Gratitude – Post 146 – September

I am grateful for September. That wasn’t always the case. It was a love affair that had a rocky start. September had to grow on me. September used to be the force that took my children from me, a force who insisted on schedules and rules and timeliness, of having four heads of long hair brushed in the morning and fastened in some sort of design to keep it neat. September demanded clean clothes and matching socks, feet in shoes rather than running barefoot. September was bedtime curfews and hushes urging girls to sleep. September was making the dreaded school lunch that drained every culinary idea in my already culinarily-challenged brain. September silenced the fort building in the living room on rainy days, the galloping on ponies, the hanging upside down from thick tree branches, from finding freezie wrappers in every conceivable hiding place. The bikes lay idle beneath the swings in September, their wheels spinning in the wind to torment me, to remind me of the laughter and joy-shrieking from four little girls. Summer ended much too quickly in those days. I sent my children off to school with my feigned excitement and manufactured smile. I grieved their absence.

September took me away from home, too. Took me away from everything familiar, took me from my horse and my dog, took me from my dad. As Angie, the best sort of comrade and roommate, can confirm, I did not embrace the concept of growing up with any hint of enthusiasm or sense of adventure. I was heart-broken to leave my beloved farm, crying most of the drive to Winnipeg to the University of Manitoba and to our apartment on Concord Avenue. I like to think my dad was crying inside at the idea of having to leave me there in a city, with no morning chores for me to do, with no river rushing by. Perhaps he was considering tossing me into the ditch on the drive to silence my sniffling, but I doubt that. He had tears, too. I’m not sure I ever recovered from that obligated departure. Ahh, but that’s another story.

September is quiet now, and it allows me to lengthen my breath and slow my step. I don’t hurry in September. I linger over the to do list. We in Nova Scotia, unlike most of the country, have had ample rain this summer so the leaves are in no particular hurry to change their colour. I’m grateful for that. It’s like an arm raised to hold winter back. The evenings are cool, the days bright and sunny. The bugs have retreated though I must say they were on their best behaviour this summer. I sit transfixed while my campfire snaps in the fire pit, its music hypnotic, its flames shapeshifting, the oranges and yellows and reds dancing with the air to disappear into the darkness as if by magic, its smell soothing, its heat welcome, warming, comforting my longing for little girls on my knee.

You can’t bolt the door to lock September out. She will crawl through the keyhole and find the gaps ‘neath the front door and wiggle in around the windows. September and I have become friends, made peace with our differences and quarrels, as I gather seeds from my favourite flowers, a promise that summer will come again. I pack away the summer toys, the bubbles and sidewalk chalk, the badminton set and picnic blanket. I buy new pencils and fresh paper for myself in September and always a new eraser. It helps.

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Gratitude – Post 145 – The Grand Seduction

I take comfort in being Canadian. I can’t lay claim to the country not having had a dark past, nor can I boast that we never get lost in our effort to do the right thing. We do strive to do better, to get it right, but we often miss the mark. But what I cling to in days of struggle is our willingness to laugh at ourselves, with great hearty guffaws. Evidence of such humour is displayed with great aplomb in a film released in 2014 and recently added to Netflix. I give you – The Grand Seduction. I watch this film and I watch it again and again, and every single time I watch, I laugh. I laugh at being witness to delicious joy, to innocence, to simplicity, and to that wonderful sense of community. When I am done watching, I sigh and feel warm inside as though I’ve traveled a long distance and found my way home.

The film is set in Newfoundland and scenes were shot at Red Cliffe and Bonavista Bay and Trinity Bay. It’s fun to search the images of those communities and recognize the sights in the film. Of course, I did not grow up in the Maritimes, but I think many of us make claim to the generosity and kindness of Atlantic Canadians. We know how they stepped up when travellers needed safe refuge from 911. That is very much an ordinary day for Maritimers, to open their door and say, “Come on in. How can I help?”

A Canadian film is truly Canadian when Gordon Pinsent is part of the cast, and he is deliciously Gordon in this story. He is joined by Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones and Mark Critch, most of the cast of This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes, and with these folks on the screen it feels as though I am watching a family video and am so happy to see “old friends” again. Taylor Kitsch is the good doctor in this almost all-Canadian cast from writers through director, producer, and distribution, with the exception of Brendan Gleeson, the Irish import who does an admirable job of portraying a Canadian. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a rating of 59% based on 69 reviews, and I could care less what the critics think because of my if I likes it, I likes it approach that never lets me down. That rating system is an American based company and is greatly influenced by the power of La La Land, as we all know.

The thing about this film that strikes me so deeply is how the characters don’t appear to be acting. It feels like a true glimpse into their lives, capturing the difficulties of their economic situation and their hopeful efforts to create change. We’ve all been witness to serious acting accomplishments, but for some reason this feels as though it is at a level all its own. I can’t tell you why, I can’t explain my assessment, other than its real sense of authenticity.

I remember watching Rob Lowe on Jimmy Kimmel, speaking about Canada and our stories. This was a few years ago when a film was being made about the Halifax Explosion of 1917, a disaster that saw 2000 lives end, 9000 wounded, and 25000 left homeless. Lowe and Kimmel were able to find some humour in that story, as though disasters of that magnitude are funny and forgettable when they happen to someone else, to Canadians, neighbours they have never taken the time to get to know. Whatever respect I had for those two, by-products of Hollywood, quickly evaporated.

I won’t give away the story in case you haven’t seen the film and if you haven’t, I recommend you tune in immediately. Leave your meal uneaten, your floors unswept, your grass uncut, your bed unmade, and get yourself to Tickle Head Newfoundland and be ready to laugh and to feel warm and to restore your faith in the simple life and the power of the giggle.

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Gratitude – Post 144 – Good Enough Days

I am grateful for all sorts of days, but I am particularly fond of “good enough days”. I think we are tempted, at times, to measure the value of our life by our big moment experiences. We read about those who climb Mount Everest or run a marathon or swim the English Channel or win a hot dog eating contest or …

Maybe our life seems pale and watered down in comparison to those extraordinary feats, as though we haven’t really lived if we haven’t leapt willingly with benefit of parachute from an airplane at ten thousand feet or rode a bucking bull who would be quite happy to kill us given the opportunity or went to a depth of 12,500 feet, 370 miles off the south-southeast coast of Newfoundland in the Atlantic Ocean to get a closer look at the Titanic. Now that I am occupying a spot in the line called the lean years, meaning there are fewer doors to open and fewer curtains to peek behind, my idea of a good day has changed or maybe I always felt this way but am only coming to recognize my own measuring devices.

If we stack up our days, side by side, there are very few of them that can boast of having had big moments. Most of us are not Olympic athletes, we’ve not taken on Roger Federer in Centre Court nor scored the winning goal from outside the blue line in a Stanley Cup final. Remembering to floss our teeth before we call it a day seems accomplishment enough on many of those days we are stacking up. I think a successful day is having had a good enough day.

Good enough days are the stuff of life, the things we can overlook or take for granted, losing sight of how very valuable such days are. A good enough day comes in many shapes and sizes, boasting of moments such as:

  • licking pralines and cream from a sugar cone on a hot day
  • seeing the sunflower seeds a friend saved for me last year have all come up, without exception
  • hearing the voice of each of my four daughters, listening to their good and bad news, because many days come with both
  • going out for breakfast and having the best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted
  • watching a heavy rainstorm from inside, knowing my roof is not going to collapse and everything that is growing is getting a big drink
  • riding my bicycle between two wild rose bushes and almost becoming airborne with the glorious aroma that lingers still in the nostrils of my memory
  • having a conversation bordering on a debate about a matter I am passionate about and after the conversation is over feeling heard
  • flipping through old photo albums and remembering the fun of childhood, a childhood full of good enough days such as riding my bike no hands, swimming to the three-foot dock at The Point without anyone tagging along to make sure I don’t drown. Wait, those are big moment sorts of days; it snuck into the list of good enough days without my notice along with the first time driving the car on my own with my driver’s licence hot off the press in my right hand back pocket.
  • having friends drop over and my house is reasonably clean, and I don’t resemble a homeless person
  • my cat placing his head on my knee with a look of innocence after I have discovered the screens he has torn to shreds and I was wondering how long it would take to strangle him with my bare hands
  • unlocking my mailbox and finding a letter from an old friend and tearing the envelope open to read it right there on the spot
  • slipping into the lake on a very hot day and feeling at once the euphoria of being weightless and cool
  • waving at a neighbour who has returned from a long trip and feeling so very glad they are home safe and sound
  • writing my thoughts on paper and having them show up, as if by magic, in my wonderful hometown newspaper and pretending I never wandered away.

I plan to continue building on my good enough days. I hope you’ll join me.

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Gratitude – Post 143 – Canada Day

This post isn’t about gratitude, but it is about hope. And sometimes the two are inextricably connected. Let me explain.

Our country is in mourning. We are mourning for the past several weeks what indigenous people have been mourning for generations. Over and over indigenous people have told us their children were buried in unmarked graves at the sites of residential schools. These were not schools. They did not provide education, they did not strive to better children, to nurture them, to guide them, to help them be the best version of themselves. They did none of that. Can you imagine how it would feel to be unheard for generation after generation, to not know where your children were and what happened to them, to be judged harshly for your wounded spirit, for having been severed from your sense of self, to have no one with political power come forth to say how can I help? And today, can you imagine the healing power of a nation standing beside those who are mourning, to stand beside without looking away, to listen to the truth, to really hear it, and to extend a hand to ask how we might help. I played no role in establishing residential schools. You played no role in establishing residential schools. But we all play a role in healing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s voice was not about blame, was not about revenge. The language is respectful, honest, and heartfelt. It is about hearing the truth and moving forward together, to stand for the principles we cling so tightly to, principles that must embrace each one of us who call Canada home. We are in this together.

Some feel that Canada Day should not be altered, that we have much to be proud of. We do. We can honour this country by demonstrating our humanity, our compassion and understanding. I have a plan for myself. Instead of fireworks, I will light candles in memory, in honour of each child who has been recovered, and each child yet to be recovered. On Canada Day I will wear my orange t-shirt and I will reflect on the country I love, the country it wants to be and what role I will play to ensure my actions reflect that. I will write out with pen and paper the 94 Calls to Action from The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reported in 2015, thirteen of which have been completed. You may find them at www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf). I will study each Call to Action, to identify where and how I can participate in their implementation. I will continue reading the Summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Final Report. You may find it at www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Honouring_the_Truth_Reconciling_for_the_Future_July_23_2015.pdf. The report is also available in book form (ISBN: 9781459410671). I won’t turn away from the wrongs and I will hold my hand up to be counted among those who want to do better, want to be better.

I am Metis, a member of the Canadian Metis Council of Canada. I hold my membership close to my heart, for no reason other than pride, in recognition of my Cree grandmother born in 1775 at Fort Prince of Wales at the mouth of the Churchill River. I call on her now to guide me. I listen for her voice speaking across the generations.

It is incumbent upon us to educate ourselves, to be informed. We would never ask someone whose legs had been broken to show us how to walk. There is a vast array of books available in both the fiction and non-fiction category to help us understand. One resource is CBC Books, providing details of indigenous writers and their work. David A Robertson is a Winnipeg writer of Cree descent. He has written extensively on his family’s experience with residential schools and with intergenerational trauma. He recently wrote in The Toronto Star about the children’s bodies recovered and those waiting to be recovered. “The best way to honour their memory is to fight for a better Canada because, in doing so, you are fighting for them,” he wrote. I am up for the task. I hope you are, too. We are capable of building and restoring something beautiful from the suffering. We can do this together.

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Gratitude – Post 142 – My friend Doug

I am so very grateful for my friend Doug. Every single one of us who knew Doug Anderson immediately thinks of words like kind, helpful, gentle, eager, fun-loving, when we hear his name. It’s a long list of qualities that we all strive for, but qualities Doug had in spades. Our friend has gone ahead, parting the grass and underbrush through the wilderness we call life, to leave a path for us. That’s how I like to think of it. It helps. I see Doug in my mind’s eye in his green stake truck, driving down the River Road, enjoying the scenery, and pondering what it all means. I was a lucky kid who had the great fortune of growing up “down the road” from he and Blair and Cheryl. Our farms were only a few miles apart and there was a lot of going back and forth, sharing information and ideas on farming, and there was a whole lot of horseback riding.

Stormy was Doug’s trusty steed, an Ojibwe Pony, also called a Lac La Croix Pony with a proud history, though I don’t think we knew that about Stormy until we were all done being kids. Stormy pranced, always in a hurry, never too keen to walk, his nose tucked into his chest, his ears flipping back and forth as he listened and waited eagerly for Doug’s signal to “run”, and run Stormy did, like lightning.

Doug and Blair helped my dad with haying when I was too small to be of much use. I couldn’t wait to be big enough to throw bales of hay up onto the wagon the way they did. I think I’m still waiting. They helped move our cattle from winter to summer pasture and back again. And while they helped, they rode horses with my brother Laurie and I can still hear the laughter, can still see the fun, can still feel that precious connection. Laurie reminded me that Doug used to eat a Spanish onion like it was an apple and they played road hockey together in our driveway, forming a team called The Crozier Manure Pilers. They were rascals of the best kind.  

I was thinking of the wonderful parts of Doug when I heard of his passing, the way he smiled with his whole self, his eyebrows rising, his eyes lighting up, the breathless sound of his voice when he had a story to share. He had one of those laughs that was easy and automatic, always at the ready. He loved being a farmer, being a country dweller and I can see still Doug and Blair fixing fence as clearly as if it was yesterday, Blair throwing me up in the saddle on Rock, his big steady palomino. We were in 4-H together, and they hauled my calf to the Emo Fair along with theirs for our 4-H achievement with the Devlin-Crozier Calf Club. Doug and Blair were the big boys, someone to look up to and admire, and, as I like to call them, my very own superheroes.

Doug and Blair (and me) at the Emo Fair circa 1968

Perhaps the biggest part of Doug was how he loved his family, how proud he was of his sons, how happy he was to have found Ann. I remember him telling me when he was a brand-new dad, his eyes full of delight and laughter, his shoulders tucked up to his neck as if he couldn’t believe how incredibly lucky he was. Doug was, before his health interrupted him, writing the story of “growing up in a pink store”, honouring the legacy of his grandmother, of her tenacity and courage, who instilled in Doug her love of storytelling. How I wish there could have been more. Doug loved stories.

I never walked into Betty’s that I didn’t feel the joy of seeing Doug and Blair, the years falling away immediately, and we were farm kids once again. There are many things to be grateful for in life, those moments we hold close, the details clearly etched on our hearts, to pull out on cold dreary days to remind us of a time when life was perfect, when happiness and joy were in abundance. Doug is one of those “moments” for me and I’m certain for many of us. Lucky we were to have known him and called him our friend.

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Gratitude – Post 141 – 215 children

To say I am grateful that the remains of 215 children were found seems an unthinkable thing to say, but now they can come home, they can be honoured, and they are … found. They were missing, forgotten by many, but not forgotten by all.

More than grateful, I am feeling anguish over the May 27th announcement of the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, a school that existed for eighty years, operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969, and by the government as a day school until 1978, a school that reported only fifty deaths during the school’s operation. Fifty deaths. 50. Yet here were two hundred and fifteen little bodies, their burial unrecorded and unmarked. I wasn’t sure which emotion I was feeling was the stronger – rage, heartbreak, hopelessness. But then it all became painfully clear. Shame was the top of my list of emotions. Shame. Shame over the inaction of my government and shame for my own inaction, for my silence while the struggles of indigenous people continue, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, century after …

We act surprised by this news of the discovery of these remains of children, as if this was a one-off occurrence, a single piece of evidence of the unimaginable treatment of indigenous children and their families in this country since 1863 when the Indian Residential School system was established. The system saw 150,000 children, children as young as three, removed from their families and homes to attend these schools for no other purpose than, as Duncan Campbell Scott proclaimed in 1920 as the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs to a parliamentary committee, for residential schools “to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic”. For more than 130 years indigenous children were subjected to this so-called education, that saw most of them suffer from malnutrition and abuse and loneliness and inexorable neglect. We called it cultural genocide, words to mask its abhorrence, but in truth it was more far-reaching than that, more calculated, more cruel, more devastating. It was genocide, pure and simple. The government had a plan to annihilate the “savage” from the Indian, as John A McDonald so loudly proclaimed in the House of Commons.

We throw up our hands and shout in our own defence. “We didn’t know. We didn’t know.” We knew. Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, the founding member of Canadian Public Health Association became the chief medical health officer of the then Department of Indian Affairs in 1904. In 1907, he reported to the government the shocking high death rates of indigenous children in the “care” of Residential Schools, deaths caused by negligence. Scott dismissed Bryce’s recommendations and Bryce was removed from his position. Instead of heeding Bryce’s warnings and implementing his recommendations, the government went after his credibility, his reputation, disparaging him, preventing him from speaking publicly. He wasn’t deterred. He wrote a book in 1922 – The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada where he exposed the high number of deaths and the government’s inaction. We knew. We knew.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was formed on August 26, 1991. The commission issued its final report in November of 1996 with a 4000-page document, setting down a 20-year agenda with 440 recommendations. Those twenty years have come and gone. Paul Chartrand, one of the original commissioners, said in 2016, “I don’t think it’s changed much.” One of the recommendations was for the creation of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was established thirteen years ago, on June 2, 2008. Thirteen years ago. The commission heard the testimony of 6000 witnesses and survivors, most of whom attended residential schools after the 1940s. The findings of the commission were reported in a summary published in 2015. In 2016, the new Liberal government VOWED to “act on every single one” of the 94 Calls to Action. In the final report, the commission stated, “Now that we know about residential schools and their legacy, what do we do about it?” We wear orange to honour the children, we fly flags at half-mast, we wince, we ache, we feel shame, we wear red to honour missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. But what do we really do about it? What action are we taking? How do we keep the energy in the movement for change? How do we stop saying things like get over it, it was in the past, when the racism continues, when indigenous peoples face challenges every day in the health care system, challenges in simply being. How do we stop our indignation when First Nations people express their despair and rage over the disparity in this country, over the denial of honouring treaties, over the rampant racism they are subjected to, living in communities where systemic racism in law enforcement has been clearly identified. How do we not react to the United Nations report of Canada to the world of indigenous people living in “abhorrent housing conditions in Canada” (CTV October 21, 2019). How do we not take action of the Human Rights Watch that reported in September 2020, that 56 indigenous communities are subject to long-term water advisories.

The promise of reconciliation made in 2008 has faded. We forget we are all Treaty People, we all have an obligation to honour what was signed and agreed upon. And we all have an obligation to demand the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission be enacted. As of 2020, 10 Calls to Action have been completed. 10. 10 of 94. I will no longer hide behind my shame. I will play a role in change. I will demand of my government to do what they vowed to do.

 If you still want to claim we didn’t know, remember this. CBC reported in 2015 that the “odds of dying in residential school was 1 in 25. The odds of Canadians soldiers dying in the Second World War was 1 in 26.” We knew. We knew.

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Gratitude – Post 140 – Spring, Glorious Spring

I’m grateful for Spring and it has me singing. Spring, glorious Spring! I’m channelling Oliver Twist when he sang “Food, glorious food,” in the musical Oliver, my arms outstretched as I spin around. Are you familiar with the musical? Don’t worry, if my neighbours could hear me, they too would tell me to pipe down.

We all need Spring. We need warm days and trees budding and grass growing and blossoms exploding and … wait for it … my precious dandelions. I know you with your pristine lawns have a major hate on for the glorious dandelion. I haven’t a pristine lawn nor do I want one, and I adore dandelions. As I have said before, on more than one occasion, on probably too many occasions in your opinion, dandelions are sunshine growing on the ground. I won’t bore you with another round of dandelion facts, but I will mention the precious bee who desperately needs us to leave as many dandelions upright without herbicide as we can.

The trees are straining to burst into leaf, the tulips are stretching, and I can almost hear the blossoms getting ready to explode. We have coltsfoot in Nova Scotia. What a great name – coltsfoot. It is a small cheerful plant, though some call it a weed, that grows in disturbed areas, usually on road edges and the like. It first bursts into yellow flower and then grows its leaves. I like that; it has its priorities straight. Coltsfoot can bloom as early as February when conditions are right, a cheery sight as the days slowly start to get longer.  I don’t remember coltsfoot growing up, so I looked it up and it doesn’t grow in northwestern Ontario. It isn’t native to Canada and was introduced from Europe in the 1920s. I guess that’s why I don’t remember it. But I do remember marsh marigolds who are native to Canada and love to grow in marshy areas. They were tough to pick for a bouquet without getting my boots full of water, but oh how I loved the marsh marigold. Still do. I don’t come upon them in my spring hiking travels here, another good reason to have stayed in northwestern Ontario.

Some years Spring lasts a day and then we are in full-on summer. Or the contrary, heat one day and snow the next. Today is much like that as I am writing this. Yesterday was spectacular and warm and lovely and invigorating and today it is cold and pouring rain and threatening snow and I am shivering and thinking of going back to bed as if I had wakened from hibernation to discover I was too early and need to return to the den to sleep it off.

I always hope Spring takes its time once it has arrived, that it might waddle instead of gallop, in no particular hurry, just meandering with no intention of ever leaving, dragging its fingers across my face, like the feeling I get when my daughters visit and I hope they never go home, that they lose their tickets and throw up their arms and decide to stay. I know that is highly unlikely, but I still imagine it every time they come. It has been far too long between visits now, for most of us. My arms ache on a daily basis and though I blame it on arthritis, I am more inclined to think it is from hug-neglect. I can’t use bad language in my thoughts on Covid:19, but I’d like to.

I know we’ll get through this. That life will again become something we recognize, and I will be able to hug my daughters and breathe them in and never again have to be separated by such uncertainty. Hang on, I whisper to myself. We’re almost there.

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Gratitude – Post 139 – My Cousin Randy

I am grateful for my cousin Randy. He was named Randall John Stewart, the John part of his name in respect to my father John Richard Stewart and to our great-grandfather John O Stewart. I’m not sure what the “O” stands for or at least I don’t remember now. He was referred to as John O and that stuck, the way that some called my father John R. I liked that, the feeling of being worthy of a special moniker.

Randy was born three years after me and when you’re the youngest in a family with strong-willed siblings, it’s nice to have someone you think you need to show the ropes to, a leg up so to speak in the game of growing up. I had the privilege of thinking I knew more than someone and when you are a child and the youngest and always obligated to sit in the middle on every and all car outings, never getting to be by the window, it’s a big deal to have a younger cousin. There were three of them, three little boys who were like three little old men, who discussed life as if they’d been to the top and surveyed the entire scene called life, and carried back the information to discuss with each other and sometimes with me. They were their own version of the three little bears – the oldest (Randy) ready for fun and daring, the youngest (Rickie) who wanted to be certain, and the one in the middle (Robbie) was the gooey marshmallow centre of a perfect three-layered cookie. They made me laugh, but most importantly they made me feel warm inside, the connection one feels when we have an extended family. Cousins become the best friends we never have to earn, we never have to audition for, just about the only guarantee we have in life aside of its ending.

Robbie, the gooey marshmallow centre of the perfect three-layered cookie, went on ahead, much too early in the game, long before anyone was ready to let go his hand, on a day that would become the worst day, the kind of day no mother really recovers from, no brother stops aching from, but just learns how to put one foot in front of the other, and to try to remember to keep breathing, the kind of day that is revisited year after year, the distance never great enough to stop a family’s hurt, to stop the wish of if only. An accident, we call it, when circumstances line up in the worst possible way.

Randy was struck by lightning when he was just about to have his ninth birthday. His heart stopped more than once and he was given life-saving CPR by a relative on the way to the hospital. I don’t remember who saved him, but I credited him with saving himself. He was that strong. I was certain. Someone may have thumped his chest and breathed some air into his lungs, but it was his heart that decided to start beating again. That’s how I looked at it then. That’s how I look at it now. Randy was strong. Randy was determined. Randy could do anything. Almost. Even Superman has to battle kryptonite.

Randy’s kryptonite was mental illness, bipolar disorder. It was a hard fought battle, and a cruel one. I sometimes wonder if that lightning strike had something to do with his brain being assaulted, leaving it injured, beyond repair it turns out.

We don’t talk about mental illness. Science struggles to understand the brain and its deep secrets, and so do we. We’re afraid of mental illness and it seems easier to look away from its victims, too uncomfortable to see its by-products, too uneasy to offer comfort, too judgmental to say I see your pain. Instead, we whisper behind our hands, and in those whispers, we speak of blame not help, we shake our heads with fatigue not kindness, and in our silence, we all too often leave those who struggle with mental illness alone with their battle. When the battle is lost, when the load has become too heavy, when the soul is just too weary, they slip away from us and could easily be forgotten. Their legacy of laughter and love and creativity seems to vanish almost in its entirety, and they are often remembered for their death rather than their life. If only there was a way to share the load. If only there was a way to say talk to me. If only there was a way to make space in our lives to offer solace and rest and comfort. If only.

I don’t want my tears to be the only measure of my loss of my precious cousin. Instead of tears, I make the choice to remember, to remember three little boys smoking a cigar on a Sunday morning in front of the cabin’s fireplace, laughing too hard to think they might be in trouble, to remember building blanket forts and hay forts and snow forts and crawling inside and thinking we were safe from absolutely everything life could throw at us. I will remember his love of Rainy Lake, a genetic predisposition that allowed him a second sight of the shoreline and waterways as if he could maneuver a boat through the many channels even if he was blind. I will remember him water-skiing as if he could almost fly and didn’t need a boat towing him but instead could glide over the water on his own magical power. I will remember his woodworking that was more about art than function, more about beauty than nails and paint, more about creativity than work.

Randy was far more than the mental demons that tortured his soul, was far more than the pain he endured while he struggled, was far more than the shame he felt at not being perfect, was far more than a man worn weary by his illness. Oh, how he loved his three sons, the details of them, the beauty of them, the near perfection he saw in them. He wanted to hold them and breathe them in so they might remain forever with him, melded to his soul, would always be his little boys. Oh, how he wished it was different, how he hoped it could be different, how he prayed it would be different, how he so desperately needed it to be different.

Mental illness won the battle. Part of me is relieved for his freedom, relieved he is no longer in pain, relieved he no longer has to feel he is half a person, half a man, half a father. He was always whole. He was always all in with everything he did, in everything he was, but it’s just too hard to hold on to that when one’s brain is hurting, just too hard to believe it’s still true.

It’s up to each of us to tell the story of those who leave us behind to carry on, to remember the tiny details of someone, details we can’t etch into a grave marker, that we can’t paint across the sky. It’s up to us to remember Randy’s hearty laugh, so like his father’s, and to remember his eagerness for fun. It’s up to us to remember he was precious and loved and in his human imperfection, he was almost perfect, all that any of us can be or will be. I’m so very glad and so very blessed to have shared childhood with him, to have called him family.

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Gratitude – Post 138 – Mighty Mouse

I am grateful for Mighty Mouse and his example to me when I was a child. Let me explain.

I had visions, when I was eight years old, of becoming a super-hero, once I had conquered the ability to tell time. First things first. It is essential that superheroes be able to tell time. I struggled with time telling, I confess. My mother was disappointed, but she shouldn’t have been. I can now decipher the time with relative ease and can be relied on to report the correct time, if asked.

My plan was to do a superhero apprenticeship under Mighty Mouse, if he would have me, and I was prepared to plead my case. I did have a Mighty Mouse lunchbox and if that’s not warranty enough then something is seriously wrong. I wanted to be able to fly with a cape and not need wings or other contraptions. I wanted to be very strong so I wouldn’t have to ask for help when lifting things and reaching things from the highest cupboards. My course was set. I’m not sure what went wrong, but I can neither fly nor lift cars off babies and as of late, opening jars is giving me grief and I need a chair for all reaching activities. Sadly, I have remained a mere mortal. But … it got me thinking.

My list of superpowers has changed over the years. I no longer need to be able to run faster than a speeding locomotive or leap tall buildings in a single bound. Those activities require too much enthusiasm but if I was making a list of essential superpowers today it reads much different than it used to.

The ability to fold a fitted sheet. It seems I require too much space and more patience than I have on any given day, to get it right. Superpowers required. Falling asleep immediately upon crawling into bed would be a superpower of the highest order. Some nights I can feel panic climbing up my spine as sleep evades me and my brain is doing mental burpees, jumping up and down, without much ease I might add, darting left and right and visiting the history that has long washed away under the bridge. I have at times resorted to begging for sleep, but nothing helps.

I would like to have a firm enough grasp of memory, so I don’t buy another bottle of ketchup every second time I visit the grocery store. If it’s on sale, I stand in front of the bottles and have an internal debate. Do I have enough ketchup? I do. It is fair to say that once I have decided to venture out into the world my memory is wiped perfectly clean. I’m not sure I could be counted on to remember the day or my name in those precise moments and more often than not the grocery list remains behind, all alone on the kitchen table. Superpowers required.

Superheroes definitely use the telephone. Clark Kent used a phone booth for his transformation into the man of steel, probably making a few calls while he was in there, to book an appointment for a teeth cleaning or a haircut, so it goes without saying I should be able to pick up the phone when necessary. Superpowers required.

I wish my superhero qualities allowed for getting the vaccine to every person on the planet in a single day, not unlike the abilities of Santa to circumnavigate the planet with relative ease and with few delays. I would be glad to wave a wand over everyone’s eyes so they may see no difference when looking at others, can see we are all the same and of equal value. I’m pretty sure even Mighty Mouse, a legitimate superhero, wasn’t equipped with such abilities.

I haven’t heard from Mighty Mouse since he went off the air when I was twelve and I’m not sure what he’s been up to but suffice to say he hasn’t dropped by for a visit in fifty-three long years despite my repeated invitations. He may be retired and busy writing his memoir. Mighty Mouse, created by Paul Terry, appeared on television ten years before Superman. Superman found his birth in the creative minds of writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian artist Joe Shuster, and in his first stories, Superman was a villain. Just saying. I think Mighty Mouse is the better choice and I’d be very glad if he dropped by to help me build an underground house, like the one I imagined when I had a bad dream when I was a kid, and one where I wouldn’t have to hear the wind roaring by my window at night. Did I mention I don’t like the wind? Most superheroes don’t. 

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Gratitude – Post 137 – My Bed

I am grateful for my bed. I love my bed. Not the specific bed that I currently occupy at night now, but “my” bed, in general terms. It is my safe place, my place of comfort, my place of big ideas and small wishes, my place of remembering. I tuck myself into my bed when I am sad, when I feel disconnected, when I am homesick. My bed takes me home. Home.

I remember asking Annie, when I was little, or more correctly when I was young, because I’ve always been little, how her milk cows knew which stall to go into when Annie opened the barn door. She smiled at me, that wonderful loving I-see-you smile of hers, and said, “It’s their home. Of course, they know where home is.” Home.

Remember the forts you built on your bed when you were a kid? My bed was tucked into a corner with walls on two sides and a closet closing in half of a third side, perfect for fort building. I piled blankets high and created a tiny den to climb into with my flashlight and Lone Ranger books and sometimes Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. I can feel it even now, the safety of it, my breath lengthening and my heart slowing its beat, all the lights out except my small flashlight or my fluorescent study lamp on the little bedside cupboard my Grandpa Stewart made for me the Christmas I was eight. Home.

Mother Nature hit us last night with a heavy-duty storm, a Nova Scotia dump of snow. I went out before bed to shovel out my driveway, in an effort to keep ahead of the accumulation of snow. It felt a bit like bailing the Atlantic Ocean to keep the tides out. When I got up this morning the pile of snow on the other side of my porch door was overwhelming to say the least. Had I not shovelled last night I doubt very much I could have opened the door. When I looked out at the wall of snow that was waiting for me, I wanted to go back to bed, to crawl into a freshly made fort and refuse to come out until spring. However, that wasn’t going to work. I strapped on my Joan of Arc armour and got on with the business of living in a land of snowstorms.

I have made two stabs at the pile of snow and my driveway is now cleared out. The snowplow went by and left a great wall of snow for me to deal with. I had to laugh at the incredible mountain of snow, the snowplow guy and I exchanging laughs and waves on his way by. But … he circled around and came back to make three pushes at the wall of snow in my driveway, leaving a manageable pile for me. I put my hand on my heart and waved as he zoomed off. Home.

I was remembering, while I shovelled, the snowstorms of my childhood. They were spectacular. We couldn’t wait to get outside to see what we might create with the mountain-sized drifts. I tried to find that enthusiasm this morning and though I maybe came up a bit short, I did feel the sensation of awe as the sun reflected off the snow and reminded me that life does come with snowstorms. So, as I shovelled, I journeyed home to the farm on Wilson Road, the mighty Rainy River as my backdrop. Like Annie’s cows, my heart knows the way home.

When I crawl into my bed tonight, I will feel warm gratitude for the snowplow guy doing something he had no obligation to do and extended his kindness only because he could, no other reason. As I snuggle down inside my heavy blankets, remembering the joy of tired muscles from snow fort building and play in childhood, I will think of the words of Ram Dass when he says, “We’re all just walking each other home.” Let’s meet up there. See you at home. Home.

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