Thursday, June 09, 2016

Friday's Child

Our second baby wasn't due until the middle of June, but in the first week of that month in 1972 I was seized by the a strong compulsion to clean the house--no matter that it was hot and humid and we had no air conditioning--everything had to be clean. For some time I had wanted my body back. I kept misjudging the proximity of doorways and bumping into furniture. I navigated space feeling like a huge, ungainly, ocean-going-liner. 

Paul was working in a facility for people with developmental disabilities, and the upcoming weekend would be a long one off for him. When he told me that he was bringing home a guest for four days--one of the people who lived there--I thought ungracious thoughts. With a toddler who had just turned two at the end of May, and our second baby due in just over a week, the thought of an extra person staying for four days was exhausting.  But when our guest Philip came home with Paul after his shift on Thursday, seeing how excited he was at the brightly coloured sheets on his bed, I gave my heart a shake.  Where he lived there were only white sheets and uniformity of everything else. Maybe the weekend would not be so tiring after all, I thought to myself.

That was before the drama unfolded next door. 

Paul had taken our toddler Peter with him to our neighbour's home and had gone down to their basement. Our houses were new and had unfinished basements with a rudimentary stair railing beside the stairs. We had added a board to the side of our stairs for safety's sake, but our neighbours' stairs had an open gap between the railing and the stairs.

Not long after he left, our door burst open and Paul ran in with Peter in his arms, crying at the top of his lungs. He had fallen through the gap on the stairs, onto the concrete basement floor where he hit his head. Paul quickly drove him to the doctor, and after being checked over, he was sent home with instructions that he be monitored closely and woken up every few hours through the night.

That night, with Peter soundly asleep, and Philip happily settled in the guest room, all was well. I crept into our bed with gratitude, but as I lowered my body, I felt a gush of warm liquid. "Oh, no!" I said, "my waters just broke."

I hadn't packed for the hospital yet, but I was so tired that I said to Paul, who was sitting bolt upright now, "Don't worry, I'm sure nothing's going to happen yet, let's get some sleep and I'll pack in the morning."

 We changed the sheets and turned off the light. A few moments later, it was I who sat bolt upright.

"Paul! I'm packing now," I said, "I don't think we should wait." The labour pains had started. We scrambled out of bed and I quickly threw things I'd need into a bag.

Paul's parents lived across the road from us, and we drove across to ask his mum to stay with Peter and Philip and wake Peter up every couple of hours.

As we left for the hospital, I said to Paul, "If we have a girl, can we name her Brenda, after your mum?" In 1972 there were no ultrasound images of the baby during pregnancy, so the sex of a newborn baby was always a surprise.

Our doctor was roused from his bed to deliver our baby who seemed to be in a rush to arrive, and at around 2.00 a.m., a nurse put our little girl into my arms.There is no feeling to compare with holding the tiny one who has been growing inside you for 9 months. Gratitude, love, anticipation, protectiveness--sheer joy--these words only begin to describe the flood of emotion I felt as tears trickled down my cheeks.

The little girl who was in such a hurry to be born, grew into a little socialite with blond hair and wide brown eyes. She would wake with the dawn every morning, singing, and the world was her friend from the start.

It's 44 years since that Friday, and today we celebrate her birth. I haven't stopped being grateful. As a daughter she is such a blessing--caring and kind--and I watch in admiration how she mothers her own daughters--and does battle for them when it's called for.

We are so blessed with our precious daughter!

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Night Before Last

The night before last I had a scary dream. It had the feel of a Ray Bradbury story, the ones I loved and devoured as quickly as I could, as a teenager. 

The dream had the same creepy menace and foreboding that I found so deliciously scary then, but it didn't feel so delicious showing up in my dream now. In the dream I was in bed, in a room whose walls held windows that were open to the dark outside, like a sun porch, only the windows were all around and a breeze rustled through them, an invader from outside.

I wasn't alone in the room. To my right there was another bed, a little further forward than mine. A young girl, with dark, bobbed hair, sat up in it, with her back to me. Because it was further ahead than mine I couldn't see her face.

I did what anyone would do--I called out, "Mum!"

And I heard her sweet, unmistakable voice say, "I'm here darling," and she put up her hand from the mattress on the floor where she was sleeping beside my bed. I held onto it and was immediately comforted and safe.

She had slept like that for the year we were homeless between when I was 8 and 9, all four of us living in one room in the house of my bizarre English grandmother (my other one was Dutch.) 

My brother and I were so insecure and scared living there. He is three years younger than I, and we slept in camp beds set up head to head, from one corner of the room in a V formation. Mum and Dad slept on the floor between our beds on a mattress. On the wall above my bed, was a portrait of a fair haired, somber woman in Victorian clothing. Her eyes followed me no matter where I went in the room, always staring. Across the room from our beds was our wardrobe and upon its polished wood the firelight cast shadows that I dreamed into people with ill intent.

Mum slept every night (I don't know how she did it) with me holding one of her hands, and Rob, my brother, holding onto a lock of her beautiful dark hair.

Hearing her voice was such a sweet comfort the night before last. The memory has stayed with me since, almost banishing the menace of my Ray Bradbury dream! :)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

We Need More of That

 The sun shone bright and the day was full of the promise of spring as our cars converged on the small church standing at the side of a quiet country road. It was a glorious day for our purpose: remembering someone who would have loved to be there but who had more pressing business in heaven.

The gathering was informal and simple, just staff of the agency that had supported the person as well as his friends and family. We simply sang songs that were his favourites and shared our memories.We laughed, and wiped away some tears and we all left with more than we came with.

I loved all of the stories, but two shared by one of his support staff stuck with me. To understand them you need to know two things: he loved to sing and was irrepressible if the moment called for song, and he had an intellectual disability.  At one event they were at, he left his seat, mounted the podium and took the microphone. Then he sang the song, "Jesus Loves Me," and his staff said there was not a dry eye in the room. He and his staff would go grocery shopping together each week and while she paid the cashier, he would pack the groceries as they came down the belt--all the while singing his favourite hymn, "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" at the top of his voice. One day a customer said to her, nodding to the loud singer, "We need more of that."

Later as we had refreshments and chatted, someone said with a sigh, "Well, he's normal now that he's in heaven."  Inside my heart cried out, "No!" at the thought, because after all, we had just celebrated someone we all loved so much for who he was, and "normal" sounded to me like a downgrade. I wish I had said that, but instead I just made a little joke, and said, "And we will be too," and everyone laughed and agreed that we were far from "normal" now ourselves.

After I left, I couldn't stop thinking of the words of the customer at the grocery store: We need more of that.  Yes we do. 

Most of us struggle for much of our lives with self esteem and self acceptance. How different would it be if each child heard and felt from the start and every day of their lives, the benediction spoken by that customer? 

I would love to think that when God gazes at us, what he thinks is, "We need more of that." That while we are always "in process," being more closely conformed to his image; not one of our basic building blocks--how we are intrinsically made--is defective or broken but exactly what the world needs more of. 

And if only we could let truth that sink into our soul--the assurance of  our own perfect "belovedness," that he gazes at us with adoration and love we cannot even comprehend--it would just have to burst out, spill over, and envelope the world around us....and wouldn't that be wonderful to have more of?

Saturday, May 07, 2016

2016 Mother's Day Memories

As small children we adore our mothers, think them the fairest in the land, and when we are old enough, present them with gifts bought lovingly with hoarded coins passed over shop counters by chubby hands.
Among my childhood gifts to Mum were Soir de Paris perfume in its bottle of blue glass topped with a domed silver cap--and Californian Poppy  with its jaunty red lid and cheery poppies on its label. Inside they had little white rubber stoppers, and Mum would tip the bottled and then touch the tiny stopper behind each ear, to each wrist and to her throat, a ritual I studied, and later imitated.
Both perfume bottles had in common their miniscule size, but somehow that just made them seem more extremely precious. They were the only perfumes I remember her using.
The rest of her life was far from glamourous. Recently I thought about the hard physical work she did every week just to get the laundry done. The sturdy white cotton twill bed sheets would be stripped each week, and while the bottom sheet and pillow cases would be laundered, the top sheet would be systematically rotated to the bottom. The sheets would be boiled, and then washed and rinsed by hand, and then put through a machine called a wringer, that had rollers to squeeze out the water. The sheets, heavy with water, were hard to haul from boiler to sink and then through the wringer. 
Eventually Mum bought a spin dryer, which was a great labour saving device. She looked after it carefully, as it could not be easily replaced. The load of clothes had to be arranged "just so" in the machine and Mum would brace it with her body as she turned it on and the drum gathered speed, spinning crazily. She always conveyed great appreciation and gratitude for her possessions and she saved for them all from a small income.
Once she went into town to negotiate the purchase of a washing machine on a payment plan called "Hire Purchase." She was working by then, but I remember the indignity of her being unable to purchase the washing machine without my father's signature on the agreement. To those of us who knew their respective strengths and weaknesses, this was quite funny.
How easily we buy things now compared to then, and replace worn out things without a great deal of agonizing or thought. 
I wish that Mum had had all of the little luxuries she truly deserved, but then I think she felt herself rich in what mattered, always telling us that she loved us "more than all the tea in China." We, of course, were richest of all, in having her.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Books, Barriers and Bonds

It reproached me silently as it has for almost two decades. I tried to read it when my father first gave it to me, saying, "Here's a book you should read. I think you'll like it." But I was always so busy, always trying to read several books at once, and not having much time to read anyway. It sat beside my bed or on the coffee table long enough that I lost the thread of the story, which spanned four hundred years. Tidying up one day I put it back on the shelf, and there it stayed.

My father never forgot and would mention it from time to time. "Did you ever read that book?" he would ask, and I would inwardly squirm, make excuses and intend to do so...soon. 

I knew that it would mean a lot to him if I read it--traveled the land within its pages--go where he had gone before: Chesapeake.

Recently I scanned my bookshelves, pulling off books for a writing exercise. The assignment was to look at first lines, as many as possible within a few hours, and then to type up ten or twenty favourites and consider what made them work. I included Chesapeake, curious to see what its first line was. It was a good one:
"For some time now they had been suspicious of him."

As I flipped through the first pages to find that line, there was his name in block letters on the flyleaf. 
The firm hand and distinctive style belonged to the father I knew before his final illness, when his writing became spidery and his hand frail. And I felt a pang of regret.

A few days later, curled up in my favourite recliner, I was reading the gospel of John. I love the mystery of it--the sense of God trying to get through to people, but nothing being understood by those he was trying to communicate with, everyone seeming to be at cross purposes, although we, like readers of all good stories, are able to see clearly from the outside looking in and want to shout at the characters, "Wake up! Can't you see?"
A memory surfaced then. It was many years ago, and I was looking forward to a trip to England to be with my parents for three weeks. I'd been reading the  book of John back then too, and I thought that anyone reading it must surely see what I could see--the revolutionary way Christ overturned "religion" and reached out to the world in love, relationship, and sacrifice. The book has twenty one chapters--perfect for three weeks. I asked my father if he would read a chapter a day with me. He said no. I can see now that he probably panicked, he being an atheist and me, maybe overwhelming.

Remembering that made me feel less guilty. We both missed opportunities to connect on something important to the other. I did have reasons for not getting to a book he loved but which is very long, and he had his own reasons for not wanting to read mine. We didn't overcome our barriers then, but now mine have gone. I have time to read all 864 pages and I am. Chesapeake is off the shelf.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Short Story Contest

The stocky brown haired man in the yellow rain slicker looked up from the front desk as if he'd been waiting just for me. With a twinkle in his eye and a broad smile that matched my own, he said, "Short story contest?" and motioned with his head towards a blue box with a slit in the top, and a sign taped to the front.

I heard a soft laugh behind me and saw that I was being followed by a petite blond woman waving a brown manila envelope similar to mine. She and the friend she was with both looked as though they were vibrating with as much excitement as me. Our eyes sparkled with it!  

Before I put my envelope into the slot I asked if the friend would mind taking a photo of me putting it in. She laughed--she had brought her own camera to capture the moment of significance. We posed together with envelopes poised over the slot and were spontaneously joined by another hopeful contestant, a tall man with glasses perched atop his salt and pepper hair.

As we walked away from the contest box I asked my new writer friends to tell me about their writing, and we spent a few minutes together savouring the moment and our shared passion before going our separate ways.

People trickled in steadily now, all headed for the contest box and the foyer hummed with voices. I thought to myself that the man in the yellow rain slicker would spend his whole day directing hopeful contestants until the deadline arrived at 5.00 p.m.

A month earlier at the end of January, a friend had texted me the details of the contest saying, "You should enter!" 

Being retired, I finally have the time to pursue my passions and I felt that it was now or never. But then I procrastinated. I cleaned my house, baked pies and began reading an excellent book from my bookshelf by Bill Roorbach: Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life into Literature. 

My rationale for starting writing by reading was that I was "preparing." The truth was that I was "avoiding," although I did learn a lot from the first three chapters, including the importance of the first line.Thank goodness for the friend who told me, "Don't waste time on that first killer line, Belinda, just get the story down and worry about that later!"

The last week before the contest deadline, which was on a Monday, I began writing in earnest. By Thursday I had 750 words written and 1,750 to go. I thought that I was well on my way.

I learned over the next three days that all the steps that I had learned about but had not practiced, are there for good reason. 

  • allow the writing to rest for several days
  • read and rewrite, rinse and repeat
  • have trusted friends read your work and give feedback
And furthermore, you need to allow time in order to implement the steps. I wished I had started sooner.

By Friday evening I sent the story to the few friends that I hoped would read it and give feedback. I woke up the next morning wishing I hadn't been so quick to do so as I realized in the cold light of day that the story had shortcomings and needed more work...lots more work. 

Over that weekend I worked hard, into the early hours of each morning, writing and rewriting, chopping and strengthening it. My friends faithfully gave feedback and advice. Right up until Monday morning, when I steamed open the envelope to make more changes to what I had thought was definitely the final version. 

Much paper and printer ink later, as I left the city after dropping off the story,  I thought that no matter what happened now, I was already a winner, because

  • I had actually done it, and 
  • I learned so much in the process. 

I fantasized about how wonderful it would be to actually win the contest, knowing that about two thousand other entrants would be doing exactly the same at that moment.

I thought about my six grandchildren, all of whom work hard on an area of talent that they are honing to a skill, whether it is hockey, dance, caring for animals in an animal sanctuary or other areas of gifting. 

One of them. our 18 year old granddaughter Tippy, is never without a sketch pad. She ceaselessly works at her craft, polishing it by practicing consistently. All of them inspire me. 

Which is why Tippy's heartfelt response to the story meant so much when she was at our house this past weekend. As her mom read it out loud, I watched her eyes widen with surprise in some places, and smiled as she laughed at others. But at the end  I noticed that her cheeks were glistening. 

"Darling, are you crying?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, her voice choked with emotion and the earnest expression in her eyes saying more than her words,"I am just so proud of you." 

She came towards me with a hug, and I--well I had just won the trophy of all trophies.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Reclaiming Mercy

Humans of New York posts always grab my attention. 

The photographs and short stories of  Brandon Stanton help me see through the eyes of people whose religion; ethnicity; sexuality; choices or circumstances are different to my own. Through his work he peels off layers of bias and prejudice like grubby bandages, and reveals people in a way that is closer to the way I believe God sees us--loved and precious regardless of what we've done or who we are--because he knows the whole story...

Currently Brandon is telling the stories of inmates from five different prisons across the North eastern United States. Often the stories are heartrending, but the face and story from February 8, stayed with me longer than usual:

The words, "honest people like you," resonated, maybe because they could apply to me. And in a plight as desperate as hers, mightn't I have responded with the same naivete? I don't know, because I haven't experienced such poverty and desperation.

It must have been playing on my mind, because this morning I woke up with the vestiges of a wacky and disturbing dream in my consciousness. I had been given an illegal substance by someone who offered me a business opportunity to make some money. They left it with me while I decided. I hadn't been quick enough to say, "No thank you,"and was now "in possession."

Stuck with this greenish brown substance, I felt trapped, desperate and afraid. The people who'd given me the drugs knew I could identify them and I knew they would apply pressure to gain compliance. I hid the drugs in pie boxes and the last thing I remember was kneeling down and stuffing the pie boxes under a hedge...I was so grateful to wake up and know it was just a dream.  

Thinking about how easy it is to judge, I find it's a daily discipline to stay open to mercy and kindness. I don't like judgmentalism but ironically I find myself judging those who judge.

Jesus Christ loved the outcast and the different, and they sought him out and were comfortable with him. I believe he would love Humans of New York for what it accomplishes; the tenderness and compassion it inspires.

Today I read about the "Royal Rule," in the book of James. Far from being a rule of iron, it tells me that I need to love others as I love myself, and that I am to, "talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free." Our stance towards our fellow man matters. We should be scared when we find ourselves harsh, because the harshness with which we judge others is how we can expect to be judged. 

James 2:13New International Version (NIV)

13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.