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We Are Stardust – Following The James Webb Telescope

I sat on the swing set with my best friend Shirley, staring out at the blue, blue sky on a summer day many years ago. We wondered about the stars and the sun and how certain words in our vocabulary came to be. That was the nature of our young friendship – pondering the mysteries of the universe.

Not long after, on July 20th, 1969, I was in Shirley’s living room watching the blurred black and white TV images of Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon. “One small step for man…” he began. It was wonderous.

We went outside and tried to find the moon in the day time sky, but couldn’t. Still, we somehow understood that we’d never look at it exactly the same way again, because now we knew human beings had been there. It was forever changed.

I thought about that the other day when I saw the first pictures coming in from the James Webb Telescope on the NASA website. Look how far we’ve come, I thought.

I don’t like saying the word “awesome” too much because it’s overused these days. But those pictures were definitely awesome.

That the James Webb Telescope was even able to blast off was, in itself, a huge feat. Over the years it was being built, there were many cost and scheduling issues. Lots of little things went wrong along the way, and it almost got cancelled completely.

And just imagine the pressure there was to make sure the telescope was as perfect as they could get it before it launched. Because once it was way out there in space, there was no going back.

When it finally left the earth on December 25th, 2021, more than $10 Billion had been spent. And a lot of people were pretty nervous.

Would it get to where it was supposed to go? Would it unfold properly? Would it work at all?

As we saw the other day, it exceeded expectations.

Stephan’s QuintetMany Million Light Years Away

All of the pictures were spectacular and mesmerizing, but the one that struck me most was Stephan’s Quintet, seen above. First of all, I didn’t realize it, but Stephan’s Quintet is something I’ve seen many times before.

A couple of minutes into the 1946 film “It’s A Wonderful Life”, there is a scene where the angels are praying for George Bailey. The angels are represented by an animation of Stephan’s Quintet, having a conversation.

I never knew that that.

The Carina Nebula photo is also stunning, with sparkling, golden cloud dusts beneath millions of twinkling stars.

The most amazing, mind boggling thing to me is the fact that in those photos, we are looking far into the past. In some cases, we are looking back many millions of light years.

Light years. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that concept.

The telescope’s main mission will last 5 to 10 years, but its expected lifespan will be up to 20 years, similar to the Hubble telescope. Just imagine what scientists, and the rest of us, will learn from it by then.

Maybe we’ll discover all kinds of new things, including ways to help ourselves, and, especially, our tiny blue planet.

As Joni Mitchell sang:

We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to find our way back to the garden.

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Spring Is Coming!

Sometimes on a dark, damp day in the middle of winter, I think about how wonderful it would be to live on a tropical island where you’d never have to face the doom and gloom of a west coast winter.

Even in other, colder Canadian cities, they seem to get more sunshine than we do. We just get a lot of grey and rain. And more grey. And more rain. This is why many of us refer to it as the “wetcoast”.

For people who move here from other parts of the world, the hardest thing to adjust to is the grey. And the rain. It’s depressing.

That’s why I like to imagine waking up to summer every morning, and living in shorts and t-shirts all year in a perpetual paradise.

But then again, if we didn’t have winter, I’d miss one of my favourite seasons: spring.

Spring means so many wonderful things: new life, new hope, a fresh start. It gets just a little warmer every day as spring approaches. The bees start to wake up, the birds begin to nest, and the air is fresh with new scents and warm feelings. It’s literally like coming alive.

When I was little, my mother used to note the date of the first crocus on our wall calendar every year. “Oh! It’s a day earlier this year!” She’d smile. And then she’d note the first daffodil and the first tulip.

On one of my walks the other day, I was so happy to see a bunch of little yellow crocuses blooming that I took a picture of it. A block or so later I bumped into someone I knew who said she had just sent a series of spring flower pictures to her relatives back east.

We “wet-coasters” love to do that, don’t we? Torture our friends and family back east with flower pictures, boasting of our early spring. We even have an official flower count here on the island, and we love to let the rest of the country know every daffodil-ic detail. Just to rub it in. This year the Greater Victoria Flower Count runs from March 9th to March 16th.

Most of us on the island know about it, but if you’ve never heard of or participated in the flower count, well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You go outside and count flowers and then you send your numbers in. There were 65+ billion blooms counted last year. On their website, they even have a count down to the flower count.

It feels like a count down to spring, really. When I last looked, there were 29 days, 22 hours, 7 minutes and 53 seconds to go. Sigh.

Of course, real spring starts on March 20th, but sometimes it does show up a little early just to tease us. It can even show up for a few days in February sometimes. Our last couple of weeks have shown us a few lovely sunsets and sunnier days.

But then, all of a sudden, snow can rear its chilly head too…

I don’t know about you, but I need spring really badly this year. Like many out there, my family have experienced some great losses over the past few months, on top of all of the negative news that’s happening in the world right now.

And what with more and more people coming down with COVID, it has been like living in a bad dream. I now know many people who’ve been infected with COVID since the Omicron variant has taken over. Sadly, I even know one person who has died from it. It’s been another very cruel winter.

So how about it spring? Why not show up a little earlier this year just to perk us up a bit? Bring on the daffodils and tulips, the nests full of tiny chirpers, the sun and the new buds. Let’s get back to golf and picnics and…spring cleaning?

Okay, wait…

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Empty Nesters

We recently helped our eldest daughter and her boyfriend move out of our house and into an apartment of their own. This officially makes us “empty nesters”. The fledglings have flown. Yay!

It reminded me of seeing my first Robin’s nest in a birch tree outside our dining room window when I was a little girl. It was exciting to watch the adult birds build the nest and then fill it with those tiny, blue eggs. We had to be careful not to startle them so the eggs wouldn’t be abandoned. And then one day, lo and behold, one by one, the eggs cracked open.

My mother said that eventually the mother bird would kick the babies out of the nest and make them fly. I thought this was a horrid thing. What kind of mother kicks her kids out of the nest?

A number of years and a whole lot of experience later, I understand completely. It’s not that either of my daughters were difficult to live with. But there comes a time when they need to take flight and find a life for themselves.

The thing is, these days many of our children remain in the nest for a lot longer. I was 18 when I moved out, and I more or less expected the same from my offspring. But now kids often stay home until their late 20’s, or into their 30’s and beyond.

For some, it takes awhile for them to get on their feet. And many of them live at home while they are going to college or university if the schools are nearby. But the reality is that it’s not easy for any of them to afford a place to live right now, especially if they have lower paying jobs.

And never mind actually BUYING a home for the first time.

My husband and I were lucky to be able to purchase our first house on Cook Street in 1983 for $66,000. These days you might get an SUV for that money. A used one, anyway.

In 1988 we sold the first house and bought a bigger one for our expanding family. That one cost $112,000. You can’t even get a “no bedroom” condo for that right now.

Sure, we went through periods of poverty, like most first time home owners do. There were some months that we just barely got by, struggling with the upkeep and repairs. But it was our home sweet home, and as long as we could pay the mortgage, we could always eat KD.

It’s not a surprise that housing prices increase over time. That is pretty much expected. But there has been a growing disparity between the cost of living and today’s average wages, especially more recently.

High demand and low interest rates are among the many reasons real estate has become pretty much out of reach for many younger people. Not only that, but house flipping and the popular trend of listing properties on places like VRBO have changed housing dynamics considerably. The B.C. Speculation and Vacancy Tax shows how concerned government officials are about the lack of affordable housing.

It took awhile for my daughter and her boyfriend to find something, but in the end they got themselves a two bedroom apartment in Langford through the Capital Region’s Housing Corporation. Their place is a newer unit subsidized by the CRD, whose mission is “a commitment to the development, management and promotion of affordable housing that is essential for the well-being of the people and communities in the Capital Region.”

I think it’s a wonderful thing. No foreseeable renovictions, no fear of outrageous rent increases. Well maintained and operated.

There are certain rules and criteria that have to be met, such as a minimum and maximum income. But they can have pets and it’s also a family friendly building.

And one day they’ll have their own little fledglings.

Not that I’m trying to rush them or anything…

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Has It Been A Year Already?

Well, happy anniversary everyone! We are now officially past the year mark since the W.H.O. declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. And it’s been a year like no other.

Back on March 11, 2020, we couldn’t have imagined what we were in for. COVID-19 was a mystery, and we had no idea what to expect. The phrase “new normal” suddenly became popular.

Our initial reaction to the big shut down was positive, sometimes comical. We can DO this! We hoarded toilet paper. We baked bread, made Quarantinis, and we stood outside every evening at 6pm and banged our pots and pans to honour our health care workers. We laughingly wore pajama pants during video calls. We put hearts and signs of support in our windows for our front line workers, and donated money to local charities like Rapid Relief.

Businesses that sold them, ran out of hot tubs. Gardens flourished, home renovations abounded. We found heroes in people like Dr. Bonnie Henry, whose calm and compassion gave us much comfort. A global pandemic wasn’t going to keep US down!

Then reality kicked at us a little harder. The novelty began to wear off. Day after day we somberly donned our masks, washed our hands, and kept our distance from each other. Well some of us did. Others screamed in protest. Tempers flared. And all the while, more and more people were getting sick or dying.

Our hair grew long, beards became unruly. Zoom calls that started out as great fun, began to wear on us. Living and working and learning at home got more and more boring and intolerable for many. Not being able to see or hug our family and friends was depressing us. In fact, anxiety and depression was on the rise in all age groups, but especially in young people. We were exhausted. And all of this happened before winter had even hit.

As we said goodbye with great relief to 2020, COVID continued its ominous advance. New cases and new variants sprang up everywhere when a second wave hit. Long, dark days with no end to this pandemic in sight, left us mourning and miserable.

But there were some small hints of hope. Pharmaceutical companies around the world who had been working around the clock to come up with a vaccine, started to have some success. A few countries that were initially hit hard by the pandemic, were beginning to see their COVID numbers level off, or even come down as a result of shut downs. There was just a little bit of light appearing at the end of that very long tunnel.

And now spring is almost here. As of March 12th, almost 3 million vaccines have been administered in Canada. We have, most of us, adapted to this new reality, to the shut downs, the social distancing, and the masks. Handwashing and sanitizing is more habitual. But we are so looking forward to the day when we can actually spend time together in person again, and that day comes ever closer. Still, as the expression goes, the last few miles of a marathon are the hardest.

I know, I know. Kilometers.

So what have we learned from this past year so far? I would venture to guess it will take a long time to completely assess that. Businesses, governments and communities will gather their list of lessons learned. As individuals, we will each write our own epilogues. Ultimately, you might say that we are forever changed.

But in spite of it all, babies were still being born and people were still marking milestones. All this time, life was forging ahead and hopeful. And now, here on the west coast, the trees are starting to burst new buds, robins are laying their eggs, and cherry blossoms are blooming.

And vaccines are here. At long last. Ah, spring.

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The Winds of Change

I was wide awake in bed at about 2am the other night, as I often am these days. I was listening to the wind and thinking about this state we’re in. This whole new world.

It occurred to me that I really dislike the phrase “new normal”. The old normal was just fine, thank you very much. Some days were ordinary, even boring. But I was okay with that. Sigh.

Neither am I a big fan of change. I mean, certain kinds of changes can be really exciting, like a new car or better paying job. The birth of a child. Other, more pro-active changes can make you feel better about yourself; committing to a healthier lifestyle or working at having a more positive attitude. There are a lot of healthy, happy changes.

And then there are the life altering changes that are thrust upon you with little or no warning. Like the loss of someone or something, or a sudden illness. Or a pandemic. It’s when you feel at your most vulnerable, and you become very aware of how little power you actually have over many things.

We are shifting into a change of seasons now with autumn blowing in. The first of the rainstorms has hit, the air is a little crisper, and the leaves are starting to turn. We don our sweaters and light jackets. We think about bringing an umbrella if we go out for a walk. Soon we may turn the heat on in our homes for the first time in many months, and cover up the patio furniture. A change of seasons is something we are familiar with and know how to adjust to.

But how do we deal with a new and very different world we are also shifting into? This dreaded new normal? Thanksgiving will not look the same for many of us this year. Never mind Halloween and Christmas.

Well, we do what we’ve always done. We adapt, we adjust. It might not be as simple an adjustment as putting on a heavier sweater or grabbing the umbrella. But since we first roamed this earth, humans have had to learn how to adapt to all kinds of changes, big and small. And that ability is what has helped us survive as a species.

We’re lucky that we’ve had smart people to lead us safely through this pandemic and show us what changes we need to make. So far we’ve learned that there are many things we can do to keep ourselves healthy and hold this virus at bay.

Well, some of us have learned. There will always be those few who will refuse to behave differently, who will rant and rail against any small changes they have to make. I mean, as I said, I don’t like change either. But the way I see it, refusing to adapt to the threat of this virus is like purposely walking off a cliff.

Charles Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

There is nothing we can do to stop the winds of change. Even if it blows.