Keeping Christmas

I have often wondered if we moved to the country because of Christmas.

The first winter that we lived in Brooke Valley, we went out into the woods with our three small children and cut down a very scraggly, Charlie Brown-ish tree. The snow came down in lazy, fat flakes as we brought our treasure into the house. We hung soggy mittens by the fire and cupped our hands around steaming mugs of hot chocolate. We were living in the middle of a Christmas card.

Since then, we’ve had as many green Christmases as white, some treacherous with ice, some grey and sodden. Our Christmas trees have always been naturally wild and wispy (“Your tree has great negative space,” said our most optimistic friend). Over the years, Lewis grew to be our primary tree finder and cutter. He took to enhancing nature by drilling holes in the trunk and inserting extra branches to fill out the shape. But whatever the shortcomings of the tree, the house has been filled with Christmas spirit – the smell of good food, the warmth of a fire, and days of laughter.

Last year was our first non-Canadian Christmas. We discovered new foods and new traditions in La Spezia, Italy. Sitting on a sun-drenched patio, drinking Prosecco while munching on delicious Italian cheeses and breads made up for the lack of snow, tree and fireplace. Funny, we didn’t miss any of the usual trappings.

But back home in Canada for Christmas this year, Tim & I dug out ornaments and fell into familiar patterns. Everything seemed all the more special for having been tucked away for 2 years. I carefully unwrapped the special, gold-rimmed Christmas glasses, purchased by my parents in New York over 50 years ago. Tim unrolled the felt advent calendar to find a few additional mouse holes along the edge. (The story of our mouse-chewed advent calendar is one he wrote as “The Mouse in the Manger”, many years ago. Sentiment keeps me from repairing the felt.)

Mouse eaten Advent Calendar
Mouse eaten Advent Calendar

Lewis set off to find a tree. We have 76 acres, and there are a lot to chose from, but finding something that works, a tree that is full and thick, is always a challenge. Determined to bring in something impressive, he felled a 35-foot spruce using only a dull cross cut saw. He cut off the top 10 feet and hefted it home the day before our first big snowfall.

Lewis and this year's tree
Lewis and this year’s tree

When the plate-sized flakes began to fall, we were surprisingly excited.

Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley
Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley

The first snow of the year was heavy and wet – perfect packing snow. Perfect snow lady material.

Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady
Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady

Over the next few days, the temperature dropped. As it did, the snow quality changed. There were smaller, lighter flakes, not good for packing at all. But we were assured of a white Christmas.

A White Christmas
A White Christmas

The unpredictability of the weather at this time of year can easily destroy festive plans, but luck was with us. Timing was perfect as family and friends arrived in various stages. But the snow accumulation grew and grew until eventually it was impassable. The day after Boxing Day, we abandoned all thoughts of driving and hunkered down to await the eventual arrival of snowplows.

Snowed in
Snowed in

There is a blissful and deep quiet that comes with a large snowfall.

And so we have once again celebrated the season in a Christmas card world. We’ve walked the snowy roads under moonlight and sighted Jupiter, shining brightly. We’ve filled the house with lights and familiar ornaments, and flamed the plum pudding. We’ve watched deer and ravens enjoying bits of composted leftovers. We’ve reveled in memories of Christmases gone by, and toasted absent friends. And we’ve boosted and fortified ourselves to be able to face the long cold winter ahead. As Dickens instructs, we’ll “keep Christmas in our hearts throughout the year”.

A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol

Coming Home

Writing a final chapter to my Stepping Off the Treadmill blog has been hard. It is taking time to acclimatize to being back, and I suspect that we will be assimilating the experiences of the last 9 ½ months for a very long time.

What I can say is that it has been wonderful to come back to such an outpouring of love from family and friends. It has been especially important, because my father died 5 days after we landed back in Canada. I was lucky to have been able to see him and talk to him before he died, and to be with my mother at this difficult time. Our homecoming has been bittersweet, and all in all, very discombobulated. So we have been grateful to come back to our welcoming community of friends and family.

Our house, when we finally arrived home, seemed big and quiet. While away, we were always living with other people. We couldn’t help feeling that our house was a bit empty. Even our cat, when she came home, seemed quieter than usual.

Of course there has been a lot of business to attend to. We waded through 9 ½ months of mail. We did our taxes. We made appointments with dentists. We raged at our internet service providers. But we haven’t really unpacked. Every now and then we open up some of the boxes that we packed up 10 months ago, but we are surprisingly uninterested in whatever they contain. I guess we are still travelling light.

People ask if it is wonderful to be home. I can say that we seem to have chosen exactly the right moment – we left a London that had been rainy and cold for weeks and arrived to a sunny Ontario heat wave. We’re enjoying meals on our back deck and finding opportunities for lots of therapeutic gardening. We had a dinner party within days of being home, and loved re-discovering our own pots and pans. We’ve been to a vernissage at our local gallery in Perth, the Riverguild, where we saw a wonderful exhibit of new watercolours by our friend Franc van Oort. And we went to an opening of a play at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa where we schmoozed with the cream of the Ottawa theatre community. Tim is heavily into a second draft of a new book, and I am chomping at the bit to get back to my writing as well.

But I am at my happiest when I can talk about where we have been, who we have met, and what we have done since August 1, 2011. Every time we tell a story from the trip, it becomes more real. Tim and I look at each other and say, “this actually happened.”

I know that our future will contain more adventures. But for now, we have stories to tell, narratives to create, and meaning to discover. To those of you who have shared directly in the adventure – thank you for making it so extraordinary. You have, each of you, changed our lives and made them fundamentally better. To those who have been armchair travellers – thank you for coming along. You too, by being observers and commentators, are part of the experience.

“My personal conviction is that we are not changed by our experiences as common wisdom has it. What changes us are the stories we tell about our experiences. Until we have re-formed our lives into story-structured words we cannot find and contemplate the meaning of our lived experiences. Till then they remain in the realm of beastly knowledge. Only by turning the raw material of life into story – by putting it into a pattern of words we call narrative – can beastly knowledge be creatively transformed and given meaning. It is storying that changes us, not events.” –Aidan Chambers

Home in Brooke Valley