Frozen Dreams

Recently, here in Manitoba near the American border, four members of a family were found frozen to death. Only those who’ve been lost in a snow storm can imagine what that must have been like. I’ve been lost and I’ve been in snow storms, but I’ve never been both lost and in a snow storm at the same time. Temperatures were close to minus thirty. Brutal.

My dog hates the cold, especially when it’s windy. We often head out to an unpopulated area in the open prairie where I can let him off leash. If it’s windy, we get the full brunt of the wind, more often than not, from the northwest. During the extreme cold, he quickly does his business and just as quickly heads back to the vehicle. However, after putting on all our gear, I’m not in quite the same hurry to give in so soon. Then he runs around in wild circles, only to stop in front of me as if to stop me in my tracks. I finally give in. Getting too cold is painful, even for dogs. It starts in the extremities, stinging like a thousand needles. (Letter carrier experience.)

I’ve been thinking of those four immigrants, struggling against the wind and snow, lost and alone. . . freezing to death in the very land that was supposed to give them refuge. How long had they saved, planned and dreamt of this new life? What kind of future did they envision over here?

I’ve never considered immigrating to a new country and have never illegally crossed an international border. I was raised believing that my parents had taken those risks for me and that by giving me a Canadian birthplace they were giving me a promising inheritance.

My mother made an illegal crossing from the Soviet to the British zone after her release from Soviet captivity. It took her two tries. The first time, fear of dogs crippled her. Five years later, she crossed another international border, this time with all the proper documents in hand. True, after enduring their first Winnipeg winter one has to wonder what possessed them to stay. “Just like Siberia,” my mom often quipped about our winter weather.  As a gulag survivor, her words carried weight.

I do volunteer work with immigrants and am always eager to find out what motivates them to give up everything they know and move to Canada. For a Ukrainian woman, it’s to avoid a corrupt homeland. For a Chinese woman, it’s to get away from the stress of intense competition. For a South Korean woman, it’s for the time to enjoy non-work interests. 

My parents immigrated to Canada for a new beginning. My mother was less than an immigrant, only a homeless refugee. Neither parent had any English skills . . . both had only an intense appreciation of opportunity and an enthusiasm to build and move on. What were the ambitions of this young family, frozen in a farmer’s field near the international border? 


77 Januarys Ago

Wolf Moon, January 17, 2022

It's cold here in Winterpeg, Manitoba. Minus 27 C or -37 with the wind chill (that's meterological-speak for what it feels like depending on the wind speed). But the sun is shining and after the recent snowfall, the world outside my window looks cheery and bright. Dog walks are fast, my car gets pre-heated (even the seats and steering wheel!), I have a pantry stuffed with food, I have hot tea and lemon, my summer geraniums are still blooming in the January sunshine . . . in short, I can’t complain. I’m even triple-vaxed. 

But my bubble of security and domestic bliss is just that . . . a bubble. There’s a scary world out there. Most disturbing to me is the build-up of the Russian army on Ukraine’s borders. Ukraine, where my mom and grandparents were born, where my grandfather died, where the family windmill once stood. 

Ukraine means borderland. I’ve always considered myself a fence-sitter, enjoying the views of both sides of many aspects of life, and can appreciate the precarious and lonely nature of such a position. Ukraine wants to be part of NATO, to belong to the west. Russia says, never. 

At the very least, a cold war appears in the offing and my heart breaks for the Ukrainian people. The Russian leader, full of nostalgia for the Soviet state, wants to prove that his country still has the power to create fear. How many troops now?

77 Januarys ago, the Soviet/Russian Army instilled great fear in my mom and her family. While Hitler focused on battling the Allies on the western front, the eastern front was exposed to the Soviets and East Prussia quickly crushed. My new novel, Crow Stone, (Summer, 2022), imagines my mom’s efforts in January, 1945 to avoid the Russian/Soviet army which is again itching to advance. 

How will this winter, 2022, play out?

Art Reflecting Life

Over the holidays I saw Don’t Look Up.  The movie, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in lead roles, kept reminding me of Walter Kempowski’s book, All for Nothing (Alles Umsonst).  Don’t Look Up (about a comet about to destroy our planet) is an allegory about climate change while the Kempowski novel is about the approaching Soviet Army in the final months of the Second World War. 

Both the novel and the movie explore human greed, denial and vulnerability. One character in the film sees the meteor as a potential opportunity to mine precious metals needed for his cell phone company.  The astronomers, who calculate the comet’s destructive path, appear on a TV talk show where they’re viewed as entertainment. The government (personified by a President played by Meryl Streep) only pays attention to the impending doom when it serves their own interests in avoiding the President’s sex scandal.

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-464-0383I-26 / Kleiner / CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the last months of the war, the consequences of earlier Soviet intrusions and atrocities in Nemmersdorf, East Prussia were filmed for propaganda purposes. 

Attribution: Bundesarchiv,

Bild 183-H13717 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Mass panic had to be avoided and the truth carefully managed. Fear of the Soviet Army was manipulated into support for the Wehrmacht. While the masses struggled to evacuate along crowded roadways, Gauleiter Erich Koch, had a ship reserved for his escape in the Baltic port of Pillau, to bring him to safety (similar to the spaceship in the movie reserved for the select group of earth survivors). 

Of course, with our pandemic still raging, we can only squirm with discomfort. Here we are in 2022, dealing with our doom scenario. . . our own comet or attacking army. This enemy is invisible, lurking in the very air we breathe. Does science determine our world or is it all politics? Can we trust governments to look out for us?  How does the media affect our choices?  How do we support each other in times of crisis? These are real issues that affect our everyday. History in the making. 

Movies, novels, and other art forms serve to reflect not just our creativity but also our fragile humanity. 

Grow: Opening the Gate to a New Year

My word for the year is GROW. Because it is the Year of the Garden here in Canada, and because I have the privilege of nurturing a garden, I'm going to embrace its lessons and try to grow along with it. 

After years of indecision about whether I should sell and move on, I’ve now accepted that I'm rooted to this place like the trees that I’ve planted in it. Perhaps this is a lesson I’ve absorbed from my mother who spent decades being homeless and unrooted. 

Over the years, this once sunny, treeless yard has grown into a private, shady nook. Maturing trees create different growing conditions and the sweet raspberry bushes have given way to shade-loving hostas and ferns.  Some plants surrendered their spots to hand-picked rocks and driftwood, to ceramic gnomes and to metal-sculpted art.  Bringing in such elements has morphed my garden into a gallery, of sorts, of my life.  Filled with nostalgia and sehnsucht, my garden and me, we’re a pair, growing older together. 

We'll try not to compare ourselves to the showy blooms that demand a lot of sunshine.  Here in the shade, growth happens too, and we’ll weather the seasons as best we can. To grow, after all, does not always mean to grow bigger, taller or brighter. Sometimes, to grow means simply to adapt . . . to thrive in slow motion . . . even in the shade. 

Wishing everyone a year filled with creativity and the joy of growing inside a garden.  

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