Category: gratitude


rice pudding

I woke this morning knowing that I was going to make rice pudding for breakfast. Despite the simplicity of its preparation, I have only made rice pudding three times in my life, so the strength of my conviction that we were having rice pudding for breakfast is somewhat of a mystery.

rice pudding

Photo Credit: cyclonebill; Licence: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I know that rice pudding is traditionally a dessert but it is definitively labelled in my mind as a breakfast item. I know that my mom made rice pudding when I was a kid, and I can only assume she served it for breakfast, thereby creating the association. But I can’t trust my memory. My memories of childhood are so poor that I think I must have been in a coma for half my life and no one is telling me. I wish I were joking, but the reality is that most people I know can relate their childhood experiences in vivid detail while I sit there smiling politely, wondering what’s wrong with me.

My apparent childhood blackouts aside, I can say that rice pudding is a comfort food for me. I didn’t wake feeling any particular desire to be comforted, but when I sat down with my family to eat the pudding, a smile burst forth on my lips, and a warmth circulated through me.

When the kids were finished eating their pudding, both boys came to me separately to thank me for making them a delicious breakfast.  Zachary, my 3-year-old, actually made a point of finding me upstairs where I was employed in the glamorous task of cleaning out the bathroom sink drain. He gave me a hug, thanked me for breakfast, and then on his way down the stairs he commented to his mother that the rice pudding “was sooo yummy.”  Clearly, the rice pudding was a hit.

Sometimes my kids are so sweet I can only assume they have an agenda. And sometimes they do.  But then there are the occasions where their sweetness is genuine.  For all the times their antics make me think I’m going to lose my mind; for all the times I am driving to a symphony of sibling rivalry and I toy with the idea of  stopping the car and dumping the kids by the side of the road;  for all the seventeen thousand times I’ve had to tell one of them to stop picking his nose or to wash his hands or to flush the toilet or to sit up straight at the table or… or… or…  Those rice pudding moments make absolutely everything right again.

Today, I am thankful for… well, rice pudding, I guess.  I’m thankful for these talismans of tradition, the vehicles into which we pour our comforts and memories and transmit them to our children to be carried forth into future generations.  For some, they are lockets, or vases, or figurines.  For me, it is rice pudding.

I picture my boys, older.  Maybe they haven’t achieved something they worked hard for, maybe they’ve lost someone special to them, maybe work is stressful.  Then maybe they start cooking some rice on the stove and the soft bubbling of the thickening liquid calms them.  They add their milk or cream, then vanilla, cinnamon, raisins, reducing everything to a creamy consistency and filling their homes with a sweet aroma.

And if their memories of their childhood are better than mine, maybe they’ll remember the stillness of that one Sunday morning when the sun peeked through the window and they ate a breakfast that warmed their bellies, while they sat with people they loved and in whose presence they felt safe and happy. And maybe they’ll have little ones who will give them big hugs afterwards and thank them for yummy breakfasts.

Then maybe, for a little while, the world will be right again.

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shutter

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

National Geographic today released the results of their 2013 World Photo Press Contest, which awards news photographers for astounding work completed in the previous year.  It’s well worth a gander.

I was so struck by some of the photographs that I knew instantly I had to write something about it.  If you’re a writer — and by “writer,” I don’t mean that you have something published, or that you’re recognized for your writing, but simply that, when you are moved by something, you know that you will be restless until you can write about it — you will know that sometimes there is an irrepressible imperative to share your thoughts with the world by writing them.  My first thought looking at the photographs was that they made me feel grateful for many things.  My second thought was that I’ve written about all of those things in other posts, so it would be cheating to say I’m thankful for them again (even though I am continually grateful for them).

Some of the feelings of gratitude the photographs elicited?

Let’s start with the first photograph in the series, taken by Paul Hansen, and which won First Prize.  Moving in a most breathtakingly devastating way, it depicts family members carrying two Palestinian children to their funeral after they were killed when an Israeli missile struck their home.

Nothing but nothing makes me feel more helpless than when children die.  Nothing but nothing makes me more furious than when children are the victims of violence.  But I also feel gratitude.  I am chilled at the thought of losing my child to something so senseless, and I am so profoundly thankful that I live somewhere that is not war-ravaged.  This isn’t to delude myself into a false sense of security.  Who knows what the future holds?  The parents of the children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut thought their kids were safe too.  But, still: it stands to reason that, when missiles are flying around your ears, people are going to get hurt, and eventually those people are going to be children.

But I’ve already talked about my appreciation for my safety and the safety of my family.

Let’s look next at Second Prize winner in the News Single category.  This photograph, snapped by a very brave Emin Özmen, depicts a man being tortured by Syrian Opposition Fighters by, I gather, having his feet whipped, for being a suspected government informant.  I can’t fathom the searing pain he must have experienced.  I am so grateful that I live in a country where torture is illegal, and where it is not so commonplace that torturers seem to have no problem with being photographed doing it.

But I’ve already written about my gratitude for the country in which I live and the basic human rights which that country protects.

I’m moved too by the First Prize winner in the Contemporary Issues Single category.  Photographed by Micah Albert, the picture shows a Kenyan woman taking a break from her labour picking through trash at a dump near the slums where she lives.  She’s sitting, reading through a book she found at the dump.  I live in such a wasteful culture, and we dissociate ourselves from the waste so easily because we’ve worked out this great system where we ship it off and hide it in giant landfills.  The concept of someone making a living from picking through garbage is a pure testament to so much of what is wrong with the world.

But I’ve already mentioned by thankfulness for having a meaningful job, and my gratefulness for having so many luxuries and amenities in life.  I’ve even expressed gratitude for books.

I think the most astounding of all of the photographs in the series is one by Fausto Podavini which claimed First Prize in the Daily Life Stories category.  It shows Mirella, a 71-year-old Italian woman, assisting her husband Luigi — who has dementia — drying off after a shower.  I am so thankful that I have the full capacity of my mind, and thankful too for the ones who love us and take care of us even when we have lost so much of who we are.

But I’ve already discussed my gratitude for family and those who stick with us through thick and thin.  I’ve expressed thankfulness for my health.

I find the photographic talent represented by this series of award winners to be mesmerizing.  They haven’t just snapped a picture: they’ve captured a moment.  It is their work that has helped me revisit and remember so many of the things that make me a lucky person each day.

And so, although it seems inadequate or trivial given the content of the photographs I’ve shared, today I am thankful for photography and photographers.  I would have such little insight into what goes on in the world — both the heinous and the beautiful — if it weren’t for the fact that those things have been brought to my doorstep through the efforts of others in capturing those realities and bringing them to my doorstep.

gracefully

elderly couple in Bellagio, Italy

Photo Credit: Daderot; Licence: Public Domain

For most of my life, I’ve had the goal of aging gracefully. Even at my still reasonably youthful age of 31, it hasn’t been easy. To start, my hair started receding when I was in high school. There’s nothing that feels particularly graceful about someone guessing you’re 30 when you’re 18. Especially since people usually guess low.

“It’s just the way you carry yourself. You seem older.”

Sure it is.

There’s also nothing particularly graceful about your future in-laws telling your future wife to check your ID to make sure you’re not some geezer going after a younger woman. Okay, in fairness, I was singing Geoff Stephen’s Winchester Cathedral with my wife’s grandfather at the time, and I did know all the words. And they didn’t actually use the word “geezer.”

In university, I liked to chase caesars with margaritas. Now I just chase them with antacids.

Then a male friend told me the other day — swearing me to secrecy — that he feels like he’s getting wimpier with age. I told him I felt the same. Little things that wouldn’t have caused me to flinch before are now excruciating.

A milestone was reached the other day when I went to the dentist to pick up my new night guard. Not that it has anything to do with age because I’ve evidently had a very slight misalignment of my jaws as long as I’ve had adult teeth, but as I’m sitting there lisping to the hygienist through the apparatus, I couldn’t help feeling a little self-conscious. I kept reminding myself that Christian Bale wore a night guard in American Psycho, and he was the very picture of youth. Or, at least, I hope he wore a night guard. Don’t tell me if he didn’t; I don’t want to know.

When you find yourself trying to extract comfort from drawing comparisons between yourself and a fictional psychopath, you know you have problems.

Mark Twain’s witty remark to Edward Dimmit that “the first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity” now haunts me like a warning instead of  joke.

I know that aging gracefully is supposed to be about taking care of ourselves, accepting — even embracing — the changes that come with life, and not resigning ourselves to stagnancy.  I’m trying to follow my own tenet but, heck, maybe I won’t have to resign myself to stagnancy: maybe stagnancy doesn’t give a damn whether I resign myself.  Resistance Is Futile.

One time I got stuck on the dementia floor of a long-term care facility.  I had gotten into the elevator, but the elevator was called to a different floor, and I got out without realizing.  When I turned around to call the elevator again, the buttons were locked behind a Plexiglas cover.  Stairwells were locked behind doors which would trip an alarm if opened.  I started to wander through the halls filled with people with somewhat vacant expressions, searching for a staff person to let me out, my mild amusement at my mistake of getting off on the wrong floor rising rapidly to panic.  My brain goes ludicrous places when I panic.  I started thinking: what if they think I’m a resident here? How am I going to prove I’m not?  What if they never let me leave?

When I eventually found a staff person and told her that I couldn’t get off this floor, she joked without missing a beat, “me neither: I’ve been here since 1994.”  If you spend your days face-to-face with dementia, I suppose it’s healthy to develop a sense of humour about these things.

Then today, while waiting in line at the bank, an elderly woman said to her granddaughter — with genuine fear evident in her voice and in the expression on her face — “I’m just so worried about falling on the ice out there.”  Ice can be treacherous, but it never occurred to me to be terrified of going out when ice is on the ground.  But it makes sense.  A fall that, to me, would result maybe in a pulled muscle or minor strain can mean broken bones that never heal to person whose bones have brittled with age.

My point is: it’s easy to preach the virtues of aging gracefully when you picture yourself aging well, doing all the things you used to be able to do.  It’s easy to say “accept change” when you’re assuming the changes are going to be positive.

Taking care of ourselves is vital, but sometimes we’re a ticking time bomb no matter what we do.  My uncle has taken extremely good care of himself his whole life.  Or, leastways, my aunt has taken extremely good care of him.  An active lifestyle, regular exercise, healthy eating — all the good stuff.  Several years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.  Bang.  Quality of life diminished.  Resistance Is Futile.  Sure, he manages his health well, but let’s not pretend that everything’s “same as usual.”

On the other hand, there’s my friend Keith.  75 years old.  Drinks whiskey like I drink water.  Smoked since he was 14.  Broken every bone in his body, some more than once.  This is not a man who decided to navigate Life carefully.  But he’s one of the most active people I know.  This man just might outlive us all.

Or Patrick Stewart?  Let’s all stop pretending that man hasn’t tapped into some Elven elixir of life.  Yes, he’s aging but he looks better and better every year.

I think what I’ve learned is that we don’t know what the future holds.  Maybe I’ll live to 100 and still have use of all my faculties.  Maybe I’ll develop early onset dementia (some days, a case could be made that it’s already started).  Maybe I’ll die tomorrow.

None of these are new observations or thoughts: existentialist musings have been crystalized in history.  But for me, it emphasizes not just the old adages on seizing the day and living life to its fullest, but also the pure blessing of life.

Today, I am thankful for every molecule of breath in my lungs, for every beat in my heart.  If they’re my last, so be it.  If it gets harder to suck in that breath, or pump out that beat, too bad.  Right now, I Live, I Sing, I Dance, I Laugh.  Right now, I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me.  I’m golden.

A Christmas Tale

mother reunited with child

Photo Credit: Joshua Adam Nuzzo; Licence: Editorial Use Authorized

In a former life, I was a Child Protection Worker, which is the type of job that earns praise from some, and boos and hisses from others.  It’s an exhausting and nearly always thankless job, though that isn’t the reason I left it. Challenging though the position was, it was the intra-agency and inter-agency politics that ultimately drove me away. The problem with employment that carries with it a great deal of liability is that everyone is eager to “pass the buck.” If you’re the type of person who is in the job because you want to do something good, it can become very frustrating to work in an environment where people want to be competitive instead of cooperative.

That sort of environment also tends to breed a more intrusive way of working with families. My informal statistic from personal experience is that 99% of the parents with whom I had involvement were not bad parents. Sometimes they were victims of bad circumstances, sometimes they just hadn’t had good parenting role models themselves, but all of those 99% wanted to keep their children safe, and maybe just didn’t know how. The other 1% were bad people and — perhaps unfortunately — you can’t licence baby-making. Having not come from the circumstances that the 99% group  had experienced, I didn’t really feel I was in a position to judge. Other workers had a different opinion.

Mind you, this wasn’t my experience in all of the child protection agencies for which I worked, but it was my finding in 2 out of 3, and that’s enough to make me feel there is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed before we as a society can effectively ensure positive outcomes for children.

I don’t want to downplay the incredible work that Child Protection Workers do.  There are a lot of children today whose lives have been improved, and a good number whose lives have been saved, because of a Child Protection Worker.  I just want to illustrate: the job ain’t any picnic.

Several years ago, I was involved with a single dad and his kids, and it eventually became necessary to remove the children from the father’s care.  The man was riddled with addictions and his children were subjected to the most appalling neglect.  The children — a young boy and older girl — didn’t have much hope of being reunited with their father. Although it was always my intention to work with parents such that their children could be returned to their parents’ care, it was clear early on that this father didn’t want to put in the effort.

The children’s mother was absent. Rumours were that she, too, was addicted to crack cocaine and the children had not seen her in two years.  I anticipated that these children would become part of “the system.”

It is required by law to expend a great deal of effort in seeking out parents of any children brought into care, and so I began searching for the mother, not holding out much hope of finding her, or finding her to be a parent who could provide appropriate care to her children.

Then, one day, I managed to locate her.  She’d gotten off the drugs, was receiving treatment for her addictions and mental illness, and was working hard to turn her life around.

I am not going to say that this mother didn’t have a lot of obstacles to overcome before she could adequately parent the kids but, after my initial conversations with her, I arranged a visit between her and the children, and it was clear that she was extremely motivated to care for her children.

There was one question I had to ask, though: why had she abandoned her children?  I understand that addictions take over a person’s life, and pretty soon nothing much matters but where to get the next high.  It’s a condition that deserves pity, not ridicule. But I had to know the answer if I had any chance of convincing a judge that this woman had been sufficiently rehabilitated to be a good caregiver.

She told me a harrowing tale of having left because she was so terrified of the children’s father, who had abused her.

“Didn’t you worry about him caring for the kids?”

“Of course!” she replied.  She then told me that she had even gone back with an intention of taking them from him, but she realized, as she was bringing them outside into the snow, that she couldn’t provide them the care they needed.  So she left, and fell into a two-year depression, laden with drugs and all sorts of self-abuse.  It was a decision she regretted, but she was ready to make amends.

Readers, it took a long time, but those kids were eventually placed in their mother’s care, and it was a happy ending for them.

The mother lived about 400km away and I had to transport the children to her home.  I was buried in work, though, and the only day I could do it was December 23rd.  It’ll be a nice Christmas present, I thought.

That day, a fierce blizzard raged.  Coworkers tried to encourage me not to drive the children that day.  I looked outside and figured I’d driven in a lot worse before.  I wasn’t anxious to do that long drive in such conditions, but then the thought of calling up their mother and saying that they wouldn’t be home for Christmas didn’t appeal to me either.  So, in a decision that hindsight later rebuked, I felt that, if I drove slowly and carefully, I would be able to make it without incident.

I drove into the storm, so it got a lot worse as the trip wore on.  I also had to drive through a stretch of Ontario that had no gas stations for a couple hundred kilometers, no lights, and no cell phone signal.  There were steep hills and, a couple times, as I inched my way down one, I prayed that the person behind me would be just as cautious.  I began to realize what I wished I had realized earlier: I can be careful all I want; it’s the other drivers who might kill us!  One wrong move, and the mother’s Christmas present might be her precious children at the bottom of a frozen lake.

I’ll alleviate your anxiety now by saying that we made it safely to their new home — albeit about 4 hours later than I had planned.  An incandescent Christmas scene awaited them, with sparkling tree, shiny wrapped gifts, and warm beds.

Today, I am thankful for the capacity of people to change.  No matter the profound depths to which each of us might descend, no matter what bad decisions we might make, no matter what abuse we subject ourselves to, there is always a chance that we might turn it around and make a life worthy of awe.  That is what these children’s mother did, and the beautiful difference she made in her children’s lives cannot be measured.

My professional relationship with the family now long severed, I can’t tell you how everything turned out for those kids in the end.  Work with the family was transferred to another agency shortly after the children were placed in their mother’s care.  I checked in about a year later, though, and am pleased to report that they were still doing well.  Of course, like any family, they had their bumps in the road, and I’ll even acknowledge that their bumps were maybe a little bigger than the bumps most other families experience.  But despite the obstacles they faced, there was a lot of love in that family, and I can confirm something I have learned from experience: with enough love, pretty much everything works out alright in the end.

little graces

Advent

Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Sandra has an Advent tradition with the kids that I love.  She calls it “The Giving Tree.”  She makes up a Christmas tree out of construction paper and posts it on the wall, then decorates it with paper ornaments on which she writes instructions. Instead of simply asking our boys to donate to charity some of the money they’ve collected from their allowances, each day of Advent she has them take an ornament off the tree.  The ornament will instruct them to count a specific thing in our home or lives for which they should feel grateful — something that less fortunate families do not have.  Then, the boys are asked to deposit a unit amount of money for each item they counted.

For example, an ornament this year encouraged the boys to be thankful for their mobility.  So Sandra had them count all of the stairs in our house and deposit $0.10 for each stair.  Another ornament wanted the boys to be thankful for water, so had them count all the faucets in the house and deposit $0.25 for each.  Yet another had them deposit a sum for the number of grandparents they have, in order to help them be appreciative for family.  The boys raised $32 for charity this way.  Just a drop in the bucket of need, perhaps, but a fairly substantial donation given what they have accumulated in their allowances.

Instead of the boys simply donating money from their allowances without really understanding why, and possibly begrudging the donation because of that lack of understanding, they come to understand why it is so important to help others in need, and to be thankful for the things they have. It also gets them excited about the donation because, in a sense, they worked to achieve it.

It’s a wonderful tradition, and I admire Sandra for remaining faithful to it each year.

The Giving Tree tradition reminds me of all the “little graces” in our lives: the items which individually might go unnoticed and never make it into this blog, but which collectively bestow immense benefit on our lives.  Today, I am thankful for them.

last minute

Christmas ornaments

Photo Credit: James Hawkins; Licence: Public Domain

In past years, despite the faithful nagging of my wife, despite my own distaste for crowds, despite the promises I had made myself in prior years, I have always left holiday shopping to the last minute.

It’s not like I have a lot to do.  Both our extended families, having found that the prospect of purchasing for everyone fostered a sentiment of bitterness about giving (which ran rather contrary to the whole spirit of the season), have opted — and I daresay, after a good amount of urging on my part — to adopt a gift exchange approach.  Each person draws or is assigned a single name and purchases a $50 gift for that single person.  It has restored the proper atmosphere of the holidays in our homes, has eliminated begrudging gift-buying, has reduced the pure commercialism of the season, and has eradicated the nauseating surplus of impractical “junk” we don’t need.

My wife takes care of purchasing all the gifts for the kids, which she usually has finished by May.

Sandra and I do not purchase individual gifts for each other but instead have a tradition of taking each other away for a weekend in January or February.  We don’t get away together very often, so it really is the most meaningful gift we can give each other.

As a result of these traditions, I am only responsible for two gifts and, frankly, I rarely even have to do that, as Sandra has an endearing penchant for returning home from a mid-October shopping trip with a grin on her face and a declaration that she found a gift for So-and-So.  “I thought I was purchasing for So-and-So this year,” I’ll comment quizzically.  “You are!” she replies proudly.

That usually leaves me nothing but Sandra’s stocking to take care of, and store cameras typically capture me dashing in frantically on December 23rd or 24th, an expression of frustration on my face.  So much for holiday cheer.

This year, I learned my lesson, and finished all of my holiday shopping in October.

Just kidding.

did, however, go a day earlier — today, December 22nd — and I did adopt a few practices which very legitimately removed all stress from the experience.  Having tested these practices, I want to pass the knowledge on.

So, today, I’m stepping away from my “Today, I am grateful for…” recipe in favour of something a little different.

Behold, I give you the 11 Tips for Surviving Last-Minute Holiday Shopping.  Why 11, you ask?  Read on.

Tip 1. Don’t leave holiday shopping to the last minute.

I anticipate you will feel a little cheated by that one, which is why I will produce 10 more.  That said, if you remain faithful to Tip 1, you can ignore the rest.  Happy Holidays and I hope you’ll come back for tomorrow’s post: Little Graces.

Still here?  Figured as much. Let’s continue.

Tip 2. Estimate how much time you will need to do everything you need to do, and then double it.  I find myself always getting angry at the delays. I’m screaming at drivers who don’t accelerate as soon as the light turns green, I’m tapping my foot impatiently at the person ahead of me in line who is confirming the price everything against the flyer, etc.  If you block off ample time and don’t waste it with procrastination, you won’t feel rushed.

Tip 3. Patronize local, independent businesses. They need your business more than the conglomerates, and because everyone else is at Walmart and the like, the independent businesses aren’t as busy.  Less busy = less stress.

Tip 4. Try to go to stores that don’t have shopping carts. It seems trivial but, really, the chaos of holiday shopping can bring out the worst in people, and those shopping carts can quickly turn into vehicular weapons.  Steer clear of those and you can avoid frustration at shopping cart traffic jams and avoid injury too.

Tip 5. “Brain shop” before you shop. Try not to take the approach of wandering around a store trying to find stuff. If you’re leaving shopping to the last minute, spend your time in traffic on your commute home from work in the days leading up to the holidays by thinking about what you are going to purchase. Then, see if you can find out online who has those items. It will make battling store traffic a lot easier and faster if you know exactly what you’re getting at the store and can just go in and get it.

Tip 6. Have alternatives. Don’t rely on an item being at the store or at the price you expected it to be. If you show up and it is not there, or three times as expensive, you won’t feel so much frustration or anger if you have a “back-up.”

Tip 7. If you’re able, walk to the stores, or take the bus or, if you drive, park far away from the store entrance. A good portion of my last-minute shopping stress comes from fighting other drivers for those parking spots near the store entrance.  Today, I parked way at the back of the parking lot and walked.  I enjoyed the walk, and never had to fight anyone for the parking spot.

Tip 8. Smile, and be helpful. I kept a smile on my face throughout all of my shopping today. The effect was two-fold: (a) studies have shown that the very act of smiling makes the person smiling feel happier (it works); (b) when you smile at everyone, you find that a good number of them smile back. Everyone wins. Being helpful takes it a step further. If you see someone struggling with taking shopping bags to their car, or someone who doesn’t know where something is, offer to help. That’s what the holidays are all about, right?

Tip 9. If possible, shop without children. I know. This falls into the same category as, “and while you’re at it, I’d like a pony.”  No matter how bad you expect it to be, shopping with children right before Christmas WILL ALWAYS BE WORSE THAN YOU EXPECT IT TO BE. If you have generous friends, family, or an available babysitter, don’t guilt yourself out of asking for their help.  Maybe they’re too busy to provide their help, but it can’t hurt to ask.  Don’t forget to give a small token of thanks for their help: bring back a coffee, or offer to make them dinner, etc.

Tip 10. Be charitable. Organizations like The Salvation Army always have donation kettles at places where people shop. If you can spare a dollar, two, five, ten, twenty, it finishes your shopping trip nicely to deposit it in the kettle and know that someone else’s holiday will be a little happier because of you.

One last thing: Shopping doesn’t have to be done in stores. Make a gift for someone, give something you already have.  At my youngest’s last birthday, my niece very proudly gave him one of her favourite stuffed animals.  Also I, for one, would much prefer to open a card that informs me that someone else in need has benefitted from the giving, than to unwrap baubles.  Donate to a local charity and let the person know that the gift you gave them is that someone else has been made happier, or safer, or healthier.  Will some of those recipients think you’ve “ripped them off?”  Yes, some will.  Tough luck for them.  Like I tell my kids: that warm feeling you get in your belly when you do something good or right is better than any reward in the world; and it is the very essence of this holiday season.

a morsel of gratitude

cornucopia

Photo Credit: Jina Lee; Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Today was one of those days.  You all know them.  Just as I was starting to feel like I was getting back on top of my workload at work, I was dealt a blow when I learned of a decision made higher up the ladder that translates to a major undertaking being dumped on my lap for the next few weeks. That pile of tasks on my desk was just officially pushed to the back burner.  I worked late in an attempt to get a head start, and to put out a few fires.  Then I picked up the kids and arrived home to start making dinner.

Like a lot of people, I’m so exhausted by the time I get home most days that my kids are lucky they’re not fed a bowl of chips and some HoHos for dinner.  But one of the commitments I’ve made to my children is to make an effort with dinner.  I want to serve them good, healthy food to help their bodies and minds grow.  I confess my love of cheese sometimes results in an over-representation of it in my meals, but I try to pack the meals full of nutrients too, using fresh vegetables and foods as little processed as possible.

My boys are pretty good eaters.  My eldest loves vegetables, and both boys will eat lots of things lots of kids (and many adults) won’t: fish, seafood, mushrooms, spinach, etc.  But I still get my share of whining, and after coming home from work feeling defeated but still putting the effort in to make a nutritious meal (that I thought was delicious), I was deflated a little more to hear the tiny violins start playing.

“I don’t like this.”

“Do I have to eat the onions?”

etc.

And then my 3-year-old — the same one whom I’ve asked twice in the last three minutes whether he has to go to the washroom, the same one who has twice replied “no” — suddenly starts squirming in his seat.

“Do you have to pee?” I ask.

“Yes!” he exclaims, his eyes betraying panic.

Knowing it’s an emergency, I throw him on my hip and bolt up the stairs, only to feel a warm sensation spread down my leg as I reach the bathroom.

By the time I got him cleaned up and get us back to the dinner table, my originally comfortingly warm dinner was now stone cold.

And while I scowled into my tilapia and (cold) warm vegetable salad, I searched my mind to find some morsel of gratitude from the experience.  Gratitude is my refuge against the chilling tendrils of bitterness which, on occasion, start creeping into my heart: if I can shift perspective, I can chase away the sting of antipathy.

So here it is: Today, I am thankful that, as a child, my parents (more specifically, my mom) exposed me to the types of foods my kids might be disinclined to eat.  You might feel ripped off by that one.  Don’t. There are lots of people in the world who grew up eating a lot of junk, so are at a disadvantage in knowing how to prepare for themselves or their children the sorts of foods that will keep them healthy.  I had the benefit of a mom who, long before the nutritionist craze that pervades our lives and the media, exposed me to good-for-me foods so that they wouldn’t be foreign to me.  I am grateful for that, and I hope that, one day, my kids will be thankful for it too.

(But I won’t hold my breath).

an austere beauty

skyscraper

Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Nature has the power to humble us. As much as the ravages of natural disasters are tragic, they also remind us that we do not own this planet, we will never overcome it, and our abuses will never go unpunished.  But there is also something astounding in the ingenuity of human achievement.  The universe gives us gravity; humanity responds with bridges, towering skyscrapers, and planes.  Process the concept of taking an 85 metric tonne hunk of metal and getting it to lift off the ground and fly it at speeds over 500 mph at 30,000-40,000 ft. If that doesn’t take your breath away, few things will.

I love nature and, if my life ambitions can be boiled down to a select few, moving further away from cities would be high on the list.  But I love the culture one finds it cities too and so I am drawn to them as well.  Let me find a place to live surrounded with trees and lakes and rivers, with mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets, with immense mountains and enchanted vistas, but let me be close enough to the city to see the marvels that one finds there.

While attending a conference for work this past weekend, I was simultaneously appalled at the dearth of green space and in awe of the vast network of towering monuments to human achievement.  It is not that I think skyscrapers and overlapping overpasses are the greatest testament to what humanity has accomplished.  The growth of compassion and philanthropy would be more valuable evidence.  But, regardless of your personal beliefs, humans were in some sense delivered into the world innocent, ignorant, and naive.  With observation they learned, with creativity they explained, with tenacity they tested, and with ingenuity they created.  They created the wheel, and bridges, and buildings, and music, and medicine, and trains, and cars, and planes, and transistors, and microchips, and… and then they took it a step further.  They didn’t just build something practical: they created art.  Engineers fought physics, architects made it aesthetic; scientists produced technology, designers made it alluring.  There is a beauty in that.  Sometimes it is an austere, cold beauty, but it is a beauty nevertheless.

Today, I am thankful for human ingenuity.  It has sometimes led to terrible outcomes, but overall our world is an incredible place to live simply because of the power of the human mind to evolve the most fantastical idea into reality.

the power of great things

This year seems to be a good one for fireworks.  In August, I wrote of the serendipity of checking into a hotel in Gatineau to visit with friends, and discovering that a fireworks competition was taking place right outside the hotel.  This weekend, I was in Toronto for a conference and it turned out the Toronto Cavalcade of Lights was taking place across the street from the conference centre.

I am a person who hates Toronto very nearly as much as I love it.  Like any metropolis, most days it’s an overcrowded maze of unfriendly people, suffocating subways, grueling gridlock, and discourteous drivers.  It’s a place where there is destitution on every corner, where alleys are bit darker, where people’s dreams are chewed up and spat out, and where the gap between classes is more pronounced than elsewhere, having grown from a dichotomy of the wealthy and the poor to one of the obscenely rich and the profoundly indigent.

But it is also a place where everyone has a niche.  No matter how bizarre your interests, no matter how depraved or puritanical your lifestyle, there will be some alcove in any metropolis where you can find others who appreciate your tastes.  And it is a place where you can see things you will never see elsewhere.

While watching the fireworks at Nathan Phillips Square, sandwiched between throngs of people to the left of us and hordes of them to the right — a circumstance which would normally bring me close to a panic attack — I found a surprising calm and warmth wash over me.

Some of that tranquility found its source in the fireworks show itself because it seems that, the older I get, the more boyish is my fascination with them: the ecstatic bursts of colour, the thunderous booms of each explosion, the majesty of the orchestral track — I find it all thrilling.  Mostly, though, it arose because, for a moment, I pulled my focus away from the show and looked at the smiling faces upturned. There was no place here for family disputes, no place for unruly children and disciplining parents; the rich and poor and everyone in between saw the same show; people who, elsewhere in the world or at another time, might hate or fight or kill each other, stood side-by-side; the only skin color that mattered was the polychromatic glow the fireworks cast indiscriminately on the faces of all assembled; children’s faces were filled with wonder; lovers held each other closer; in short, all was well in that tiny corner of the world.

There is nothing of the experience of watching marvels that is so unique to Toronto, nor even any large city in the world.  But when that peace descends on a city normally filled with coldness and hate, it means something.  In a city so multicultural, where racial tension and ethnic intolerance run high; in a city so uncaring, where the gratuitousness of poverty has exhausted the empathy of so many; in a city so loud, with honking horns and flashing lights heard and seen every second of the day — yes, that peace means something.

homeless children playing

These things happen on a smaller scale every day.  Midst the rubble of catastrophe, people share moments of fraternity.  When I was younger, I remember during a visit to Toronto watching two homeless men embrace, the one flashing a toothless but immensely genuine grin when he saw his friend.  Then the other man pulled back his stained coat to show a treasure: a bottle of whiskey he had managed to palm.  He had come back to share it with his friend.  Yes, I know the bottle might have been stolen.  Yes, I know the men might have been riddled with addictions.  And for those reasons, I did feel a measure of sadness witnessing the scene.  But if I quiet those objections for just a moment, what I see is a brief glimpse of happiness in the lives of the downtrodden.

Today, I am thankful for the power of great things to give us pause and grant us a few moments to appreciate — either consciously or simply by the mere fact of our presence at, or participation in, an amazing event — some of the truly important universal values: togetherness, equality, wonder, and love.  For a little while, it makes me feel that, maybe, the world will turn out all right in the end.

remember

remembrance march

Photo Credit: big-tom-84; Licence: Public Domain

We visited a cemetery today to pay respects.  Although we had no family members buried there, we located a soldier’s grave and placed on it poppy wreaths the boys had made.  The man buried beneath the headstone had been 20 when he died.  In a quiet moment with my eldest, I recited In Flanders Fields… and explained what it meant.  He’s 9 and I suppose he understands it all about as well as I did at that age, when the overwhelming beauty of a person sacrificing their lives for the values we as a country hold sacred is still a pretty abstruse concept.  But this is why we remember on Remembrance Day.  It’s not that we shouldn’t remember every single day we draw breath, but having one day devoted to remembrance helps instill our children — and re-instill us — with an understanding and appreciation.  Maybe they don’t “get it” at first, but eventually they will.  This is how we pass “the torch” and “hold it high.”

Every day, thousands of men and women risk their lives to protect us, keep us safe, and guard our freedom, and there are hundreds of thousands before them who have risked — and, far too often, lost — their lives in service of our country with the same noble objectives.  Some of those who have died have been almost children, the incandescent glow of youth still visible on their skin.  Those who have fought have been separated from their families, subjected to grueling conditions.  They have witnessed horrors most of us could never imagine.

Today, I am thankful for them.  Today, I remember.

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