Tag Archive: life


freedom extended

Mid-June, I put away Hugo’s Les Miserables in favour of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Hugo was too heavy for the sultry summer weather, and I desired literature that had been aired out a little.

Both of the two Twain novels are light-hearted, enjoyable reads, but Huck Finn’s saga has an underbelly of racial commentary.  There are a few points in the novel which stand out in this manner, but there is a short section in Chapter 16 which I feel is almost the crux of the story.  In it, Huck Finn and his runaway slave companion, Jim, are travelling down the Mississippi, looking for Cairo.  Cairo is positioned at a crossroads between freedom and enslavement: continue further down the Mississippi and travel deeper into the south, or travel up the Ohio river and reach the northern states where slavery is abolished.

Huck begins to have a crisis of conscience (please excuse the use of derogatory language below, but I am quoting and, really, considering the point I am making, it would be idiotic to censor):

Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t cell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.

It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.”  Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children — children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but shake my head.  Of course, I have a decent grasp of history and the treatment of slaves. I understood, too, that slaves were truly objectified, and stealing a person’s slave or helping that slave escape was perceived as no different than stealing their farm animals or their jewels.  It still astounded me, though, to hear stated in such bald terms that a greater crisis of conscience might arise from the idea of a man taking back his children and wife from the person who “owns” them, than does arise from the idea of the person “owning” them in the first place.

Later in the book, Jim talks about how he misses his family, and Huck simply cannot understand it, even though he would think nothing of a White person missing his or her family.  To Huck, it must seem as crazy as a table getting emotional about the absence of other tables: he simply cannot see Jim as a human being with feelings and yearnings.

Twain, of course, lived and wrote in the time when all of this was a reality so, even though it is fiction, he is a satisfactory and reliable commentator: this is what people believed.

Huckleberry Finn: Jim on the Raft

Illustration Credit: E. W. Kemble (original book illustration); Licence: Public Domain

The idea of having no free will and no personal choice; of being owned, and having my destiny determined, by another; of knowing that fulfilling a natural desire for companionship and offspring would simply enslave another person at the profit of another; of being separated from the people I love and not being able to bridge that gap; to say nothing of the abuse suffered by slaves…. the idea of it all is simply too disturbing to consider.

Slavery is truly one of the most disgusting blights on the history of humanity.

A few days ago, I spoke about my gratitude for freedom, but I felt that this example of freedom deserved special attention.  Today, I am thankful not only for my freedom, but for the heroes of history who went against the grain and fought against slavery, and fought for civil rights.

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now

My parents rented a cabin last week and took our kids with them.  Situated near the Haliburton Highlands, a gorgeous stretch of lush forests and sapphire lakes, the cabin placed them at a jumping off point for a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities.  Hiking, swimming, canoeing, picnicking — the kids had a great and memorable time.

My wife and I visited on Friday to spend the weekend there, and we learned that one of our youngest’s favourite activities all week long had been to go down to the river running beside the cabin and throw leaves in the rapids.  These are the sort of simple pleasures never fully appreciated by anyone much older than about four.  There were untold delights in the sweep of leaves through the current, moving slow at first, then rushing through the tiny waterfalls and gliding out into the wide river, destination unknown.

On Saturday, we drove to Bonnechere Caves, a series of subterranean paths irresistible to anyone with a sense of adventure – young or old.  Right before we headed out, I was down at the river with Zachary and my father, me snapping photographs and my father keeping Zachary supplied with leaves.  When we told Zachary it was time to go, he protested, and he continued to do so even when we explained that we would be exploring caves and tried to tempt him with all the wonders that activity would surely hold.  It would certainly be much better than throwing leaves in the water.

No dice: the kid was immovable.

leaves in water

Photo Credit: Jon Sullivan; Licence: Public Domain

We ended up getting him into the car, and had a great day at the caves.  Later, it occurred to me that I was a bit envious of Zachary.   I spend about a third of my life sleeping, and probably spend about 98% of the remaining two thirds focused not on what I am doing in the moment, but instead preoccupied with what I hope to be doing later (whether 10 minutes or 10 years later), or dreading some unpleasant thing I know I’ll have to do later.  It is a rare occasion indeed when I am able to appreciate “the now.”

Today, I am thankful for now.  This very moment.  The sun is shining down in patches on my freckled hands through an original wrought iron window in our 120 year old home.  Zachary is playing with a water table in a corner of our foyer, getting most of the water on himself and on the floor, but enjoying himself immensely.  Gregory is watching a show on his computer, earbuds in his ears.  Sandra has disappeared to the basement.  The room is quiet except for the sound of Zachary pouring water, the hum of Gregory’s computer, and the click of my keyboard.

This moment — this specific moment — is pure and discrete.  It’s a very rare gift — no one in the world can experience it from my perspective; it has never happened before, and it will never happen again.  It’s the only moment like it in the whole universe.

Gregory

birthday cake

Photo Credit: Lai Ryanne; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

My eldest son, Gregory, has always been a… difficult child.  And by “difficult,” I mean that I’ve put a bottle of burn ointment in my wife’s purse to have at the ready when we’re at church, in case the priest starts throwing around any holy water.

I joke.  Really, although he still presents some problems at school, he is now a predominantly well-behaved and easy child at home and elsewhere. But it wasn’t always that way.

My wife and I have both taught parenting in formal settings and, while that certainly does not make us Parents of the Year, it does mean that we are familiar with a few parenting techniques. Evidently, our methods worked with Gregory over time but, when he was younger, we were sometimes up against a wall. I distinctly remember a violent tantrum he had when he was four years old over something ridiculously trivial.  As I stood outside his bedroom, containing his path of destruction, I looked at Sandra in frustration and said, “we’re way beyond parenting technique; it’s time to call in the exorcist!”

But, despite — or maybe because of — all the challenges Gregory has presented over the years, I have developed a special place for him in my affections.  It is a place that has formed over years of sitting in school meetings and hearing the horrible things Gregory had done and, far more often, the horrible interpretations of innocuous or even amicable things he had done; because once a child is labeled “bad,” it is a label that follows him everywhere he goes.  I have seen innocent acts typical of his age become laden with sociopathic interpretation.  Knowing the wonderful child Gregory truly is, I’ve come to be his fiercest advocate and most devoted fan.

This is the kid who once, when I was bogged down with a cold, said, “when I’m sick, you and mom take good care of me, and it’s not fair that I can’t take care of you when you’re sick.  I wish I could do something to make you feel better.”  (“You just did,” I replied).

Yes, he most definitely has a special place in my heart.  It has waxed through his endearing precocity.  Recently, he was convinced that he was going to die because he believed he might have inadvertently consumed poison ivy oil through an endearingly complex and circuitous route starting with possible contact with the pernicious plant at the locus of his calf.  When I assured him he was not going to die, he demanded, “how do you know? What studies have you read?”  Another day, he turned to a visiting friend and said, “you’re still filled with child-like wonder, aren’t you?”

That special place has grown from driving down country roads, singing loudly along with Creedence Clearwater Revival, with Gregory accompanying from the back seat on air guitar and back-up vocals whenever he knows the words.  Then, when I tried to entertain him by an exaggerated bopping of my head during a guitar solo, he warned me, “now Dad, don’t get too carried away.”

And, finally, that special place in my affections has developed from Gregory calling headphones “earmuffs,” and the preacher’s bench in our foyer the “creature’s bench,” and from those quiet moments when I am alone and he will find me and give me a hug and tells me he loves me.

Childhood passes in these discrete moments and, if we’re not careful, we might miss it altogether.

Today is Gregory’s 9th birthday and, today, I am thankful for him.  As a parent, I take seriously my duty to encourage Gregory to be the best person he can be, but I also have the rare privilege of being made a better person each day by him.  The few struggles richen the good moments, and teach me to be grateful for life’s tiny joys.

cosmos

Of course, I always knew the universe was vast.  Infinitely vast.  But that is a concept difficult to conceive, even in my most rigorous and energetic attempts.  It wasn’t until early adulthood that I really came to understand even the periphery of its immensity.  I floated along through adolescence in an egocentric cloud.  Cognitively, yes, I understood that our planet was not the centre of the universe, but in youth it is difficult to see the complexities of a system that extend beyond one’s own nose, much less really appreciate the immeasurable and boundless cosmos.  And, cognition aside, the practical result was that, even if our planet wasn’t the centre of the universe, might as well have been.

Then I began reading about the speed of light, the fastest known phenomenon in our universe.  I read that proxima centauri, the closest star to our solar system, is over 4 light years away from Earth.  That means it would take light 4 years to travel between our planet and the next star.  Our sun and that star are two of between 200 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone.  Our most sophisticated technology has observed 3000 galaxies in the observable universe, and it is estimated there are as many as 125 billion or more galaxies in the universe as a whole.

I began giggling uncontrollably, something I have found that I have done ever since childhood when I am trying to comprehend something which strains my mental capacity.

horsehead nebula

Photo Credit: NASA; Licence: Public Domain

While hiking along a trail at Algonquin Park a few weeks ago (see post nature), I fell to discussing the universe with my eldest.  (I’ve found nature trails are the ideal place to discuss esoteric miscellany with an 8-year-old).  I had read that our planet collects anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 tons of meteorite dust each year.  And, of course, the earth itself was forged billions of years ago from the dust and gas of a solar nebula.  I then went on to discuss in a Socratic manner that babies grow inside their mothers, and to do this, they need nutrients which the mother consumes.  Those nutrients come in some way from the earth, and contain minerals that might well be found in meteorites.

Each of us, then, is a product of this earth, a product of this universe.

“…we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.” – Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Today, I am thankful for the sheer magnitude and magnificence of the cosmos.  It has the power to humble me, but that I am part of it, and we are all part of it, is comforting. It brings me an overwhelming feeling of connectivity with those around me.

the gang

Today, I am thankful for family.  This is important because I don’t think I feel nearly as grateful for family as I should.  There are times when having a break from my family is necessary for my sanity and, altogether, having young children, I don’t feel that I have enough solitude.  But, as I have mentioned before (kidcationsolitude), one of the reasons I enjoy the moments of solitude I do get from time to time is because they help me appreciate my family more.

The Gang

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

Alright, maybe one of the reasons I like having family is selfishly motivated.  It’s nice, after a difficult day at work, to be able to come home and have someone to hear my gripes.  And, no matter what mistakes I make — even after one of my cataclysmic screw-ups — I’m still loved.

Joe: But Allison loves you?

Quince: [nods, sobbing]

Joe: How do you know?

Quince: Because she knows the worst thing about me… and it’s okay.

— Meet Joe Black (1998)

I also feel that good moments are made more memorable when there is someone with whom to share them.  Not only the fun and special moments, but even the simple moments when I do something which has value to me, but which would be too insignificant to bother mentioning to someone else.  In turn, I have the chance to be a witness to my family’s lives too: their dreams and hopes; their falls and the things they overcome.  And not just a witness; a participant.

We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.” 

Susan Sarandon, Shall We Dance (2004)

When my life ends, I will have had the privilege of having spent my life with not just any people, but these specific people: my “peeps,” my gang.  That makes me feel fortunate.

misfits

I mentioned previously (serendipity) that we are currently on the tail end of a family vacation.  While in Ottawa, I had the opportunity to spend some time with my good friend, Sarah.

I met Sarah in my first year of university.  I did not live in the dorms at any point in university, so sought out clubs as a way of meeting people.   We attended a club meeting and Sarah sat down beside me.  She said later that she chose to sit beside me because of the shirt I was wearing.  It was blue and seemed welcoming and safe to her.

We clicked immediately, but it took most of our first year for us to forge a meaningful friendship.  We crossed paths intermittently and, for several months, I always happened to be wearing the same shirt I was wearing when we met.  At first, Sarah joked that I must have only one shirt, but I think she later started to become suspicious that it was true.  I think we became better friends partly as an effort on my part to expose her to the rest of my wardrobe and allay her suspicions.

The following summer was a summer we later referred to as “the summer from hell.”  I actively searched but was unable to find a job, was having roommate problems, and was up against a self-worth dilemma I came later to call my “first quarter-life crisis” (and not my last, by a long shot).  Sarah, who was used to the company of others, struggled with living alone for the entire summer in a house she had rented with four other students, all of whom would not begin living there until September.  And that certainly wasn’t the sum of her troubles.  Spending time together lent us reprieve from the despair that ailed us.

On days when we felt particularly anxious, we would sprawl out on her couch under puffy duvets and watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  There was a line in the film about the mean reds and I suppose we felt it described pretty accurately the way we were feeling.

Breakfast at Tiffany's film still

Breakfast at Tiffany’s film still. Licence: Fair Use (click image)

“The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.”

– Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Other days, laughter would consume us over the silliest things.  We would make up goofy show tunes and sing them at the top of our lungs, dancing around the house to our own ridiculous choreography.

It all sounds ludicrous and puerile but, without getting overly dramatic, there is a very good possibility that, without Sarah at my side that summer, I might not have made it to September and wouldn’t be writing this today.

Years later, when I married, Sarah was my best groomsmaiden.  I know it went against tradition to have a woman stand up for me on my wedding day, but who else would I want at my side but a friend with whom I had shared some of the best and worst days of my life?

Contact is rare nowadays.  Over the years, we moved apart and now live on opposite sides of the province; also, our schedules don’t match up very well.  But every now and again, we manage to get in touch, and we simply pick up where we last left off.

When I try to figure out why Sarah and I clicked together so well, I am sometimes at a loss.  But I think it’s just because we were a couple of misfits who found each other, not unlike Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak.

This post is dedicated to all the misfits, to best friends, and mostly to Sarah, who has added a little bit of sparkle to my life.  Today, I am thankful for her.

ability

Some of you might know Oscar Pistorius, a really inspiring person, possessing immense personal drive, confidence, and passion for life.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photograph of him without a smile on his face.  He is athletic, fit, and a lover of sports, his passion for sports having started when he was 11, playing rugby, water polo, and tennis.  He is active and vocal in support of his beliefs.  He is pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Pretoria.

Currently, he’s best known for being a sprint runner.  He did not qualify to represent South Africa in 400 metre race during the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing because his running time was about 2 seconds higher than the qualifying maximum.  He did qualify for participation in this year’s Olympic Games, so expect to see him on the track.

Oscar was born without fibias in either of his legs and he underwent surgery at 11 months to amputate the legs at mid-calf.  He runs with the use of some pretty phenomenal carbon fibre artificial limbs designed by an Iceland-based company, Ossur.

This is where I confess with no small measure of embarrassment that I began this post with a paraphrase of that last paragraph before thinking better of it.  It’s a force of habit.  The quickest method of identifying a person is to point out a person’s most prominent physical feature, whether it be a set of beautiful eyes, their physical size, a noticeable difference in their gait.  But it frustrates me that I was so quick to define Pistorius by disability (double amputation) rather than his many abilities and positive traits (talented runner, great guy, smart cookie, etc.).

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knock knock

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Banana.  Banana Who?  (repeat this sequence three times, then…)

Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Orange.  Orange who?  Orange ya glad I didn’t say “banana?”

It’s worth a few groans, at least.  Now, let me share my 3-year-old’s version of the joke:

Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Banana.  Banana Who?  Orange ya glad I didn’t say “knock knock?”

Insert his contagious giggling, and you’ve got a pretty hilarious joke made all the funnier because it doesn’t make an ounce of sense.  My little guy absorbed a joke, tried to make sense of it within the limited capacity afforded by his early development and experience, and then he issued it back out.  His version ended up being funnier than the original (at least for me and the rest of our family) because it took a universal phenomenon (humour), stipped it down, and fed it back to us in a way that exposes the singularly goofy nature of humour.  Really, why is the original joke funny anyway?

I don’t want to turn this into an analysis of humour.  Several people have tried to reduce humour to a science and good for them, but I want no part of it.  Funny isn’t funny when it is turned into a mathematical equation.  Similar to the opinion I expressed in tongues, sometimes the deliciously messy things in life should be left messy.

But, without over-analyzing it, today I am thankful for humour.  It’s a universal glue that binds together friends, family, communities, the world.  If you think of the people who mean the most to you in life, I would guess that most or all of your memories of them — the things that remind you why they mean so much to you — have something to do with laughs shared.

When I am hurt, when I am sad, when I am lonely… let me remember the beautiful moments and the moments that brought me peace. But let me also remember the funny moments.  Maybe they didn’t bring my life a great deal of meaning, but they certainly brought me a great deal of joy.

solitude

Sandra has gone away with the boys to visit her sister, and I have been left to my own devices for a few days.  This is a rare occurrence, and I feel rather like a schoolboy being trusted to stay home alone for the first time. I’m so wrapped up in a quandary of how best to squeeze all sorts of tomfoolery into this small allotment of time that I might end up accomplishing nothing much at all.  I cannot possibly fit in a viewing of all of those films that Sandra finds dull or absurd, and listen to music at firmamental volumes, and read all those books I’ve been neglecting, and get down to finishing that novel I started writing a couple years ago, and… How does one prioritize?! Continue reading

imagine

While driving between office sites last week, I got my “daily smile” when I saw a mom walking with her two daughters, whose faces were peaking out of square openings cut into cardboard boxes.  The cardboard boxes were unremarkable: no glittery paint, no accordion tubes encirling their arms. In fact, now that I recall it, the boxes didn’t even have holes for the girls’ arms.  Most conspicuous were the enormous grins on the girls’ faces, and the joyful — albeit somewhat embarrassed — grin on their mother’s face.

imagine

Rainbow over Knoicknara. Photo Credit: Jon Sullivan. Licence: Public Domain.

It’s my guess that the girls were pretending to be robots, though the expansiveness of a child’s imagination is such that, really, they could have been pretending to be just about anything.  And something tells me that they weren’t doing this because they were going to a costume party or some sort of event.  Had they been, I’m sure they would have put more effort into decorating their costumes.  I’m willing to bet that they just stumbled across cardboard boxes and decided to be robots for the day.

I’m 30, which most consider still young, but many days childhood feels to me like a distant memory. I have very little hair left on my head, and my once vivid blue eyes have faded a bit. I have considerably less energy than I used to and, lately, it seems to be a great deal harder to get up off the floor from playing with my son. But I’m not so old that I can’t remember the hours of fun I could distill from a cardboard box when I was a kid. The simplest things were imbued with infinite possibilities.

As we age, some imagination stays with us but, as J. M. Barrie wrote, “all children, except one, grow up.”   That might be a tad too low of an estimate — I think there are a few lucky ones whose capacity for imagination never wanes, and an even fewer clever or talented ones who manage to make a living from it — but the general idea remains true: our society is woefully intolerant of those who live with their heads in the clouds.

Today, I am thankful for imagination, that gracious element that instills life with a little bit more sweetness.  And I am thankful, too, for people like the girls’ mother, who foster it in others. There is no way of knowing for sure, of course, but it could be fairly argued that humans are the only animal on the planet with an ability to imagine, and that makes it a rare and marvelous gift, worthy of gratitude.

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