Category Archives: Books

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.

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.

Mind like water: Stress-free productivity

Don’t get set into one form: adapt it and build your own, and let it grow. Be like water. Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

—Bruce Lee as found in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

Over the past year, during my work at the library or as a writer, I’ve heard comments like this:

  • I’m trying to read now that I have more time, but I can’t concentrate!
  • My mind doesn’t want to focus on anything “heavy.” My productivity has plummeted.
  • I’m supposed to be working/writing, but it’s so difficult to stick with it.

The stresses of COVID are messing with our minds, and our productivity.

Today I wanted to lie on my couch and do nothing. That sounded like the BEST plan.

I opened my phone. I clicked on an old link. I found Bruce Lee’s phrase, and I got up off the couch.

“Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input, then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.”

David Allen in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

If I throw a rock into a pond, the water has to react. It can’t NOT react.

COVID threw a rock into us. It was a BIG rock. We responded. We couldn’t NOT react. And we reacted appropriately to the force and mass.

Now, like water, we can return to calm. Out of that, productivity flows.

Ripples on water

Squirrels with no fur upon thars

This post from my previous site is another one that continues to gather regular traffic.

Way back in 2012, I was standing at my kitchen sink washing dishes when I saw something that made me stop in the middle of scrubbing a pot: a creature in my back yard looked suspiciously like a rat. Yikes.

I watched it for a while wondering how much rat traps cost. Then I realized that it looked like a rat, but it didn’t behave like a rat. It behaved exactly like the other squirrels frolicking around my yard.

It was a squirrel with no fur on its tail.

The next day a second squirrel with no fur on its tail appeared; this one was grey. What was going on? How could there be two squirrels of different colours with furless tails?

Grey squirrel with no fur on its tail
With apologies for the blurry photos. This was 2012, after all.

I have since learned that they probably had mange, but at the time I didn’t know that.

What made my heart glad was that all the squirrels, whether they had fluffy tails or not, played together happily.

It reminded me of  “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss.

In that fabulous story, some Sneetches have stars on their bellies, but Plain-Belly Sneetches had “no stars upon thars.” In the beginning, the Star-Belly Sneetches won’t associate with their plainer counterparts. By the end of the story, after Sylvester McMonkey McBean sends them all on several trips through his Star-on or Star-off machine (only ten dollars each) the Sneetches no longer know “Whether this one was that one . . . or that one was this one / Or which one was what one . . . or what one was who.”

In other words, the Sneetches discovered that it’s what’s inside that counts. That’s something my backyard squirrels seem to know instinctively. They play together whether or not there is “fur upon thars.”

The Sneetches learned, the squirrels know it. Can we figure it out?

Desire Paths

I first read about desire paths in The Old Ways: A Journey by Foot by Robert McFarlane, People and other animals create desire paths when they opt for the shortest, fastest routes to destinations.

Cow paths are the most famous desire paths. The cows take the shortest, fastest route between their pasture and milking time. I have seen flocks of sheep on desire paths too.

Metro Centric, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You have a desire path in your neighbourhood; I’m sure of it. There used to be one a few hundred feet from me in the park behind my house. Before COVID, my neighbours and I would beat the grass down while taking the shortest, fastest route to the bus stop.

This year, that desire path is gone. With COVID, people are either working from home or commuting to work in a different way. The grass is green and full, as if the desire path had never existed.

Park setting
The grass between the tree and the playground is usually trampled into a clear desire path. Not anymore!

Our desires changed so we quickly and effortlessly beat down new desire paths—around our neighbourhood, between our at-home desks and the bathroom, or maybe between our TVs and the refrigerator.

We effortlessly opt for desire paths every day. When we park at the grocery store and walk diagonally across the lot, we take a desire path. When we jaywalk to get to our favourite coffee shop faster, we’re choosing a desire path.

We know where we want to go, nothing holds us back, and we take the steps to get there the fastest. Easy right?

Why are other goals harder to reach?

Why don’t we simply jaywalk to the right career? We should be able to fast-track to the perfect relationship. To lose weight, all we have to do is eat less and exercise more.

But it’s more difficult when the target is uncertain, or when our emotions get in the way, or when the goal feels impossibly out of reach. We travel long, circuitous routes (or maybe never reach a destination) because we become paralyzed with fear, or we don’t believe we deserve love, or we compare our bodies to others.

For those not-so-clear, scary, long-term goals, it might help to:

  1. Place them in your favourite coffee shop in your mind.
  2. Do as the cows and sheep do and never spend one second comparing yourself to others or believing yourself unworthy.
  3. Forge ahead.
  4. Repeat.
Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

A good time of year to dance: Hafiz

Here is a phrase I’ve heard some lately: “If I don’t laugh, I might cry.”

Laughing is good. Or dancing!

The God Who Only Knows Four Words

by Hafiz, as translated by Daniel Ladinsky in The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master

Every
Child
Has known God.
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don'ts,
Not the God who ever does
Anything weird,
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
"Come dance with Me."
Come
Dance.

What Should We Do About That Moon?

by Hafiz, as translated by Daniel Ladinsky in The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master

A wine bottle fell from a wagon
And broke open in a field.

That night one hundred beetles and all their cousins
Gathered

And did some serious binge drinking.

They even found some seed husks nearby
And began to play them like drums and whirl.
This made God very happy.

Then the "night candle" rose into the sky
And one drunk creature, laying down his instrument,
Said to his friend—for no apparent
Reason,

"What should we do about that moon?"

Seems to Hafiz
Most everyone has laid aside the music

Tackling such profoundly useless
Questions.
Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com