Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nocturne

A river of moonlight lay across the floor and beckoned like a trail of breadcrumbs. 

I followed it, moving gingerly, feeling clumsy as I felt my way to our large back-room. I had come down before bed, for something I'd forgotten, without turning the lights back on.

Silver moonlight shone through the tall oblong windows, caught on the spindles of a chair and cast a swath across the oval dining table, as though brushstrokes of a master artist at work.

I sat on a chair in a corner, listening to the ticking of a clock, admiring the beauty of the chair and table, and looking out at the bright, silent, snow-covered fields and the maple-stand topping the hills beyond, every sense awakened now. 

The door that opened to a room off the front hallway was slightly ajar. My eyes had adjusted to the dark and with greater confidence I continued my exploration. 

The big front window opened onto the sun-porch, and beyond that lay our garden, a graceful "room," surrounded by mountain ash, giant blue spruce, bare shrubs, and weeping mulberry trees. The lawn shone in the moonlight, patches of hard ice glistening, catching the light and tossing it back skyward--a game of moonlight lacrosse. Inside, shadows of familiar things looked strangely still and quiet, as though at rest.

Short moments later, the moon no longer shone through the windows and all became simply--dark. I never found the item I meant to retrieve, but I had a private audience with Beauty.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Miscommunication

Words--they can be regretted; explained; justified; or apologized for, but never retrieved—and that’s the very thing we often long to do.

Once careless, hurtful words are expressed, like homing missiles, they find their mark with terrifying precision and devastation.  And there is no tenderer landing place than a human heart or soul.

A sure signal of the need for silence is anger. “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret,” wrote Ambrose Bierce, a 19th century journalist, who ironically often stirred up a storm of hostile reaction through his writings. Perhaps he spoke from bitter experience. Unfortunately, anger is exactly when words tend to come--“fast and furious".

Some of the words I regret the most were spoken to my father. They were true, and it’s not hard to justify them, but they caused him pain. Three months afterwards he died. I would give much to take them back.

He was 81 and very deaf due to the effects of war and factory work--but unfortunately for me, could hear better over the phone. I had not long returned from a three week visit to England, where he lived in fraught relationship with my brother and mother. It had been a difficult visit in which it was hard to watch the dynamics, and I shocked myself with thoughts I could only admit to my brother. 

I said to him one day as we walked around a hardware store together, “I thought last night of how much easier life would be if Dad died. That's a terrible thing to think about isn't it?” He didn’t say a word. I didn’t expect him to—I think he understood that I needed to say the dark thought out loud to someone, as if doing so would exorcise it. 

I had tried to make Dad see how much he hurt my brother, when he focused on what he perceived to be his faults, which really weren't and if they were, were weak echoes of his own, but it had been hard to get through the barrier of a deafness that could have been eased if only he’d put the batteries in his hearing aid, and if there hadn’t been the alcoholic haze which he induced each day from mid-morning on.

I was deeply thankful for the inner-healing and different perspective that I found on that vacation through reading Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, but when Dad said to me over the phone, “I wish we’d had more time to talk while you were here, darling, I had no grace.

I said, “Well, Dad, I was there for three weeks, but you were well oiled (British slang for drunk) for much of the time.”

He didn’t react, didn’t flame with anger--if he had, it might have eased my guilt, but instantly I felt that I had hurt him—I just wasn’t sure enough to apologize immediately. I hoped that I was wrong, that as many things did, my careless words had gone over his head. But I feared they hadn't. He was always so proud of me—his only daughter, so like him in many ways—and to him, vulnerable in his love, the wound went deep. I felt his distance in the weeks that followed.

When he was hospitalized a few months later, I flew back, and through our daily visits to the intensive care unit, surrounded by the constant doleful beeping of machinery,
I hope he knew that we loved him, no matter what. He could no longer speak to us because of the breathing tube in his throat, but in his weakness and helplessness, we saw a glimpse of the person he really was, and the father and husband he might have been, without the ghosts that he used alcohol to numb. 

In his final week of life, after I had returned to Canada, the life support apparatus was removed, and during that week, my dad's mind clear, he gave my brother the priceless gift of affection, in words and touch--his blessing—we’ve talked of those precious moments many times since.

It’s been 14 years since I spoke those words to Dad. I’ve learned since then to listen better to what lies behind words than to the words themselves. Now, I hear in his words a longing for intimacy, connection and communication, and across time and space, I say, late, but from my heart, “Me too, Dad…me too.” 

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Ticking Clock

I've often felt out of step with our time-pressured, outcome-measuring society, and never more than now. 

I find myself at the end of cashier's lines, as the next person's items start piling up before I've packed and removed my bags. I feel slow as I put away my receipts, while quickly around me the world speeds on.

Today I went through a Tim Horton's drive-through and the Tim's card I had loaded with $20 the week before, registered no cash, due to some kind of issue that I will resolve, but in the meantime I needed to pay for the tea I had ordered. After only a few seconds of searching, since I carry and use little cash anymore, the cashier waved me through without having to pay. I have a feeling that had to do with the fact that I was holding up the line behind me. 

Later on I went to pick up some colour swatches from our local paint store as we are painting our kitchen and bathroom. I had a list of colour numbers, as I had done some homework on the store's website, and was doing fine in finding swatches I'd chosen. I had been there less than a minute, I am sure, when a middle-aged man approached me with an intense and intrusive gaze saying, "I can help you find what you're looking for a lot faster."

I politely declined his help, but he persisted, "If you just call out the numbers I can get them." 

Why? I thought to myself, but, "They are all right here," I said, gesturing towards the display in front of me, as if I needed to explain. Thankfully he backed away.

I left the store with my selection, wondering why the whole world seems to be in such a hurry. 

Workers these days in all kinds of industries seem to have quotas that are measured. The motions with which they work are studied and analysed because time equals money. You can see the subtle cues everywhere in the smooth methodical ways every process in commercial businesses run, which isn't completely a bad thing except maybe the underlying premise is.

Should money be the prime value driving our society? Care for the elderly, is carried out by workers who have only time to do essential care tasks but have no time to interact--no time to listen or converse for they are being watched and pressured to do more in less time. No wonder they find this stressful as they chose that field because they care for the people they work with on a human level. People need more than food and bathing in order to survive. We cannot forget this.

Years ago when I began working with people with disabilities, they taught me that rushing was counter-productive--and would often result in much more time spent than if I had been patient and supported someone at their own pace in the first place. One of the gifts in my continuing friendships with people with disabilities is the slower pace with which they regulate the world around them, to good effect.

After years of trying to do more in less time, my time related goals now include trying to be more "in the moment" and to do one thing at a time, rather than multi-tasking. 

Let's go counter-culture, be okay with slowing down--write a real letter or note to someone instead of an email; lose track of time with a friend; really listen to that voice at the end of the phone--and have patience with the world around you if things aren't going as fast as you'd like. 

Because...

Being rich is having money; being wealthy is having time. 
Margaret Bonnano 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

There's Always More Ink

December 31st...a day to look back before looking ahead; at where I didn't do as well as hoped, and where I have changed for the better (in my experience, with God's help.) 

I opened the small pink patterned note book in which I chronicled this year's challenges and victories, its pages secured by a knot, promising confidences kept.

I found on the fly-leaf, a conversation I recorded because it encouraged me, and I share it here because it is perfect for this day above all:

It was September, and our granddaughter Tippy was living out her dream--an art student at Sheridan College. She and her class-mates were instructed to draw a picture that represented themselves. Then, anonymously, the drawings were made into a slideshow for the class to view and analyse. 

When Tippy's drawing came up, some of the students commented on the strokes, saying that they indicated that the artist was confident and strong.

As Tippy recounted this to our daughter Brenda later, she said, "Mom, if you make a mistake, there's always more ink."

When I told Tippy later how her words affected me, I don't think she understood their power, but I pray that she, and others will. Fear of failure shows up in so many ways. In me it has frequently stopped me from even trying, to do something of importance to me.

Let this be the year to shake off the shackles of fear, to steward gifts--to try, knowing that failure is the path to any success worth achieving.

"There is Always More Ink"

Tippy Adams, 2016

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Mittens

About two weeks before Christmas, a call for help came from Daisy, a friend and respected member of the community of Mishkeegogamang, a reserve 2000 kilometers north west of Toronto. She told us that many of the 200 children who attend Missabay School in the growing community, needed mittens. Since the temperature up there that day was -27 F, the need was obvious.

As soon as the need was made known, initially via Facebook, the response was swift. People's hearts were touched by the need and bags of mittens and other donations began to be dropped off for the children. 

The next thing was getting the items to the faraway community. Our friends Holly McCleary and Susan Stewart decided that they would drive the precious cargo themselves between Christmas and New Years. They set out early the Thursday morning after Christmas and made the distance in an unbelievably short length of time, driving in shifts through the night--2,000 kilometers north, arriving on Friday! Bags and bags of warm gloves, mittens, scarves and toques--and even 50 bright red, warm blankets made it safely to Mish and were distributed to all who needed them.

I thought of the brave travelers as I watched snowflakes fall relentless past my window, and in my mind's eye went back, past the flaming fire of autumn's falling leaves, to the sultry heat of an August evening in Mish. It was the evening of the great feast at the community centre. Our little group had prepared baked potatoes with butter, boiled sweet corn, and, helped by Gordie, a community elder, barbecued smokie sausages for the community. As the smoke rose and the barbecue sizzled, the tantalizing aroma of the sausage filled the air. We expected at least a hundred people.

Inside, on long tables in the gym, we unpacked boxes of new and gently used clothing. Every item had been carefully sorted by volunteers at our churches in the south and packaged by age and sex, while making sure that everything was of good quality and in good repair.

People were starting to arrive and look through the items, selecting what they needed. A woman held up a dress that shimmered in the light, and said to her friend, "Look at this!"

Holly joined me, but her eyes quickly filled with tears. Overwhelmed at the need, she slipped away as quickly as she had come--it was too much for her big and tender heart to watch.

A small boy on his own appeared at my side by a table of winter items. There, a pair of uniquely designed mittens caught his eye. He picked them up and said softly as he examined them, "I like these mittens."

"If you like them take them," I said.

But he put them gently back on the table and said, "Somebody else might need them more."

"Well, come back later," I said, "Maybe they'll still be here--you never know!"

Later, after the corn, potatoes and smokies had all been placed into the stream of waiting hands, and a great treasure--the leftovers--sent home with grateful people, I went back into the gym to help clean up the boxes and few items left.

There I met the little boy again. "I wonder if those mittens are still there, " he said. 

Together, hand in hand, we went back to the table, but it was now empty. I wondered if I should have put them on one side without him knowing, but that had not felt like the right thing to do.

The little boy simply accepted that they weren't there--someone else had needed them more, but he had three brand-new t-shirts slung over his shoulder. 

"Would you like me to fold your t-shirts?" I asked, and he nodded.

I handed them back to him with love tucked into every fold.

"You should have brought bags you know," he said, his observation breaking the tension in my heart.

"You are right!" I said, with a laugh.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Christmas Gift

I read the story over lunch a few days before Christmas, and laughed out loud alone in my kitchen, as it brought to colourful life in my imagination, the hilarious scenario played out on the page in black on white.

A day or so later, I was talking to my son, and I said, "Pete, I have a gift I'd love from you this Christmas."

"Oh?" he said, surprised, I suppose, at my unusual boldness in asking. "What is it?"

"It's a story," I said, "And the gift would be that you would read it for me and the rest of the family, when we all get together for Christmas." 

He agreed. asking only if he might get the story ahead of time to practice.

In the end, with all of the busyness before Christmas, he never did pick up the story to ahead of time, but on Boxing Day, when we all assembled to celebrate what was for some family members, "Christmas Version # 3," the bright-yellow-covered book with its coffee-stained pages was near at hand.

The house was fragrant with the aromas of Christmas dinner: roasting turkey, with a stuffing of bread, celery, onion and sage--and colourful winter vegetables: carrots, turnips and Brussels sprouts. The feast was waiting, with equally delicious options for the vegan members of the family.

But first all eyes were on the coffee table, piled with gifts wrapped lovingly into the night, in brightly covered tissue, with sparkly bows and decorations.

We did try to open the gifts one-by-one, slowly, so that each could be admired and acknowledged, but like a train leaving a station, the gifting, opening and thanking gathered speed--fed by a seemingly unstoppable force, until the flurry of flying paper, exclamations and laughter reached a sort of grand Christmas crescendo!

The careful wrappings of just moments ago were being gathered into clear plastic garbage bags, when I announced, "I have asked for a gift from Pete." 

I had everyone's attention, so I continued, "The gift is a story I have asked him to read out loud. Your part in the gift would be to listen to it with me. But I'm not sure when would be a good time."

"How about after we finish our meal?" suggested someone, and to general assent, the tidying resumed.

The meal was everything I had hoped it would be and it seemed to be enjoyed to the full. No one had room for another bite. It was time for the gift I had been looking forward to for days.

Pete was sitting beside me at the head of two long tables that had been pushed together so that all 13 of us could sit together for the meal. I handed him my book, open to the story I wanted him to read.

Our youngest grandson, Josh, left the table to work on his new Lego project, promising he'd be listening, and Pete began to read.

The story captured everyone within its first few lines. Josh returned to his seat, his eyes dancing with humour as they locked on his dad's in rapt attention. Pete's deep voice broke with laughter at several points and I looked down the table at the faces of our family laughing out loud with him, not an ear-bud in sight, and I received my gift--my very precious gift: a moment of shared laughter; a Christmas memory made; a gift honoured by all.

And my heart breathed, "Thank you."

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

So Many Little Ones

That first Sunday in Mish, we worked on posters about the activities going on during the week. The outlying hamlets of Ace Lake, Eric Lake and Ten Houses were invited by email. It is harder for the people in these smaller communities to get to activities on the main reserve, so we wanted to reach out and include the children there, and the band kindly provided us with a school bus and driver for the week.

On Monday morning the children arrived--bright eyed, excited, full of anticipation. They poured from the bus and cars that had gone to pick them up--all ages, heights and sizes--about 100 children.

I was at the dining table when they arrived, editing some photos on my laptop. Susan had given me the grand sounding title of "Writer and Photographer in Residence," on this team.  On my last trip I had worked in the kitchen--hospitality, writing and photography are my comfort zone. I feel inexplicably shy and awkward around children so the task I'd been assigned this time was a good one.

Holly came in from the sunshine and I noticed certain look in her eyes--not quite panic--but a mute intensity as though they were signalling, "Help!" in emotional Morse code. I closed the laptop and grabbed my camera. 


Outside there was a need for every pair of hands on deck, and the children; the smart, strong, funny, resilient and independent children; didn't care if you were an introvert, they just saw another friend to help them make giant bubbles, thread beads onto a string, or take their photo to the shout of, "Picture me!" 





We learned on our feet. For the rest of the week we realized that we had to break the children into age groups, with those 4-8 years old on Tuesday and Thursday, and age 9 and up on Wednesday and Friday. We had more manageable numbers from there on. 

I went on the bus each morning and afternoon for the rest of the week, and that first day to my dismay, as the big yellow bus slowly ambled its way around the streets of the reserve, I realized that it was one thing to pick up children waiting at the curb in the morning, and quite another to drop them off at the right place in the afternoon, especially the very young ones who didn't seem to know for sure where they should get off. The older kids didn't always help--their mischievous sense of humour left me wondering if anyone got home to the right house at the end of that first day and it was to my fervent prayers that they got off the bus.

So many small humans with open hearts, and happy with small things. If they were fishers of hearts, mine was caught 100 times over.