Nonplussed: Can’t trust that word

While reading Denial by Beverley McLachlin this week, I came upon the word nonplussed.

Nonplussed is one of those words that people don’t use in conversation. We are left to conclude its meaning from where we find it in writing. Up to this week, every time I’d read the word it had meant unperturbed.

In her book, McLachlin used the word in a way that did not mean unperturbed. Quite the opposite. Her character was taken aback and surprised by his circumstance.

Seeing this, I was taken aback and surprised. Nonplussed, as it turns out.

I said to my husband, “What do you think nonplussed means?”

“Surprised,” he said.

Huh. I touched my finger to the word in my e-book and selected “Look up.” The answer came:

1: unsure about what to say, think, or do:  Surprised
2: not bothered, surprised, or impressed by something: Unperturbed

I am not nonplussed (unperturbed) by these definitions. I am quite nonplussed (surprised).

What to do with a word with two opposite meanings?

May our politicians never make use of the term. Misunderstanding and world conflict could result.

No, no, nonplussed is a word not to trust.

Seek, and then keep seeking

An empty row of seating in a church. A sign hangs from a barrier blocking access to the row. The sign reads, "'When you seek me, you will find me.' Just not in this pew."
“When you seek me, you will find me, when you will seek me with all your heart.” –Jeremiah 29:13

I attended a concert on Friday night. Due to COVID restrictions, the venue needed to bar access to every other row of seating. They did so with humour.

The sign above made me laugh, and think.

We often seek some wonderful new event or item for our lives, and we expect it to appear immediately and directly in our path. POOF!

Not so fast. Maybe we can find what we seek, but not right away and not in the first place we look.

Seek, and then keep seeking, with the whole heart.

Ioan Harea on violin and Judy Ginsburg on piano
Ioan Harea on violin and Judy Ginsburg on piano. Lovely.

Braver than I: Remembrance Day

“Service, Courage and Sacrifice. At home, around the world and across generations.
Canadian military members have a long tradition of defending peace and helping others. “

Veterans.gc.ca

Every year, Veterans Affairs Canada commissions a poster for Veterans’ Week. The posters represent Canada’s sacrifices and achievements in keeping peace and helping others.

2021 Veterans Affair poster featuring a soldier in Afghanistan, a peacekeeper in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, an armed forces member carrying a sandbag to hold back floodwaters, an infantry member helping a wounded comrade in 1950s Korea, an aviator in Qatar during the Persian Gulf War, a signaler in the hills of 1940s Hong Kong, and a pair of soldiers in the Somme Valley in France during the First World War.

This year’s poster features a soldier in Afghanistan, a peacekeeper in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, an armed forces member carrying a sandbag to hold back floodwaters, an infantry member helping a wounded comrade in 1950s Korea, an aviator in Qatar during the Persian Gulf War, a signaler in the hills of 1940s Hong Kong, and a pair of soldiers in the Somme Valley in France during the First World War.

All people braver than I, helping others and striving for peace.

Photo credits:
Afghanistan, Egypt, flood relief and Gulf War imagery: Department of National Defence
Somme imagery: Library and Archives Canada
Kapyong imagery: Imperial War Museum
Hong Kong imagery: Veterans Affairs Canada
© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Veterans Affairs, 2021.

Galore: A reflection on where I’m from

galore (adv.)
1670s, from Irish go leór, and equivalent Scottish Gaelic gu leóir “sufficiently, enough,” from Old Irish roar “enough,” from Proto-Celtic *ro-wero- “sufficiency.”

https://www.etymonline.com/word/galore

My father was adopted.

He was raised with love by a family with Irish roots. My entire life I associated strongly with that Irish heritage. I sang and danced during the loud and proud St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Canada’s Ottawa Valley.

Then, this past Christmas, my son gave me a DNA test as a gift. The results showed my Irish DNA at the BOTTOM of the list of the ethnicity estimate, at 2 %.

2 %. I couldn’t have been more astonished.

A second surprise lay in store. The largest percentage of my DNA indicated Scottish and Scandinavian heritage. I am three-quarters Scottish and . . . Viking, I guess?

In September, as fate would have it, my son headed off to Edinburgh, Scotland to do his Master of Physiotherapy. We won’t travel there just yet (you know . . . COVID), but we’re making plans for future trips. I began to read Love of Country: A Journey through the Hebrides by Madeline Bunting.

I read about the land of my DNA. I read of crofts (small rented farms with a right of pasturage held in common with others), and machair (fertile plains), and lochan (small inland lakes). I learned the roots of the word galore (see above) and mused about how wonderful it is that galore really means that you have everything you need for the given moment.

All of this got me to thinking about where I’m from (Scotland/Scandinavia) as opposed to where I am really from (the Ottawa Valley, Canada).

This past week, the book Where Are You From by Yamile Saied Méndez passed through my hands at the library where I work. It is the story of a child who must answer where she is from—no, where she is really from—to the point where it hurts.

When people ask someone like me where I’m really from, it means Where were you raised? What is the place that formed you?

For racialized people, the situation is reversed. For them, where are you really from means What foreign country did your people come from?

That makes it a backwards question, because for any of us, the place where we are really from is the place that has formed us.

My DNA says that the foreign countries my people came from were Scotland and the Scandinavian countries, but I’m really from a farm in the Ottawa Valley. I’m really from a place where we dug in the dirt to grow our food, where we wore hand-me-downs, and where neighbours and families helped each other out. On any given day we had everything we needed. Sufficiently, enough.

In other words, we had plenty galore. What a fine place to be from. Really.

Arlene sitting on a round hay bale in a farm field.

The beauty of aging

I stroll through the woods near my home, and I run my hands along the gnarled bark of ancient trees. I trail a finger down the deep wrinkles in the trunk, and I think, “How beautiful.”

The twisting growth and grooved skin gives a tree its gravitas and wisdom. In fact, the more gnarled and grooved a tree is, the more we love it.

And yet, we detest those things in ourselves. Why is it that we humans fear wrinkles so much?

According to the Business Insider, in 2020 the “beauty” industry was growing at a historically fast pace. We are more afraid than ever to let our natural selves shine. The industry then was valued at an estimated $532 billion dollars per year, and it’s growing.

We are draining our bank accounts so that we don’t look like trees.

I celebrate a birthday this week. I am older. My knuckles have swollen, so rings no longer slide over them the way they used to. My lifetime of smiles and laughter shows in the grooves that curve around my eyes and mouth. How beautiful.

Arlene Smith on her front porch under a Winnie the Pooh blanket
Old enough to have wrinkles, but not so old that I can’t still love the Winnie the Pooh blanket

I’m not the oldest tree in the forest, but I’m not the youngest either. Many saplings grow around me. My wish is that by the time those supple trees reach my age, they will see the beauty of aging.

A deciduous forest in autumn with the large trunk of a mature tree in the foreground and smaller trees in the background.
Old forest, young trees. All beautiful.

By canoe: A reminder to stop complaining

It’s the time of year for canoe trips.

Algonquin Provincial Park lies northwest of Ottawa, and several of my acquaintances have headed to Ontario’s oldest provincial park for pleasure jaunts to the wild solitude of its lakes and canyons.

They dip paddles in still waters. They drift slowly by moose munching shoreside water plants. They dive into the deep, cold waters of the Canadian Shield lakes.

Their trips remind me of John Shaw. I learned of him and his wife during a trip to the Shaw Woods Outdoor Education Centre. He was a miller from Inverness, Scotland, who travelled to the area in 1847 from what was then Bytown [now Ottawa]. He and his wife, Barbara Thompson, made the trip by canoe.

Today, people make the trip by car in less than two hours, but in 1847 it would have taken days and days by canoe. They would have paddled against the prevailing wind. They might have battled pouring rain while balancing cumbersome loads. They would have portaged around rapids, carrying the heavy canoe and all their worldly goods.

Renfrew Museum beside the Bonnechere River
The Renfrew Museum beside rapids along the Bonnechere River.
P199, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

What a hardship.

AND, they did it with two-year-old son in tow.

Toddlers in warm, safe homes are challenging enough. Imagine travelling by canoe for days with one. (Were there even life jackets in 1847?)

Those hardships put any of our petty little problems into perspective.

Whatever comes at me today, at least I’m not paddling a canoe in the rain with all my worldly goods and a two-year-old. 

Tip of a canoe on the glacial green waters of Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada