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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Gratitude – Post 117 – Hurricanes

I am grateful for stormy weather and though I credit Hurricane Dorian for this, I qualify this by stating the Dorian I wrestled with in Nova Scotia was a very distant relative of the Dorian that seriously harmed the Bahamas and other regions. I am not grateful for that Dorian, nor would I ever make light of such tragedy.

Hurricane Dorian has come and gone from Nova Scotia, one of those uninvited guests that you are glad to see the last of, but there is always a lesson to be learned while he is here.

Ample warning was given by Environment Canada and the Nova Scotia Weather Service, but readiness has never been my strong suit. I’m not sure if that is stupidity or something else, but climate change has kicked my preparedness up a notch or two, with some slip-ups here and there. I broke with my usual protocol and actually performed some preparedness tactics. I tied down my lawn chairs and put away anything that had a fear of flying. I filled buckets of water for flushing and washing and jugs of water for drinking and cooking. I filled my car with gas in case I wanted to make a run for it. And most importantly, I brewed up a big batch of rice pudding to keep up my strength and resolve and …. But at 2 a.m. the night before Dorian was to make landfall and knock us around, I remembered my rain gutters. No worries, I had a plan: wake up at daylight, beat the wind and rain that wasn’t forecast until 10 a.m., give or take, and I drifted back to sleep, smug and confident.

I heard the rain at daybreak, pounding the roof and windows. I swore under my breath, nothing too serious I thought, but as I pulled on my rain suit my smugness was slightly diminished. I climbed the ladder as if I was in some version of a Charlie Chaplin film, pelted by rain, but Gracie stood close by, ready to alert the authorities should I fall to my death. I prevailed, gutters clean as Dorian began to throw his weight around. Note to self: clean gutters in the calm sunshine before a storm, never during. I should have that engraved on a plaque perhaps and mounted on my ladder.

The power went out not long after the storm hit and began flinging trees into power lines and as I write this, I still have no power, but I’m not alone. 500,000 customers across Atlantic Canada were in the same boat and many have been restored, but it looks like a few more days for me. Nova Scotia Power will get to me when they can. I have a fire going, and camp coffee in my cup and sun in my face so what else do I need. This is like a hangnail compared to what others endured. I am warm and dry and my tree that snapped off and fell into the neighbour’s yard allowed me to play lumberjack with my handy dandy chain saw and how much fun is that. I could do with a shower, but my teeth are clean and most of my face.

The thing about hurricanes and the like, that strip us of our comfort and amenities, is we are provided opportunity to reflect on that which matters. Life slows down to a pace that allows for exhaling and inhaling deeply. While Dorian roared through, sounding very much like a freight train or the Big Bad Wolf, I was safe and warm in my little house in the woods. Other than braving the elements for Gracie’s bathroom breaks, I was happy and content, not worrying about the tumbleweed of dog hair moving around my house or the fact that my appearance would frighten small children. I close my eyes and drift away, listing all the things I am grateful for, all of you being on that list, my daughters who checked in regularly to keep my spirits up, my neighbour who brought me pizza and a ginger ale and a butane stove, Gracie who was ever so grateful I braved the elements for her while branches blew by my head and so many leaves that I got the giggles. Life is good.

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Gratitude – Post 116 – Umbrellas

I am grateful for umbrellas.  I love an umbrella and not for the obvious reason of keeping dry in a downpour, though I suppose that reason may play a part. It can’t be any umbrella; it must be an umbrella that looks as though it has a story to tell, a secret perhaps and it’s best if the umbrella is yellow.

An umbrella creates its own world and if you tuck under it, you become part of the secret world, too. Others may be able to see in, just a little, but they can’t get in, not really. I’ve seen two walking under an umbrella and it never works; someone is always getting wet and besides, having someone else under your umbrella breaks the spell. An umbrella is meant for a solitary stroll in the rain.

Holding an umbrella in my hand and hoisted over my head provides the opportunity for contemplative thought while enjoying the rain, the rhythm of the rain immediately overhead. Where running in the rain is invigorating, creates the mood of bravery and daring, of fun and frolic, an umbrella provides peace, is meditative almost, unless of course a wind is involved and then it’s just best to be indoors. I do not like wind, not aggressive angry wind. I like a bit of wind that lifts a kite aloft, but wind is temperamental and before you know it is flinging stuff at you and tearing at your hair and stealing your hat. Not even an umbrella can cheer me when it is windy.

Umbrellas have been around for more than four thousand years and I wince to state their original use was for shade from the sun. I think a large palm leaf was probably the first umbrella before someone thought they might perfect the design. Now there are automatic umbrellas and compact pocket umbrellas and bubble umbrellas that create a clear dome under which to stand and umbrellas that can bear the force of a seventy mile an hour wind. Google tells me that in the United States thirty million umbrellas are purchased annually. I find that hard to imagine; that’s a lot of umbrellas.

I have a large umbrella that I use to walk Gracie when the weather is wet. I have a small umbrella in my car for emergencies, but I don’t actually own an umbrella with charm and character. I’m not sure why, I just don’t. I may have to remedy that.

I remember my grandmother telling me it was bad luck to open an umbrella indoors. When I asked her why, she didn’t have an answer; in fact she stared at me for a moment and then confessed she had no idea of why, upon which I opened her umbrella and she shrieked.

There was a time, I must confess, when I thought umbrellas were silly and for those too delicate to brave the rain. I don’t remember when my opinion of umbrellas changed. Maturity must have had something to do with it. I didn’t use to like Brussels sprouts or spinach either. I do now, though not as much as I love an umbrella.

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Gratitude – Post 115 – Zadie Smith

I am grateful for Zadie Smith and I suppose in saying that, I am grateful for the wisdom of Aristotle, though it was Zadie who steered me in the right direction.

Aristotle had some firm ideas on writing and how to present a valid argument to an audience of readers. The elements of Ethos, Pathos and Logos must be present in balance, according to Aristotle. Though Aristotle was born over two thousand years ago, his sense of a written argument holds up even to this day.

Ethos gives the writer credibility and he/she forms a trust with the reader. Pathos is the quality of writing that evokes sadness in the reader, speaks to the heart. Logos is Aristotle’s favourite element in writing and I would hazard a guess that Logos is the favourite of Spock, not Dr. Spock, but Spock the Federation ambassador on the USS Enterprise for you Trekkies. Logos, just as it sounds, uses logical argument supported by evidence.

I listened to Zadie Smith speak on CBC Radio recently as she discussed her writing. Zadie Smith is a British writer born of a Jamaican mother and English father. Smith now divides her time between New York and England. Her books enjoy a wide appeal, some of which are Feel Free and White Teeth and Stop What You Are Doing And Read This. She is a prolific writer.

Smith’s writing, personal in nature, challenges the reader to see the world through the eyes of others and to read or embrace aspects of life that we might decide we don’t like without ever having explored it. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” In essence, Aristotle would have considered Zadie Smith as having an educated mind.

Smith said she expects her writing to find balance among Aristotle’s three requirements of argumentative writing. She says these days that Pathos seems the only element of opinion that we seem to focus on, without any support from fact and evidence. Though she doesn’t buy into social media in regards to Face Book or Instagram and the like, she says “none of our lives are free of the influence of social media.” Great untruths can be spread like a disease without every providing any factual support and we seem more than willing to gobble it up.

Smith says she must uphold Aristotle’s standards because she has “very little faith in her feelings”, meaning she is not so arrogant as to assume she is in the right on all subjects and as such she requires evidence and fact before she forms an opinion, which requires venturing into areas that she might assume beforehand that she wouldn’t like.

I find her approach to writing and to life fascinating. So many of us stay within only that which we know we like, where we feel safe. I remember telling my children that if we didn’t try new things we would never learn to walk or ride a bike or learn to read and I do believe we are students of life right up to the very end. I like to think that when we cross the line to the other side everything makes sense and we utter an emphatic oh, I get it now. Very little of what we encounter on any given day makes sense as of late. Having listened to Zadie Smith I feel a little closer to the truth. Aristotle would be proud of her.

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Gratitude – Post 114 – Summers

I am grateful for summers, the summers of my childhood.

The temperature went down to thirteen degrees last night. I flung open the windows and crawled beneath my heavy blanket pulled up to my chin and slept comfortably, the air coming in the window fragrant and fresh. When I got up this morning, the air was still chilly as Gracie and I strolled, but as the wind lifted my hair I heard it whisper its warning. “Summer is fleeing,” said the breeze and I winced. And it got me thinking about my childhood summers.

Summertime was for children, is for children. We escaped school and timetables and bagged lunches with limp tomato and cheese sandwiches. My mother became my mother again instead of being my principal. We embraced summer with extraordinary vigour, never worrying about how many days were rain-filled or sunny, never watching the calendar.

Summer was tree forts, eating peas straight from the garden, riding ponies, picnics in the back yard. My mother made a mean picnic with egg salad sandwiches, the crusts cut off and the dill pickles sliced into slivers, with lemonade in sealer jars. Summer was lying on the hill and finding turtles and rabbits and castles in the clouds, while listening to the grasshoppers snap their hind wings.

The highlight of summer was Rainy Lake, specifically slipping into the water from the beach on Reef Point at my Aunt Helen’s cabin. At home, summer was haying, driving the tractor, never feeling the burden of farming but only the fun. Going to Reef Point was an adventure, one we counted on, waited for, the breathless freedom of it. It was sitting in the front of the canoe while my cousin Dale maneuvered us around the bay and to the tiny island where we imagined pirates had left their treasure. When we couldn’t find the loot we settled for sweet blueberries. It was having a Styrofoam duck buckled around my waist because I couldn’t swim and watching from the beach as the big kids played tag under the inverted military issue air rafts when cousins from the “other side” came to visit. Rainy Lake was the sound of the screen door banging on the cabin and the patter of bare feet down the well-packed trail to the beach. It was trapping minnows in a tea towel and catching frogs in the pond and it was roasting marshmallows over the fire that cracked and snapped and zinged.

In some ways I am re-capturing my childhood summers now. I am floating on Falls Lake, my arms stretched out, the water’s appearance dark and brown but fresh and only slightly cool. I am buoyant and weightless and I can pretend I am a child again, having learned to swim. I no longer have to stay on the beach. I set the tiny branches alight in my fire pit and toast marshmallows until they burst into flames, their coating crunchy and black and delicious. I can hear the loon in the distance, her voice a signal that everything is as it should be. I am home, tucked safely in my memories, so very glad to pull them in around me in the cool air as August devours summer.

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Gratitude – Post 113 – My friend Wally

I am grateful for Wally. He was a very close friend and he has died. It took two years for cancer, a brain tumour specifically, to claim Wally, while we looked on with encouragement and positive thoughts, looked on with fear at times, wanting to beg of those or that which seems to be in charge of our inevitable departure, not to take him from us.

We will all leave this world; we know this. We don’t know how or when and I think most of us spend little time pondering our eventual demise. When we lose someone we love, someone we admire, the world seems less for a time, but then we are reminded of the great privilege of having our breath continue to go in and out, our lungs filling and emptying and we are so very glad we got to spend the time we had with them. We’re not always able to hold on to the reminder of living life as full as we are able to each day, but we try.

I had the honour of helping to care for Wally during his illness while his family waged a Herculean battle to do everything in their power to try to defeat the beast. And I was witness to love of the highest order, witness to the true definition of family while they became Wally’s strength, fed his laughter, held his hand, moved heaven and earth to find a solution.

Wally had been a Physical Education teacher and he did so with passionate enthusiasm. “If you can’t be on time,” Wally told his students. “Be early.” Those may be borrowed words, but he used them well. His wife cared for him gently and with grit and every single moment was love-filled, love-shared and as Wally would have said, they left everything out on the floor, nothing held back. His sons were tender and gentle, while whispering for him to cling to them for strength, to keep fighting. They stepped out of their own lives to honour their father who had given them so much, who had led by example. They each saw him through to the very end, never leaving their post, never wavering or tiring in their love, keeping him at home. There is no finer gift to give.

Wally was always game for fun. “Let’s do it,” he said of every opportunity that came up. He laughed and teased and loved and inspired and cared what happened to those around him, just as much as he cared about what happened to the planet. Whenever I would hum a song absent-mindedly in his presence, he would lean over and ask me who recorded that particular song. I would give it some serious thought and come up with an answer. “Then let’s let them sing it,” he would say, patting my arm as he did so, and he would get me every single time. Oh, how we would laugh.

At his parting and at the celebration of all Wally was to this world and what he meant to those of us who had the great fortune of knowing him, stories were shared, stories told with laughter, with tears, with gratitude and respect. It truly was a celebration. I read Mary Oliver’s poem When Death Comes. My heart was pounding so hard it hurt my chest. Public speaking appears nowhere on my list of personal attributes. I placed my hand on a precious necklace given to me by friends that hung around my neck, held it there and a calm came over me as if Wally himself was whispering his encouragement in my ear and the pounding stopped and my breath slowed and my voice strengthened and I delivered a message that Wally lived by. “When it’s over,” Mary Oliver wrote, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

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