I remember going blueberry picking in the bush near the cottage in Britt when I was eight or nine. Mom carries baskets. Dad carries peanuts in shells. We always bring Princess with us, my great-Aunt Irene’s German Shepherd. Princess leads the way over the granite and moss, into the desolate, dense back bushes on the coast of Georgian Bay, guarding us from the possibility of walking into sleeping black bears or sunning massasauga rattlers.
We find a clearing with smooth, warm rock bordered by thick, low blueberry bushes. Mom gets to work right away, kneeling by a bush, filling the basket with only the good luscious blueberries, not the shriveled or mangled ones.
Dad lays on his back on a rock in the sunshine, his arms spread, soaking in the fresh air, settling in for a nap. My little brother, Colin, runs around the area with Princess. He carries a big beaver-chewed stick that he uses like a bat, whacking piles of rocks and dead, grey trees while Princess barks with excitement.
I sit near Mom, eating the berries she places in the basket—too scared to put my hand in the bush and pluck them, imagining fanged snakes will chew my arm to bits.
“Do I need to tell you the story of the Little Red Hen?” Mom notices I’m eating her berries. “These are for pies.”
So I make a fist, plunging it into the bush real fast, hoping to punch the imaginary snake in the fang.
“You do it like this,” Mom says. She reaches into the bush with her right hand, holding some leaves back with her left hand. She gently plucks the berries off one by one, carefully placing them in the basket.
I don’t like moving so slowly, being so gentle. It takes too long to feel like we are making progress.
Dad starts to shell peanuts, still lying in the sun, throwing the shells by the tree line. Colin and I run over to Dad and grab a handful too, pulling the shells off. We sit side by side, waiting with anticipation for Chippy the chipmunk to appear while Mom works steadily in the bush, filling the basket with berries for pie.
Eventually I return to sit by Mom, picking berries and placing some in the basket, but mostly I eat them.
Mom grew up picking blueberries. Grandma would send her out into the bush in the morning with a basket and say, “Don’t come home until it’s full.”
Mom said she often got distracted in the bush too. She spent most of her time in the bush making houses out of moss by peeling up layers of moss off the rock and repositioning them, making floor plans on the granite, then playing ‘house.’ She waited until the last minute before frantically filling her basket with blueberries for Grandma.
I like to think that distraction is a natural part of the process of getting things done.
On trusting my GPS…
Every time I drive into the Ottawa Valley area my GPS navigation device surprises me, transforming a simple road trip into an epic journey.
I begin with the destination, an address for a remote retreat-house. After three tries the GPS reveals a route and I select “Start Guidance,” trusting that the system will choose the best route, relieved that I can focus on singing to the radio and not on watching for the road signs. I let the GPS do the thinking for me.
Every time I drive into the Ottawa Valley area I trust my navigation system–and I get lost.
One summer, the GPS leads me down a one-way dirt trail. Rather than question the route, I trust the path will end shortly, miss the signs along the way, and end up on an old deserted railway trail, too remote for cellphone service.
Joy in the woods…
The woods are dynamic, peaceful, alluring, eerie. I splash through puddles the size of dinosaurs’ footprints on suffocated, narrow, washed-out roads lined with towering leafy green trees on one side and sprawling marshes on the other. It’s impossible to turn the car around. I can either go forward or backward. When I pass a number of old rusted abandoned cars, with flat tires and busted windows, wedged between trees or half-sunken in the marsh, I finally wonder if I made a wrong turn. Then I notice a crooked yellow sign: “Use at Own Risk.”
I am lost in the bush in my car for nearly three hours. It feels like time stands still, like I’ve slipped through a wormhole into an alternate universe.
Part of me is scared to be stuck, to be unsure of how I got here or how to get out of the woods. Part of me enjoys the experience of being lost in such a beautiful, still place—a place between my home and my destination. Thankfully I trust that the universe will eventually conspire to help me find my way, that an idea of how to turn my car around on this narrow trail will come to me when it needs to. I stop the car, put down the windows, turn off the engine, and sit on the old Kingston & Pembroke Rail Trail, drinking water and eating carrot sticks.
Why does this isolation feel both comforting and worrisome?
Like I’ve arrived at the place Shel Silverstein calls “where the sidewalk ends?”
I sit alone in the void and feel peaceful, connected, vulnerable, brave, and curious.
Then I start to ask questions. I wonder how it will play out if I get a flat tire? Will I walk back to the main road? Will I sleep in my car waiting for help? Will I cry? Can I die on this road?
When will I start to feel really scared? Why do I trust that it will all work out, that I will find my way, that this is just a temporary detour? I wonder if it’s normal to be feeling so at peace, to want to stay in-between, sitting in a void. I wonder if it’s normal to start writing this scenario in my head as I’m experiencing it, visualizing the lines of text, placement of punctuation, use of metaphor. Is this a weird writer thing to do?
I resist leaving this eerie comfortable place, but finally choose to drive forward. I reach a small clearing and with some careful manoeuvring I’m able to turn the car around and retrace my path back to the road where I made the first wrong turn.
Relieved to be on a main highway, tired from my reflection in the woods, I trust the GPS again. It consistently reroutes me to dirt trails and unconventional roads. After another couple of hours, I realize I will have to find my own way.
I stop the car, pull out the bag of maps from the trunk, determine my location, and begin to retrace the route to Highway 7 from some back roads near the town of Ompah. I regain control.
Sometimes life is symbolic
Then I see the first wild turkey on the side of the road. A few kilometres later I see another. Then another. Turkeys saunter out of the bushes like feathery, waddling breadcrumbs leading me to my destination for the next hour and a half. As I giggle about the sight of so many wild turkeys after the day I’ve had, and I think about the significance of turkeys as birds of thanksgiving, I drive through a town called Brightside. It’s a true story.
Learning can feel like being lost. Whenever I learn there is a point in the process where I feel misplaced, where I need to find my way through trial and error or asking for help or trusting wild turkeys.
Deep learning is rarely a simple road trip.
How do you know that you are learning something deeply?
I am in the process of rewriting my recent Master’s thesis into a book. I feel the topic is timely and important. If you are an agent or publisher looking for a non-fiction manuscript on the topic of resiliency please contact me.
Using memoir, poetry, and collage I recorded a personal story of learning how to “burn-in” after experiencing teacher “burn-out.” Mental health is a hot topic now in education. Currently, I work as a high school vice principal and our recent administrator’s conference focused on mental health and resiliency. Learning to “burn-in” is all about resiliency. Resiliency is a necessary trait of 21st Century educators. This project is about resiliency, the inner landscape, and coming of age as a young educator.
Many teachers and other professionals “burn-out” in their careers for various reasons but what is the next step? Inspired by its working title Sunshine in a Jar, this literary non-fiction book is most like memoir. It explores the lessons a teacher learns on the inside, the lessons few teachers ever speak about.
My thesis utilized a newer academic, arts-inspired form called autoethnography. Its multidimensional nature and explicit links to cultural and environmental influences enhance the typical memoir experience. My current rewrite involves removing the academic language and inserting more personal narrative.
I became a secondary school administrator at age thirty-six. I love my job. The challenges I faced as a young teacher ignited a series of lessons that made me into a resilient educator because I learned from “burn-out.” So many leave education within the first five years of teaching. So many more become cynical and defeated yet continue to teach. By writing about resiliency through the lens of “sunshine in a jar,” I hope to share the inner landscape of a young teacher and encourage others to look at what is in their “jar.” It is a universally human quest for personal insight, understanding, and happiness.