Gratitude – Post 124 – Linden and Dianne

I am grateful for Linden and Dianne Swansburg and the example they make. Let me explain.

The expression “it takes a village to raise a child” has always been true, but recently I was reminded that it takes a child to show us what truly matters. My six-year-old grandson has “lost” someone very precious to him. Linden didn’t misplace his special friend; she didn’t move away and not tell him. She died, suddenly though not easily, understandably but unexpectedly. It seemed to happen so fast, as death tends to do, leaving us unprepared. Her passing has been Linden’s introduction to grief, that first difficult lesson of what life is all about.

Dianne was Linden’s surrogate grandma, the sort of person who loved him eagerly, who let Linden be himself in her presence, who picked him up from school on Tuesdays and spent happy times together until his mom picked him up. Dianne and Linden did crafts together, went on walks, visited the pet store regularly while Linden tried to convince Dianne her life would be so much richer with a hamster in her home. She made rice krispie “cake” complete with sprinkles, which is incredibly fabulous in Linden’s opinion and he suggested I adjust my recipe accordingly. I did. They played with Lego and read books and created dinosaur eggs they hid in plaster of paris. Dianne always had some activity ready to go when Linden visited.

Linden listened intently to his mother’s explanation of where Dianne had gone and why and though it filled him with immeasurable sadness, he tried very hard to understand and what his life would be like now, without Dianne in it. His immediate concern was not for himself, but for Dave, Dianne’s husband, and their family dog and would they be okay without Dianne’s love.

Linden and his mom have created the idea of performing Diane Deeds, to honour her memory and what she meant to them and to follow her example. A Dianne Deed is an act of kindness for no apparent reason, not for credit or praise, but purely for reaching out to someone, to a stranger, to a friend, to a relative, to brighten his or her day. A Dianne Deed isn’t measured in size, isn’t judged for benefit or return. It can be as simple as bumping heads with a “wild” person in the grocery store. You know those sorts of people, strangers on the street. After bumping heads with this wild person, Linden apologized and took responsibility, asking if the wild person was okay. Turns out, she was. At school, Linden tidied up the cloak room without being asked after his teacher grumbled about the mess. “Dianne Deed of the Day,” he told his mom when he got home, happily with a thumbs up.

We can never have too many people loving us; there is no such thing. Linden’s life was enriched by someone who had no obligation to love him, no duty or responsibility. Dianne loved Linden just because.

Understanding something removes the fear of it. Linden understands his sadness, but Dianne’s death is not something to fear. He replaces the ache in his heart with being kind to others and in doing so, he keeps Dianne close by.

Linden will attend the celebration of Dianne’s life and along with his mother he will invite those who attend to jot into a book a favourite memory of how Dianne touched his or her life. Linden will offer up his six-year-old conversation and curiousity, and he will help others with their grief. And he will do so because he is Linden and because Dianne’s love helped him be the person he is.

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Gratitude – Post 123 – Uncle Dick

I am grateful for “Uncle Dick”. I find myself, this morning as I sit at my desk, thinking about those people who helped shape my character when I was growing up. Not the idols whose pictures I taped to my bedroom walls. Not the athletes who inspired me to run faster and jump higher. Not the movie stars whose imaginary characters made me swoon, but those men and women who led by example, who quietly went about their day-to-day lives, their decency and integrity leaving a swath of goodness for those of us coming behind to follow.

Dick Lyons was one of those leaders, and I have no doubt he left an indelible mark on everyone he met. I was little when I came to know “Uncle Dick”, riding in the trailer behind his snow machine on what seemed like a very long winter trail to the Kennett’s cabin. He tucked us into the trailer, ensuring we were safe and warm, always with an air of this is going to be fun, as he ferried load after load of children to the cabin. A skating rink awaited us, a fire to keep warm beside, and laughter, lots and lots of laughter.

One Christmas Eve my family was invited to the Lyons’ home to enjoy a Christmas pageant put on by Kelly and Sue and the “Stewart Boys”. I don’t remember the content of that pageant, but I do remember the joy on Uncle Dick’s face, as he watched his precious girls and nephews perform, on their make-shift stage, the rest of us sitting in our pretend theatre seating, complete with popcorn. He applauded with sincere pride and that look on his face lingers with me still.

I was one of the fortunate who got dragged on an inner tube behind Dick’s boat, who got to eat wieners cooked over a fire and eaten off a stick. I was a lucky child who got to listen to his story-telling, getting lost in the sound of his voice and thinking he must have known every single person that ever lived in Fort Frances.

I was thinking of words that describe Dick and kindness tops the list, a kindness that treated everyone the same, a welcoming curiousity that made each of us feel seen and heard. Dick had the most wonderful laugh, one that if you heard you couldn’t help but join in, a laugh that chased away anything that might make us sad. Dick was grateful, found gratitude in every situation. He lived his life with humble eagerness and enthusiasm. He welcomed my daughters into his world, let them call him Uncle Dick, tied their shoes, lifted them to safety, bent down to ask them their stories.

What do each of us leave behind, what will our legacy be? If we could come but even half way to the man Dick Lyons was, then we will have left the world in good shape. Oh, how I wish I could re-visit those Sunday afternoons, could time travel to when our families shared time together. I would tell Uncle Dick how very glad I was to soak up his gentle kindness and how blessed I was to borrow him and pretend I was his real family. But I think he knows, and I think he is glad for it.

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Gratitude – Post 122 -Ahmad Meree

I am grateful for Ahmad Meree, a twenty-eight-year-old refugee from Aleppo, Syria, who found his way to Canada in 2016. He wrote and stars in his play Suitcase. The play ran in Toronto until February 1, 2020, performed in Ahmad’s native language of Arabic with English subtitles screened along the top of the stage. The play portrays the difficulty of fleeing a country being devastated by war and violence, of leaving behind all that is one’s community, all that is home and how does one pack for such a departure, what does one take, what does one need and make room for, how much of our life can we fit into a single suitcase. And it got me thinking.

If I had to flee my life what would I pack in my metaphorical suitcase. I don’t mean my toothbrush and socks, my hiking boots and running shoes, but what would I want to take with me so that I might arrive at the other end of my journey and still be myself.

I would pack sounds, the sound of my dad’s Spanish guitar, his version of Old Black Joe that I tried to play as a youngster, that would have sounded like paint drying, the long pause between chords while my fingers contorted for the next; the sound of the zing of our snowsuits against the aluminum while we slid down the barn roof, free-flying for moments before landing in the snow below; the sound of a winter bonfire, the wood snapping and hissing as it devoured the wood’s moisture; the sound of my daughters’ first words, the jumping into language and their cry at night, the soft whimper as I settled into the rocker in the half light as they purred back to sleep.

I would pack the smell of freshly cut grass and my grandma’s buns rising in the sunshine, tucked like a baby into the blankets on the sofa; the smell of a newborn calf and new born puppies; the smell of the soil coming to life after winter’s retreat; the smell of wild roses and the musty earthy smell of the creek ambling through my childhood farm.

I would pack the taste of Ishgy-Gishgy cake, the secret family recipe from my Grandma Stewart, a recipe Samantha would have me lock inside a vault to keep its secret; the salty taste of kissing away my daughters’ tears, of still being able to heal all their wounds by pulling them on to my knee and hearing their story.

I would pack the sting of my father’s Saturday whiskers across my bare back; the touch of little hands inside mine and my hand inside my father’s, vanishing inside his giant paw; the touch of the boy holding my hand for the first time that left me a little dizzy and breathless.

I would pack the choir of faces I have called friend, the ones who make my heart light up, the ones who know my real self, the friends whose hurts and joys became my own; of seeing my newborn for the first time, her face so utterly perfect and falling in love with her so completely, knowing I would never be the same. I would pack the sight of the Rainy River hurrying by my childhood home and Annie’s arms open wide in welcome as I race across the field to her.

I would pack it all, folded neatly and pressed into the space, tucked securely as I closed the lid of the suitcase, waiting for its lock to click into place. If only.

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Gratitude – Post 121 – Mathematics

I am grateful for mathematics.

There is an artistic beauty in mathematics that both calms my soul and feeds my enthusiasm. I don’t often share my opinion on the subject of mathematics with those around me, because my words are often met with harsh contrariness. I love mathematics, truly love it, and I cannot remember ever having not loved mathematics.

“The study of mathematics, like the Nile, begins in minuteness, but ends in magnificence,” said Charles Caleb Colton sometime in the early 1800s and when I read that quote early on in my education I knew he spoke for me. I had the great fortune of having Mr. Hickling for Grade Thirteen Functions and Relations and as I watched him scribbling equations on the blackboard I knew that mathematics was as automatic to him as breathing, as walking, as blinking his eyes and I do remember reveling in that awareness, a privilege to be witness to his love of mathematics, his understanding of it.

Very little of life makes sense and a lot of it is painful and frustrating and difficult and that is the very nature of being human and alive. Fairness seldom comes into play and I struggle with that fact on a regular basis, but mathematics is beautifully honest, lives within its own rules, and takes us from learning to add, to performing long division, to logarithms and polar coordinates, to “infinity and beyond”, as Buzz Lightyear would say.

Studying mathematics helps us to tell time, in that an understanding of fractions helps decipher an analog clock and the placement of its hands on its face in relation to time. The meandering ratio of a river is the relationship of the distance a river travels from its mouth. The ratio of a river’s length to the distance from its mouth approaches pi, a number that cannot be stated as a fraction, whose very expression is infinity. Bees are masters of geometry, which is the study of the size, shape, positions and dimensions of things. Bees use hexagons in the creation of their honeycombs because they fit perfectly together without waste or spaces. These are merely simple expressions of the evidence that mathematics lives all around us.

I minored in Calculus in university and of all my classes, I have to say that my Calculus lab on Tuesday afternoons for three hours, from 2:30 to 5:30 was the class I rushed to and was the class I never missed. Calculus lab was where we went to “practice” what we learned in our lectures. Calculus was brain candy, was invigorating, was soothing, was comforting, was simply wonderful and I miss it.

Logarithms are used to solve exponential equations and are used to explain earthquakes and the brightness of stars, to name just two applications. I can no longer do logarithms, can’t even remember where to begin. But maybe, like having run a marathon or having climbed Mount Everest or having swam the English Channel, it is an achievement that cannot be reduced or removed, we carry it with us always, even when we can no longer perform it.

Albert Einstein said, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” I like that. Thank you, Mr. Einstein and thank you, Mr. Hickling.

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Gratitude – Post 120 – Charles Dickens

I am grateful for Charles Dickens.

My children’s Christmas art work is up, the creations from their early childhood. Christmas lights are up. Nat and Bing are singing their versions of seasonal favourites to me. The snow comes and goes. The pileated woodpeckers are providing their background percussion as I walk. A deer bounds over the road in front of me; Gracie thinks of taking up chase, but reconsiders when I remind her of good manners. Squirrels share jokes in the trees, their voices comical. I am blessed with such a peaceful space around me. I tuck into my chair with a warm cup of hot chocolate and a shortbread cookie or two and celebrate Christmas with my favourite gift: remembering.

Every year I watch A Christmas Carol and am reminded, as we all are, of the importance of the season, regardless of our faith. The ghosts come and go and Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t transformed into something new, but rather, his soul is reconnected to the child he used to be. We are all born perfect and pure, without racism and prejudice in our genes, without judgment and unkindness in our actions. I think Christmas is meant to reconnect us all to our perfect selves.

Dickens had to leave school as a youngster and work to support his family. He knew education would help impoverished children have a better life and after a visit to a school where he witnessed the horrendous neglect of London’s poor children he penned A Christmas Carol, 176 years ago, and still this story captivates and reminds us of what matters. I think about those ghosts in Charles Dickens’ story and what they might have to say if they visited me.

If the Ghost of Christmas Past came calling on me on Christmas Eve, the first of the visitors to Ebenezer Scrooge, I would offer him a cup of something warm, tea perhaps or mulled wine. I would tell him all about my childhood Christmases, the snow sprayed from a can on to the windows’ glass in the shapes of horses and sleighs, of stars and angels; Christmas breakfast of cocoa and toast, dipping and watching the butter flow into the cocoa; my mother on the piano playing all of her Christmas favourites; Perry Como’s soothing voice reciting The Night Before Christmas on the scratchy, well-worn record; hanging my father’s work socks on the back of a chair, claiming which chair we wanted to snuggle in on Christmas morning to pull out the surprises that Santa had brought with always a mandarin orange in the toe; my sister and I certain we could hear Santa’s sleigh on the roof and the “prancing and pawing of each little hoof”. I hope the ghost could offer up some memories of mine that have slipped away, so that I might revisit them again, could hear the sound of my father’s voice, his laugh, the touch of his hand. If only he could show me the scenes of my daughters when they were wee ones and in awe of Christmas.

The Ghost of Christmas Present might have some frightening reminders for me: the environment, government that forgets its promises and its obligations, neighbours arguing over perceived differences, my sketchy relationship with vegetables.

I like to think the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come would have a happy story for me. The ghost would pat my hand and tell me not to worry, that we will stop holding others to a higher standard than ourselves, and we will rediscover there is more than one view to any subject. I’d like to think he would say we will all be welcome at the metaphorical dinner table and will know that spending time with each other in laughter and love is far more important than what we wrap and place under the tree.

I wish you peace, joy, and love. And I hope we all find our way back to our child selves.

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Gratitude – Post 119 – On being odd

I am grateful for my oddness. That wasn’t always the case. I haven’t always known myself very well. For some of us, it takes a lifetime to figure out the intricacies of who we are, but for many years I have known I cannot listen to call-in radio programs. I’ve tried, many times, especially where I might garner some various perspectives on a subject I am curious about. But my skin begins to crawl, my breathing gets choppy, I fidget. It is a visceral reaction to whatever is at play. It sounds ridiculous even to me. As I hit the radio’s off button, I shake my head in disdain for my odd behaviour and warn myself in a fierce voice. “This isn’t over, conquering will happen!” But it won’t. If I haven’t mastered the use of the telephone in sixty-four years I doubt there is little hope for listening to call-in radio.

I also can’t listen to acceptance speeches at award shows, not that I ever watch award shows now. I’ve learned my lesson and that’s one bit of suffering I have control over. I don’t tune in and I’m just fine without having been witness to it and thankfully don’t have to watch the media ask who are you wearing, as if that has any importance in the grand scheme of things on any inch of this planet. Though given the chance I would pause and say, “Well, my underwear is from Costco, great price, and my socks are from Sport Chek because you can’t beat a good sock and …

A close cousin of call-in radio is televised debates. That dark little piece of angst has crawled out of the shadows and placed its name on my list of oddities. I’m surprised there is still space available on that list. I want to be an informed voter. I want to make a decision based on reason and vision, not based on fear and disappointment and it is important to see how things stack up when the various leaders debate. I tuned in with my notebook and sharpened pencils. I put my feet up and made myself comfortable. I had a glass of lemonade at the ready if I got parched. But I couldn’t do it. Not without sedation and then what would be the point. About forty-five seconds in the nausea began and my head started to pound. I threw my pencil at the television and then switched it off.

I then decided I would read the transcript of the debate that MACLEAN’S made available on their website. I read page after page and it read very much like a bunch of kids shouting liar, liar pants on fire or I know you are, but what am I. Did they really call that debate a success? Were there any resolutions? I see Maclean’s poll gives the win to Jagmeet Singh.

Having to listen to a debate comes with a surgeon general’s warning for me, but I can’t even begin to imagine participating in a debate. I’d have to put my finger up asking for a moment’s pause as if I might be readying for a sneeze and then I would write my answer out and re-read it and edit it and polish it and research it and check for typos and … then I could respond. Meanwhile, everyone would have gone home with me as the clear loser. So I applaud those who step up and try to be heard, even those whose politics differ from my own.

I wonder if hypnosis would explain this madness. You are getting very sleepy and will tell me why you’re such a nut when I snap my fingers. Snap.

Turns out there are no answers, no reasons. I’m just odd. The good news is, I think we’re all odd, with our very own versions. I hope there are at least three others out there like me. Four would be nice.

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Gratitude – Post 118 – Frederick Douglass

I am grateful for Frederick Douglass. I was only just slightly aware of his courage and how he changed the world, but after a writing exercise with the amazingly wonderful Lisa Moore, Frederick and I are now friends. He isn’t aware of our friendship, and as he died in 1895 I can confirm that it is a one-sided sort of friendship. To express my gratitude I recently wrote Mr. Douglass a letter and I thought I might share it here.

Dear Mr. Douglass:

It was Maryland. Not Maryland now, but Maryland in 1824, though more often than not it feels the same, the lessons of two hundred years easily forgotten. You had blood that blended well, of Native American they call it in Maryland, and African, neither white, never white enough. You were handed over like some implement, like a garden hoe to Lucretia Auld, as if one person could ever, should ever, would ever hold title to another. But you were not quite suitable so you were re-gifted, like a salad bowl, to Hugh Auld in Baltimore, specifically to Sophia his wife who taught your six-year-old self the letters of the alphabet.

I imagine you sat at the pine harvest table, Sophia writing the shapes of the twenty-six letters on bits of paper and letting you follow her example.

“Not so hard,” she whispered, tapping your hand to ease your grip on the stylus, and you began to imagine the letters like seeds planted on the page, blooming into words and phrases, as if by magic.

“It’s against the law for them to learn to read and write,” Sophia’s husband Hugh warned from the doorway, leaning into his raised arm for support, not wanting to get caught up in this senseless undertaking, referring to “them” as something outside himself, some species without name.

“That is just to keep Frederick illiterate,” Sophia said, pushing the damp hair off her forehead. “Education will stop this madness,” and she couldn’t stifle the hiss she directed at her husband. He knew better than to argue with her.

Was it Sophia who taught you the value that women bestowed on humanity or did you know that innately, from your mother, from your loss of her, from being swept from her as easily as the wind sweeps away dandelion fluff, as if human rights shouldn’t be guaranteed by life itself.

“Shh,” you whispered to fellow slaves, holding an open Bible in front of them and teaching them the words on the page, teaching them to imagine a life that fed their free will. Your voice wasn’t quiet enough though and news of your efforts fell on the wrong ears.

“You think you can break the law,” Thomas Auld growled at you, reclaiming ownership as though you were a stray dog. “We’ll see where your reading gets you now,” sending you to endure the brutality of farmer Edward Covey, whose whip came down regularly on your sixteen-year-old back, tearing your skin and leaving inhumanity’s evidence. Your attempts to escape were finally fruitful and you found your way to safe lodging in the New York home of abolitionist David Ruggles, part of the covert workings of the Underground Railroad.

Your pursuit of equality led you to produce your paper North Star, whose message was “Right is of no Sex, Truth is of no Colour, God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren,” calling for non-violence and education as the map to freedom.

Now here you are on this page, all these years later, your candle’s light sending a message out to the world. Keep on, your courage says. Keep on.

Thank you, Mr. Douglass.

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