Gratitude – Post 87 – Richard Wagamese

I am grateful for Richard Wagamese. I like to think Richard and I are friends. I can’t bear to put that in the past tense, because I never got to meet him and the opportunity won’t come now. I won’t bump into him on the street and introduce myself as his fan and fellow writer, though I will be quick to add that my writing isn’t at his level. He won’t assure me we are all family, all of us who share this county. He won’t smile at me with his beautiful smile and gather me in and advise me to write from my heart, the way he did, letting down all the barriers, being open and vulnerable on the page. We won’t chat about the land and how the rugged beauty of the northwestern Ontario wilderness defined him and pulled him back when he had been taken from it, taken from the land, from his community, from his culture, all those relationships extinguished, but he found his way back. Thankfully. Richard Wagamese has left us and his passing has dimmed our light.

Richard and I are the same age and we are both from Northwestern Ontario. Surely that qualifies us as friends, surely that connects us, gives me permission to speak of him as though I knew him. I didn’t know him, but I believe I found him on the pages of his many books, in the fiction and the poetry and the memoir. Richard’s writing was inspiring, was honoured by many and valuable to all, and while difficult to read because of the painful truth of it, his writing was a privilege to read, an apology on my lips at every page. I believe it was Richard’s writing that helped him find his way back to his starting place, back to when he was perfect, when we are all perfect, before life changes us.

Richard had a smile that was infectious, a wonderful smile because it was real. He had searched for it and found it. His smile was comforting to me, seemed filled with hope. Richard’s childhood was filled with loss and heartbreak and loneliness, a childhood that would have destroyed most of us. Perhaps I have no right to presume I understand the purpose behind Richard’s smile, but I have given myself permission to speculate, because his writing gives me license to do so. He wrote about suffering and loss in a way that ushered the reader through to a clearer understanding and he led us to truth, not merely for the painful details, but to find ourselves at higher ground, with a deeper understanding.

I am so very sad that Richard has gone ahead, sad that he isn’t still helping to shape the change this country so desperately needs and helping us to see where we went so horribly wrong. All Canadians are fortunate to count him as one of us, to share his gift of writing, to be witness to the magic that was Richard Wagamese.

In honouring him, the responsibility falls to each of us to do our part. I can’t sit back. I must push on, obligated to accept the personal challenge of finding truth and from that truth learning to build bridges and extending my hand in apology.

Read his work if you haven’t. You will be changed.

Miigwech, Richard.

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Gratitude – Post 86 – Stuart McLean

I’ve not been feeling particularly grateful for much the last few weeks as I seem to be constantly on the end of a shovel. But that’s shame on me, not shame on anyone or anything else. Could be the seasonal blues.  But one thing I have felt incredible gratitude for has been the voice of Stuart McLean. And I’m incredibly sad that our time together has come to an end.

Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it. Haruki Murakami, a Japanese writer, said those words and he is the same age as our beloved Stuart McLean whose death left our world a lot less bright today, the day I am writing this, writing to soothe the ache in my heart, as though Stuart McLean was my family, my friend. The truth is he belonged to each of us who dialled in to his Vinyl Café and giggled along with the stories of life, the funny bits and the sad bits and everything in between as we listened to Stuart’s preacher-like voice tell us about Dave and Morley and their escapades.

FaceBook is laden with farewells and sorrow regarding Stuart’s passing and I can’t even look at his face that exudes gentle kindness and integrity and honesty. It might be easy to say that we don’t really know the man, but rather the persona. I think it is fair to say we knew the man by what he said and nothing probably more so than his address to Prince George when celebrating its 100th Anniversary in 2015, one of his last public performances before he began the hard war with cancer. In that address, he first pointed out the shameful things done to those who first called this land home. He suggested that in the slow process of coming to truth and reconciliation that we “shut up” and listen to those who have lived here so much longer than we European immigrants and he reminded us that the loudest voices are not necessarily the wisest.

Stuart’s stories had a conscience to them, a self-awareness, and got to the very truth of us. He called himself Canada’s favourite story-teller and then claimed this so-called lie as his own, never taking his celebrity too seriously, and certainly never more important than the message he wanted to convey, needed to convey to perhaps ease the angst that he felt at being part of a machine that loses sight all too often of humanity. He was never more surprised when people cheered and welcomed him with great fervour, as though that almost seemed ridiculous, nonsensical. He used the platform he had created to remind us of the things that truly matter.

Stuart had the great wisdom and ability to unite us, to make the sweeping geography of Canada feel less vast, to bring us all closer together, to pull up our symbolic chairs to the radio while we listened. Though he was a radio personality, his face and humble wave linger with me now. We are heart-broken. Come back, I want to cry. Don’t leave us.

It is the details of our life that distinguish us from one another though, not our death. No one has really died until the stories they have told are forgotten, silenced. Stuart McLean will live on long after you and I have gone.

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Gratitude – Post 85 – Good Manners

I am grateful for good manners. We were discussing good manners the other day, my daughters and me, and the conversation circled around the importance of learning to extend respectful kindness to those we encounter in a day. We have made it more of a challenge for our wee ones these days to whom we instruct, it seems, from birth not to speak to strangers. The chanting of danger danger seems more a course of action than please and thank you.

Three-year-old Linden has good manners, saying please and thank you at the appropriate moments. Though the concept at this point may be considered rote, more of a reflex than a willing practice, it’s a good convention to learn early on. Having said that, manners are tested when a house fills with relatives. But still Linden digs deep for the fragments of good manners that in moments may seem out of his reach.

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            It’s not easy to have guests when we are three. Actually, it can be a challenge at any age, but Linden is giving it his best effort and he may be re-writing the rule book, certainly adding to Emily Post’s The Blue Book of Social Usage, first published in 1922. Linden has added some essential edicts to Emily’s thoughtful ideas. Let me explain.

Linden is currently engaged in learning the intricacies of washroom use in an attempt to give up the crutch of diapers once and for all. It’s a slippery surface, with a two-steps ahead and one back sort of progress. Using the toilet is never an easy transition. Thankfully, most of us don’t remember our personal struggle from those days long gone. To ease the burden of learning a new skill, his mother reads him stories while reassuring his safety on the big porcelain monster and after a successful flush Linden enjoys the spoils of Smarties for a pee and a chocolate for the more challenging pooh. The rewards are adjusted accordingly in regards to effort as with most things in life.

This morning when Auntie Mantha, who arrived late last night, had to use the facilities Linden stepped up to make the experience more enjoyable for her, more relaxing, to make her feel at home, like any good host would do. First, Linden directed all foot traffic away from the bathroom door. He used his big voice, the one with a hefty volume with his hand held up instructing passers-by to stay back. Then he got his favourite books and set up shop at Auntie Mantha’s feet. He read to her, patted her knee, encouraging her to relax while checking on the progress of her bowel evacuation at appropriate intervals. And so he facilitated her bathroom experience with great skill and aplomb. It was inspirational and though I may not be quick to employ his tactics with my own guests, I was undeniably impressed. Credit where credit due, I like to say. Take that, Emily Post.

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Gratitude – Post 84 – Card Shops

I am grateful for card shops, the ones that stock their shelves and racks with laughter, shops like Le Tablier Blanc in downtown Toronto.

“I laughed so hard my water broke …. and I’m not even pregnant”. A story goes with those words, words I recently found inside in the card shop I just mentioned. Let me explain.

Le Tablier Blanc was a card shop on College Street in Toronto. My friend Allison and I were out for lunch, having a catch-up as old friends do, never running out of stories to share, making plans for future stories. On our walk back we popped into Le Tablier Blanc a few blocks from Allison’s home. “We are closing,” the proprietor said. Not closing as in the end of the business day, but the end of business literally. He welcomed us in and I felt a jab in my heart that someone had to close down their dream, had to re-start their plans for the future.

Allison and I started reading cards and before many seconds had passed the laughter started. I couldn’t stop. Every card was funnier than the previous and I laughed until I could hardly get my breath. I tried to stop so as not to disturb other shoppers, but they began laughing along with me as we are inclined to do, without invitation or purpose, when we encounter someone in the throws of uncontrollable levity. I bought a few cards and thanked the man behind the counter for not throwing me out of his establishment for disturbing the peace and thanked him for allowing me such a delicious adventure with laughter, for replenishing my stores of endorphins.

As I turned to leave he dashed down the basement and returned with a stack of about forty cards that he stuffed into a bag for me and handed it to me with a big smile on his face. “So you can keep laughing for the rest of the day”. I was stunned by his generous kindness, stopped in my tracks before thanking him and wishing him well. Then I most certainly did laugh for the rest of the day.

Some of the cards he gave me were just too funny to describe and some of them I know of no one I could send them to, but they were all beyond funny. And when I was done laughing, which of course one should never be done doing, I felt physically better. It always surprises me what a good laugh can do to all parts of me, inside and out. I visualized germs running for cover as the silly and happy surged through my body boosting my immune system. Laughter relieves stress and tension and allows muscles to relax for forty-five minutes after. I was a noodle walking home, the human living version of play dough.

Maybe there should be a card shop on every corner. Maybe we should have laughing stations throughout the travels in our day so we can greet our problems and challenges with new energy. Maybe I could start a franchise and laugh my way to personal wealth. Nah. I’ll just keep laughing.

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Gratitude – Post 83 – Yo-Yo Ma

I am grateful for Yo-Yo Ma. I consider Yo-Yo Ma my friend. He doesn’t call me at home for advice. We don’t meet for coffee to discuss the state of the world and I’m not sure he is aware of our friendship, but I don’t think he would mind me calling him a friend. He plays the cello in my ear while I sit at my desk, pen in hand, while I create a world for which I can find a solution. While I attempt to find the answers on paper and in my fiction, Yo-Yo Ma succeeds in real life.

Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris of Chinese parents and was educated in New York. He has been the Messenger of Peace for the United Nations since 2006, an honour and a responsibility. We are the same age, he and I. While I was learning how to get through a day without a nap and to tie my own shoes, Ma was becoming an accomplished cellist, playing for audiences around the world while I hadn’t mastered the two-wheeler. But we do share one thing with each other and perhaps with seven billion others on the planet and that is the question of how do I fit into this world and what is my purpose.

Instead of just pondering that question like most of us do, Ma worked to find the answer by creating The Silk Road Ensemble in 1998 to “celebrate the universal power of music”. Ma wanted to erase the borders that divide us and to blend our music together to create a foothold, a growing place for hope. In 2016 a documentary was released entitled The Music of Strangers detailing the journey of The Silk Road Ensemble and how these musicians are able to block out fear for others and for themselves by creating beauty with the arts, with music. “It is music that gives our lives meaning,” said Ma of his ensemble. And when you watch him in this documentary film you can’t help but be witness and fall victim to his infectious passion to create positive change, to celebrate that which unites us, rather than to fear what divides us.

You may assume that classical music is Ma’s only forte, but you would be wrong. Ma embraces music of most genres though I hesitate to assume Metallica or Rap would appeal to him, but I could be wrong. He plays two cellos; the first is a Montagnana built in 1733 and the second is a Davidoff Stradivarius made in 1712. It is hard to imagine what those two instruments have been witness to in the world of music.

Though Ma is grateful for his tremendous innate talent, his career with the cello was not one he chose for himself, but rather one that chose him. His curiousity and desire to make the world a friendlier, kinder place brought him to The Silk Road Ensemble, something that he and his cello could give back to the world, where he could go beyond simply performing, which he has done since the age of four. Though none of us can come close to such a talent, we certainly can be part of the movement to find ways to unite us, even if it is just in the listening and being witness to the ideas of others.

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Gratitude – Post 82 – Galloping

I am grateful for galloping. Could be my rural upbringing, but galloping was a normal mode of transportation for me, long before Monty Python successfully cornered the market on the gallop for those who would gallop in the silliest of manners. Galloping and skipping; skipping coming in a close second. I challenge you to gallop or skip down the street and just see if you or onlookers can keep a straight face. Can’t be done.

I’m not sure how galloping became such a favourite pastime. Probably because when my sister and I weren’t riding our horses, we were pretending we were horses and thus we had to gallop because how can one be a horse and not gallop. Ludicrous notion. Some things are that obvious. My mother said my sister and I had a one-track mind when it came to horses. She was our teacher in grade seven and eight and both of us were forbidden from drawing horses during art class and strongly encouraged to read something other than horse stories, which never worked. I mean really. How well did she know us? I read the Lone Ranger series but that had horses written all over it. The Lone Ranger rode Silver and thus, Hi-Ho Silver away with Tonto sitting astride on Scout. Who exactly was I fooling? No one, it turns out.

So I suppose galloping came naturally for us. I’ve let a lot of things go from my youth such as playing marbles despite my reluctance on that front. I no longer skip double dutch. To be honest, I wasn’t that all that good at it, so I didn’t mind giving up the pursuit of that skill. I haven’t played dodge ball since 1969. I didn’t play with dolls unless of course no one was watching. My dad called me his “hired man” and I was pretty sure no hired man played with dolls. I had my reputation to consider. I never had an Easy Bake Oven so making cookies with a light bulb wasn’t on my childhood resume. I no longer watch Saturday morning cartoons. I realize there are no Saturday morning cartoons, but that’s not my fault. I gave up a lot of fun activities but I refuse to give up galloping. Some things matter too much. Galloping defines me. Galloping and motherhood, to be precise.

Webster’s says the gallop is an “asymmetrical gait at high speeds by quadrupedal organisms such as the gait seen in the horse”. That definition is filled with mumbo-jumbo. A gallop is so much more. A gallop is the freedom to be something we’re not, to abandon all the notions of the things we think we should be, to give up on the idea that everything should make sense, because very little does make sense. When we gallop making sense is not only forbidden, it is impossible to even imagine.

I think galloping should be an Olympic event. Set aside this nonsense about 100 metres determining who is the fastest human being on earth. Who cares? A sprinter may arrive ahead of a galloper, but he/she who gallops will have seen so much more, experienced everything on the track while giggling, which by its very nature is wonderful, even better than being fast.

So may I suggest that you schedule a gallop into your day today. You won’t be sorry. I promise.

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Gratitude – Post 81 – Leah Nelson

I am grateful for Leah Nelson. If you follow the news with any regularity it is safe to say the upcoming US election is fraught with fear, angst and hope has all but left the building, and that is an understatement of the colossal kind. The rhetoric makes my teeth hurt while I watch, if I watch, and I try very hard not to listen, to tell myself common sense and decency will ultimately prevail. But will it? We think we are safe from such madness in Canada, but we’re really not. Maybe we turn our attention south so we’re not aware of our own shortcomings.

While I was busy wincing I heard about Leah Nelson, a ten-year-old in California who doesn’t moan and complain about the difficulties of life, but instead she takes action to do what she can to change the world. Leah leads by example as children are off inclined to do and she began her “Becuz I Care” campaign. When I read about Leah and her idea and more importantly, her action I think my hope was restored and I was inspired to try harder myself, to make a difference wherever I can when I collide with an opportunity to lend a hand, to extend a smile, because the opportunities for such swarm around us on any given day if only we were paying attention.

Leah stood outside a grocery store in her California community with a stack of bracelets she made; colourful, cheerful stretchy bracelets. Attached to each bracelet was a simple message about extending kindness to each other and when you do so you pass the bracelet along to the person you helped and advise them to “pay it forward”, to do an act of kindness and share the bracelet as a reminder; a simple premise and one that really has the power to change the focus of a day.

When Leah first approached people going into the grocery store she was sometimes ignored, often rebuked, but once people stopped and heard her message they too were transformed. She wasn’t dissuaded by the negative reactions of others. She was polite but persistent, determined to remind others that kindness can easily get brushed aside, can take a back seat to those things we seem intent on pursuing. “Everyone is upset and worried these days,” Leah explained, but kindness toward others can reverse that worry.

We seem to find it much easier to honk at the person ahead of us driving too slowly, or seeming uncertain as to where they are going. We prefer not to let the car in who is merging from a parking lot or joining street. We ignore the person behind us in the grocery line who has two items when we have a cart full when it would be just as simple to let them go ahead. We get frustrated and bothered by those who are challenged by age. We wince and complain when we have to listen to a baby cry or watch a young mother trying to manage on her own while traveling. We exhale dramatically when someone blocks our way on the sidewalk and we certainly look the other way when we are confronted with poverty.

“Don’t be a bucket dipper,” Leah says, which means don’t take something away from others, but rather give to others, even if it’s something as simple as holding a door, extending a smile, sharing a dollar with a homeless person, buying a coffee for the person behind you in line at the coffee shop.

Leah believes together we can “fix the future”. I concur.

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