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Lori Fazari is a programming editor at The Globe.
I never knew how calming and meditative it could be to make ice. Not drinks ice – outdoor ice, the kind you skate on. Also how challenging and frustrating, in a small backyard in the suburbs of Toronto during a relatively mild winter.
Over the past year I have taken on many a pandemic project (or gone down a rabbit hole, as I like to call it). I have painted things, sewed things, stitched things and grown things. Baked, cooked, shaken and stirred. I have drawn blood pinning fabric for masks, dug out splinters while building a garden bench and, in a crowning achievement, visited the doctor for a tetanus shot after an incident with a rusty bucket of nails (tip, people: keep the date of your last tetanus shot in a place you’ll remember to look when it’s urgent).
I know I’m not alone taking up new and old hobbies to fill the hours that used to be swallowed by commuting, socializing, living a life outside our immediate neighbourhood. It’s been heartening to see other people’s pandemic projects in the Globe Craft Club and Facebook group we started this winter, in which my colleague (and avid hobbyist!) Jana G. Pruden learns new crafts in livestream classes.
In the fall, with the second wave of COVID-19 looming, I thought it’d be fun for the kids to have a rink in the backyard to skate on, since our lessons had been cancelled in the first round of shutdowns. (I learned to skate last winter: me, hugging the boards in the adult class at one end of the ice, terrified of falling; them, like giant marshmallows in their snowsuits at the other end of the rink, falling like it was nothing.)
I canvassed all the dads I knew who’d made backyard rinks (why does it seem to be just a dad thing?), watched YouTube videos and read online forums.
As judged by the final result, my rink was only a half-success – as in, I only managed to get ice to freeze over half of our sloped lawn. But as measured by the lessons learned, and the amount of time it occupied, which would otherwise have been spent sitting in front of a screen or panicking at the state of the world, it was a solid win.
First lesson – let it go. Patience is not my greatest virtue, but when it comes to making ice, my advice is walk away for at least a few days after flooding. Don’t step on it, don’t touch it, don’t even so much as look at it. A couple days after getting the thin plastic liner that came with the rink kit we’d bought half full – any more water and the sides would have collapsed – I casually tapped my boot against a frozen edge. Water immediately gushed out of a hole I’d ripped in the liner.
Next lesson – if at first you don’t succeed, spend another couple weeks trying. I was ready to give up but every time I looked outside, that smooth sheet of remaining ice taunted me. I decided a pandemic was not the time to throw good money after bad by investing in a better-quality liner. So I tried patching the tear, but that wound up as you’d expect – after another round of flooding with the hose, it all leaked out and my son asked if we could skate on the large patch of ice I’d created outside the rink.
Clearly the hose method wasn’t working. Enter the bucket. Every few hours, I bundled into my coat and boots to throw a single bucket of hot water onto the ice. It was strangely satisfying watching the steam rise and hearing the cracks as the water spread across in a thin layer (and didn’t leak). Nature demands patience and, one bucket at a time, the ice grew thick enough that I could stand on it.
Final lesson – know your audience. I envisioned the kids coming in for hot chocolate after hours spent skating in the backyard, cheeks flushed from the cold. In reality, I spent more time taking care of the ice than they spent skating on it.
For them it was a fun thing to do a handful of times, but unlike the outdoor city rinks we skated on every weekend it was too small to build up any momentum so they just slid from one end to the other.
For me it was a daily distraction, an excuse to get outside and get some peace and quiet away from a house teeming with online classes and work deadlines and never-ending chores. After every storm I swept away the snow and piled it around the edges. I scraped away the bumps and eventually needed two buckets of water to flood the surface. At night, with the Christmas bulbs still lighting up the evergreens and the air calm and still, it was magic sitting alone and contemplating the ice and life and the strange circumstances that had compelled me to make a rink.
A warm snap in late February melted away most of my efforts, and looking out at the small patch of ice that survived I felt – for the first time – sad at winter’s end. I know there will be more pandemic projects to fill my time, and projects past this pandemic (soon?!). With each one I will reach a point where things don’t go my way and I want to give up. But I will think of the bucket, and the reward that comes from making something from scratch – even an imperfect half of something.
What else we’re thinking about:
Last fall I snapped up a few bags of bulbs on sale and spent a sunny morning planting them in a newly expanded garden bed in my front yard. It was an exercise in optimism amid such uncertainty, and if the squirrels didn’t have their fill and the tulips, crocus, narcissus and hyacinth actually survived and bloom, they’ll herald the return of gardening season. Seed companies were overwhelmed last year by the demand from people who were newly in lockdown and worried about food security, so I’m already flipping through catalogues picking out things I’ve easily grown before by direct sowing in the soil – carrots definitely, along with pole beans, kale, swiss chard and radishes.
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