but can I please buy your coffee? Someone did that for me recently and I’d like to…what do they call it? Pay it forward?” I said yes and told the man that he totally made my day. And I’ve since paid it forward, too.

4. The Restaurant Couple. My husband and I were at a Greek restaurant one evening on a date, and we were just finishing up our main course when our waitress said, “You don’t have to worry about your bill. Another couple has taken care of it.” We were shocked. Complete strangers volunteered to pay for our entire dinner?! The waitress said the couple wanted to remain anonymous but we looked around, trying to decipher which couple it might have been. We never found out.

Some months later my husband and I were on another dinner date when we noticed a group of three young people at a table nearby sharing a number of appetizers. My husband looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and asked me in a hushed voice, “Should we pay for their bill?” I didn’t hesitate, remembering that anonymous couple in the Greek restaurant. “Yes!” I whispered back. The more I snuck glances at them, the more I realized they looked like students, who would probably be extra appreciative. So my husband asked our waiter to put their order on our bill, but to please keep us anonymous. The reaction from that group of young folks when the waiter told them they didn’t have to pay their bill was priceless: their mouths gaped open and they kept voicing their surprise. They all left the restaurant with huge smiles on their faces. And my husband and I did, too.

The Little Black Kitten

When I was 12 years old my family and I lived in an old house with a carport. We had a medium-sized, roly-poly, fluffy black dog named Rascal. One spring day Rascal started whimpering at the screen door that led outside near the carport. Rascal rarely whimpered. “What is it?” I asked him. Then in between his whines I heard it.

“Meow! Meow!”

I peered through the screen door and saw, peeking up from the steps to the carport, a little black kitten face.

My heart leapt. I loved cats! Although we never had a cat of our own, I always wanted one.

I opened the screen door a crack and slid outside, blocking Rascal from charging through the door toward the poor kitten. “Hi there!” I said to the kitten in my gentlest, most sing-songy voice.

“Meow! Meow!”

The kitten trotted right up to me. I was a goner. She (he?) was the cutest little thing. Not having had much experience with cats I was a little afraid of her claws, but I pet her hesitantly and that seemed more than enough for her. She purred and leaned all her weight into the movement of my hand. She was so soft! I could hear Rascal having a conniption fit on the other side of the screen door.

I played with the kitten and talked to the kitten until it was dinner time. By then everyone in my family knew there was a kitten outside, but the intensity of my dad’s hatred of cats was such that I didn’t even bother to ask if I could bring her inside.

The next morning when we let Rascal outside to do his business, there was the little black kitten, trotting along behind him. Rascal seemed to tolerate her.

Then I remember doing my homework up in my bedroom, my mom sitting beside me, helping me. Dad wasn’t home. We heard my brother’s voice behind us say, “Look what I have!” My mom and I turned around and there was my brother, slowly walking up the stairs with the little black kitten in his arms. He was scratching the kitten’s chin. The kitten looked as if it was in heaven.

My mom scolded, “What are you doing? The kitten is going to want inside all the time now!”

Secretly I cheered my brother.

“We can’t keep it,” my mom said gruffly. But I knew through her rough exterior she thought the kitten was to-die-for cute, too.

The next day my mom made a make-shift crate and brought the kitten to the Humane Society. I tried not to think about it.

It’s almost 30 years later and I still think about that kitten. Of course she’s long gone by now. But what would we have named her? Probably something typical like Shadow or Magic or Midnight. Would she have slept on my bed? Would my dad have warmed up to her?

I hope that Shadow/Magic/Midnight ended up in a good home and had a good life.

Telephone Horror

When I was a kid growing up in the ’80s, we had a shiny, black rotary-dial phone that sat on a small table in the dining room. In the circle in the centre of the dial, underneath a plastic covering, was a small piece of paper upon which my dad had used the typewriter to type out our home phone number. (I think I still remember it: 728-0917. Back then you didn’t need to dial the three-digit area code before your number.)

One day my dad suggested that I call my grandparents. So I picked up the receiver, put it to my ear, and started dialling their number. I knew it by heart (although I can’t remember it now!). Anyway, my grandpa answered the phone. “Hello?” I heard his gentle voice say.

“Hi, Grandpa! It’s Dana.”

“Oh! Hello, pet!” (My grandparents always called my brother and I “pet.”) “Hang on while I call for Grandma.”

I could hear a shuffling sound as he put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone to shield my ears from him calling, “Dee-Dee! It’s Dana!”

Then I started to feel a slight tickle on my bottom lip. I stuck out the tip of my tongue to lick it away.

My Grandma came on the line and we said our greetings. I started to feel the tickly feeling on my lip again. When I stuck out my tongue this time, I felt something that was not my lip.

I held the phone out from my face. There, coming out of one of the holes in the mouthpiece of the phone, was a big, fat, juicy earwig.

I held the phone out, terrified. I could hear the little voices of my grandparents chattering away, oblivious to my horror. I watched as the enormous earwig emerged farther and farther out of the hole.

I remember picking up the whole phone and running, speechless with terror, toward my dad, who was in the kitchen. He took a Kleenex and smushed the earwig. Then he took the phone and explained to my grandparents why I had been so silent.

I stood there reeling over the fact that an earwig touched my lip! I touched an earwig with my tongue! An earwig CAME OUT OF THE PHONE!

After my dad hung up, he unscrewed the mouthpiece and then basically took the whole phone apart. There was no evidence whatsoever that an earwig had been in there. And most importantly, that was the only earwig that had been in there.

So when I see old, black, rotary phones, they remind me of earwigs.

The woman who gave away her coat

I used to volunteer as a Friendly Visitor for the elderly. I was matched with a lady named Jesse and I was to visit her for a couple of hours each week. Jesse lived with her son’s family and they were concerned that she would feel lonely with their busy work schedules. So they signed her up for the Friendly Visitor program. I remember I visited her every Thursday afternoon.

Jesse was a delight. Her eyes had a sparkle that bespoke a sharp and intelligent mind. She was tiny with the typical older-lady short, silver, curly hair, and she was always well-coiffed when I saw her. When she laughed she threw her head back with a wide, open-mouthed, joyous cackle.

We often went out on excursions on our Thursday afternoons: walks around different parts of the city, Tim Horton’s for a tea and a donut, and even a pottery show. I remember one Tim Horton’s visit in particular when Jesse ordered a powdered jellied donut: she had a ring of icing sugar around her mouth and a dusting of icing sugar on her chin. She took slow but huge bites, and, well, I’ve never seen anyone enjoy a donut so much.

One spring day I thought it would be a good idea to take Jesse for a walk in her wheelchair on a nearby trail in the woods. The wheels of her wheelchair became so stuck in the mud that I thought we’d have to spend the night out there. Jesse, always a good sport, just laughed her endearing cackly laugh. (We eventually became unstuck. Eventually.)

At one point I was going away on a trip and before I left, Jesse gave me a slim brown box wrapped in a green bow. “Here, this is for you for your trip,” she told me. “Open it when you are packing.” When I got home and opened the box, out fell two enormous pairs of…underwear. Travel underwear, apparently. They were so big, there was no way I could wear them. It’s still the most hilarious gift I’ve ever received.

Several years later, Jesse’s health began to fail. Near the end she was bedridden but I would visit her at home. Often she would fall asleep. She ended up in the hospital and each time I tried to visit her, either she was sleeping or she was being tended to and I had to come back later. Then I got a phone call from her daughter-in-law, telling me Jesse had passed away. I went to Jesse’s funeral, which was a small but intimate affair. I had known Jesse was a schoolteacher, and they had on display multitudes of letters from her students and photos from her teaching days. After reading the letters and seeing the pictures, it was obvious Jesse was a delight while she was a teacher, too.

Her 20-year-old grandson, Mark, gave the eulogy. He told a story about when he was 16 and out one night with friends, got into a fender-bender, and was terrified of how his father would react. Jesse was living with the family, and she was awake when Mark came home and he told her what had happened. Mark said Jesse stayed up all night so that she would be awake when Mark’s father woke up, so she could ensure that Mark didn’t get into too much trouble.

Then Mark told a story about when Jesse was a teacher. There was a small child in her class and Jesse knew the child’s family was very poor. On one particularly cold day, the child showed up at school without a coat. Jesse asked the child where his coat was and he said, “I don’t have one.” Even though Jesse was rather poor herself, she apparently gave the child her coat, no questions asked.

Jesse never told me about staying up all night for Mark, or about giving away her coat. Or about all the kind words her students said about her in their letters. And I know she was too humble to. I was surprised to hear about her generosity, but in hindsight, I was not surprised at all.

I still miss my Thursday afternoons with Jesse. I haven’t volunteered as a Friendly Visitor since Jesse’s passing, mostly because life has become quite busy with two children of my own. But also because I still feel a pang of sorrow that Jesse is gone.

Maybe I’ll treat myself to a powdered jelly donut.

My Emotional World, Decade by Decade

Here is another fantastic writing prompt from my husband. I’ll try to remember what kinds of things were going through my head, decade by decade…

Decade One: 10 Years Old

Context: When I was 10 years old I was in Grade 5, in Mr. Corey’s Grade 5/6 split class. Mr. Corey had our desks arranged in circles with a computer in the middle of each circle (Commodore 64s!). I remember one of my favourite projects in his class was to make a little book of short stories. We would type our stories into the computer, print them out with the dot-matrix printer, paste them onto glossy paper (we could choose the colour), and then design the cardboard cover. When we were done he had the covers laminated. I was also a book worm at that point, reading all kinds of different books and drooling whenever the Scholastic Book fair came to our school. I think this was around the time I was obsessed with horses and My Little Pony. I wanted to be a palaeontologist or a zoologist when I grew up.

Emotions: I remember being in my own little dream-world most of the time, when I wasn’t concentrating on school work or playing with my small group of friends. I would make up worlds which usually included winged horses or unicorns. From what I remember the worlds were usually forest-based and fairytale-like. I guess the word that comes to mind for this decade is whimsy or dreamy. I was a bit on the chubby side and was self-conscious about that. I was also receiving a weekly allowance and I remember saving up for specific toys. I would obsess about whatever toy it was but I noticed that the more time that passed, the more the obsession would wane. When I discovered something that I wanted to buy I would tell myself, “Wait a couple of days and see how you feel about it then.” Nine times out of ten I realized that it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have it.

Decade Two: 20 Years Old

Context: If my calculations are correct, I would have just started my undergraduate degree in university. At some point in high school I realized I didn’t want to dig up dinosaur bones any longer and the thought of being a zoologist, for some reason I can’t remember, fizzled. For my university major I originally chose to study biotechnology, since I was good at science in high school and I rather liked it. The funny thing was is that I didn’t have a super clear understanding of what biotechnology is–I knew it had something to do with biology, chemistry, and genetics, all subjects I had been good at. And I knew there was an applied aspect to it, too. (Looking back I obviously should have done more research!) Anyway, my university courses kicked my butt. I was so used to receiving grades in the range of 80-99% that I was terrified when I discovered I was barely passing. And I didn’t really like the science courses, either. I was freaking out. So I sat back and thought, “I like the sciences and the arts…how about psychology?” So I went for it. I changed my major and was much happier. But did I know what I wanted to do with my degree? Not really. Maybe a therapist?

Emotions: At this point in my life the world seemed overwhelming. So overwhelmed is a good word to describe this time in my life. Probably scared, anxious, nervous, and clueless, too! I would also say impatient, because I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking before making a decision–I just wanted to make the damn decision! I wanted a plan! The older me would have coached myself to take a breath, sit back, and consider things, including taking some time to think about who I am. Looking back I didn’t really know who I was when I was in my early 20s. All I knew was that I certainly wasn’t ready to face the world! I was a terrified little rabbit.

Decade Three: 30 Years Old

Context: I earned a Ph.D.! I was going to find a job in academia, as a professor! I would continue to study bumblebees and teach psychology courses. My career seemed all planned out, if only I could find a job…

Emotions: I was certainly feeling more self-confident, proud of my accomplishments, and a bit anxious (in a good way) for the future. I was optimistic that I would land the perfect academic career.

Decade Four: 40 Years Old

Context: Well, the academic job never materialized. After 4656734 rejection letters and a contract professor position that taught me that academia wasn’t for me, I was going contract-to-contract with university research jobs. It was certainly NOT the path I expected! And I had to do a lot of soul-searching in order to be okay with that. Through that process of self-reflection I realized that writing is my true passion, and that my goal is to one day have my own book on the shelf. So I started to take writing seriously. I go to writing conferences and classes and workshops whenever I can. I’ve been published in several children’s magazines and I have an agent (hooray!). I now have my own family: a husband, two children, and a dog.

Emotions: I have to say I’m much more at peace. My husband, kids, friends, and yes, even my dog, have taught me to keep perspective. To slow my mind down. To see the world and my situation, whatever it may be, more broadly and in context. I’ve learned that there’s much, much more to life than a career. I’m much more self-aware, in tune with my feelings (especially my gut feelings), and comfortable with myself and the path that I am on. I still lose perspective sometimes, and I still feel anxious now and then, but I try to be a friend to myself. Rather than try to shove aside my feelings and truck on, I try to ask myself, How would a friend react to my thoughts? It’s tough and I’m still learning, but I find if I take the mental energy to shift in that direction, the outcome is a much more calm and peaceful state. I’m also learning to let go of other people’s expectations. That is a big one. But I’m getting there.

Decade Five: 50 Years Old

Context: …to be continued…

Emotions: …to be continued…