Tag Archive: story


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.

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.

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.

on top of the world

Everest

Photo Credit: Bernard Goldbach; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Even as a child, I found my brain lacked focus in the first hour after waking.  The experience has become more prominent with age.  To say it “lacks focus” sounds negative, but I don’t intend it to be.  If I am trying to focus on a task at work, having a mind that wanders can be a bad thing.  But a wandering mind is essential to originality.  Or, to drag an old cliche out of the closet and beat it like a rug: wandering minds “think outside of the box,” and it is outside of the box that all the messy, nebulous plasma of creativity lies.

My wandering mind brings me inspiration for writing, for new approaches to troublesome problems, for new website ideas, for new directions to take in life, for… the list is endless.  Other times, I find myself reliving memorable experiences, some of them moments when I acted shamefully, and others which are a source of pride or joy.

The other day, lying awake in bed in the first warming moments of dawn, waiting for the house to come to life, a memory popped into my head.

Time for a juicy confession: when I was in high school, I was a Latin geek.  (Okay, so it’s not the type of thing you’ll see splashed across the tabloids, but I needed to say the confession was juicy to keep you reading.  I initially titled this post “Latin geek,” but figured no one would stick around to read it).  I know you’re picturing a pale, waif of a youth, with a perpetual runny nose, ill-fitting clothes, and no social skills and — well, you’d be partially correct.  It’s rare nowadays to find a school that even offers Latin for study, much less one where it’s the best class in the school.  My Latin class was extremely engaging, owing largely to a phenomenal teacher — Margaret-Anne Gillis — who has almost single-handedly resuscitated the stone-cold language and spent most of her career spreading the word that rumours of Latin’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Once, in senior Latin, we were assigned a passage of poetry to be performed by each student in front of the class.  Like much of classical poetry, the passage was in dactylic hexameter.  Dacta-what?  Look it up on Wikipedia.

On the date of performance, the teacher cycled through the class.  Like any subject, different students expended varying levels of effort.  Some stumbled through the passage, pronouncing barely any of the words correctly; others, pronounced the words correctly but with limited expression; a few had expression but did not follow the meter; others followed the meter, but spoke in a monotone.

I was the last performer, and I had practiced the hell out of this passage of poetry.  Not only had I carefully practiced each word to ensure I said it correctly and clearly, but I read it according the meter, and delivered it all in a dramatic voice.  And, despite many of my practice runs, when I had stumbled over parts of the passage, I said it all without a single error.

When I was finished, the entire class erupted in applause.

Today, I am thankful for the few occasions in life when we feel like we are on top of the world.  Remembering this event the other morning, I found a smile spreading across my face.  Most of us spend our lives as one person among billions, nameless and faceless and insignificant.  But once in a while, we do something that stands out, and a few people take notice.  Maybe the course of history isn’t affected, maybe it doesn’t change the world… but it changes us.

Have you had a moment where you shined?  Please tell me about it in the Comments.

famous painter

A cherished Canadian Thanksgiving family tradition is to go apple picking at a local orchard.  This year, a severe spring frost damaged any hope for a quality yield in a number of apple varieties.  On Saturday, we visited an orchard which has quickly come to be our favourite for the range of apple varieties it offers, and for the on-site bakery and store where we can purchase pies, streudels, cider, and other marvelous apple products, either to eat there (warm) or to take home.  We were able to come home without empty hands, but with none of the mutsu or empire varieties I love to use  in pies.

Sunday, we went to greater lengths to find an orchard with my wife’s family.  We were wholly unsuccessful.  But the weekend was not wasted.  We had the opportunity to take in the beauty of autumn’s palette.

autumn foliage

Photo Credit: Fg2; Licence: Public Domain

Having young children, my wife and I have limited opportunities to get away, so we have to use our anniversary as a basis for doing any activity we want to do without our children.  This year, though our anniversary is in July, my wife and I decided to forego our standard weekend of unbridled vanity in favour a simpler trip in late September to Ontario’s Muskoka region to relish in the splendour of autumn foliage.  For a number of reasons, that plan withered, so our local foliage would have to do.  It might be less breathtaking than the vistas of more northern climes, but it’s still breathtaking.

It’s difficult to get one’s children to share appreciation for important things.  During those drives this weekend, there was a good amount of complaining from the back seat about how I wouldn’t let my 9-year-old watch a movie or play video games.  On Saturday, I finally said in exasperation: “Outside your window is the most beautiful picture ever painted. It was painted by a famous painter you might have heard about: God.  So look out your window and keep quiet.”

Then I smirked at the silly things parents say… except, it was true.  In my travels, I have seen a plethora of really stunning works of art, but never anything so beautiful or brilliant or phenomenal as the one we get to see every autumn.

Today, I am thankful for autumn.  The science of the changing of the leaves is exceedingly simple; the visual result is magnificent.

alive

baby

Photo Credit: Carin Araujo; Used with Permission

Shortly after I turned 1, my mother was holding me in her arms while I burned through a fever.  Suddenly, my eyes rolled back, and my body began moving rhythmically. I was having a seizure. While my father held me, my mother ran frantically to the house of a neighbour, who was a registered nurse.  My father has told me that, while he held me, I stopped breathing.  My mother returned with the neighbour, Vedra, who took control of the situation and, before long, I began breathing again and recovered.

A few months later, I had another seizure.  It was my brother’s birthday, and my family was planning to go out for dinner, but I had a fever and my mother suggested that my father and brother go out without us.  I began having the seizure and, again, Vedra came to the house and I recovered.

It was the last seizure I had.  I do not have epilepsy and the seizures were febrile, meaning that they were caused by a high fever.  It’s not an uncommon thing to happen to young children, who sometimes lag in developing the nervous system mechanisms to effectively control body temperature.

When my son was born, I was a worried that the problem might be genetic.  Every time he had a fever, I was terrified that it would happen to him.  What would I do?  During my first seizure, I stopped breathing.  Without a combination of several factors, I very likely would not have started breathing again, and what if my son wasn’t so lucky?

Today, I am thankful for a lot of things.  First, I am thankful for timing.  I had the seizures while I was being held by a parent and both my parents were present. My second seizure happened just as my father was about to leave the house. A few minutes later and my mom might have been alone, and I might not have fared so well, because it would be hard for one person both to respond to my needs in the moment and also seek help.  When my son had his fevers, I kept thinking: what if he has a seizure while he’s in bed?  He could stop breathing and I would never even know.

Second, I am thankful that my parents had the sense to run for help.  I think my mother rebukes herself for not really knowing what to do (I always say that perpetual guilt about one’s children is a sign of a good parent) but, really, which of us thinks straight when we perceive our children are in danger?  Once, while camping with Gregory (my eldest) and my friend Sarah, I asked Gregory several times not to walk along the seat of the picnic table, because I had the Coleman stove running, boiling water, and I was worried he might fall and either knock the pot of boiling water on himself, or set himself on fire.  Moments later, while he started walking along the bench again, he fell, with his arm hitting the stove.  That was when I made a complete departure from sense, which is a nice way of saying I went nuts.  I started alternating between screaming at him about needing to listen, and hugging him and asking him if he was alright.  He was perfectly fine, but in my mind, I had already decided he had burned himself, and I was panicking.  In the case of my seizures, I think that having the good sense to run to a neighbour who could handle the situation was the best anyone could expect.

Third, I am thankful that a registered nurse lived nearby, and that Vedra was able to help.  She is one of those every day heroes I like to talk about in this blog.

Without all of these things, I don’t know that I would be alive today, and that is certainly cause for gratitude.

ordinary heroes

building collapse

Photo Credit: Tannoy; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Many months ago, I stumbled upon the Carnegie Hero Fund, a fund started by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who wanted to honour civilian heroes.

The fund was founded in 1904, and the stories of the numerous awardees of the Carnegie Medal are truly inspirational.  Spend a day reading or listening to them and your heart will be full.  Don’t forget to stock up on tissues.  They are the stories of people who have risked their own lives to save others, many times people they did not even know.

Out of all the selfishness in the world, it’s moving to see so many people who become heroes when their circumstances call them to action.

I can’t share all the stories, so I will share two:

On 17 August 1953, Theodore Henderson (aged 39) was fixing a flat at the side of a highway in Florida, when a 19-year-old woman drove by, lost control of her vehicle, slid off the road, and landed upside-down in a 12 ft. deep murky canal.  Henderson arrived to see the tires of the vehicle slip below the surface of the water. Avoiding an 8 ft. long alligator near by, he swam into the canal and managed to open a door, but the car shifted and the door closed on two of his fingers. He yanked free, tearing a tip off one and breaking the other.  He swam back to the bank, grabbed a tire iron, then swam back down to the vehicle and smashed the rear window.  After swimming to the top to take a breath, he swam back down, dragged her out, and swam to the bank, where she recovered.

On 17 November 1960, Joseph Granahan was relaxing in a bar when he saw clouds of dust.  A building had been recently demolished, but the foundation of the adjacent tenement building had not been adequately protected and the building was collapsing.  When Granahan arrived, all the tenants had managed to escape, except one elderly woman named Helen Giles, who was screaming for help from the fourth floor.  Granahan did not know the woman, but he kicked out the glass panel of the front door and climbed the stairs.  When he reached the fourth floor, the power went out and the building shook.  He managed to find his way to the apartment and carried Giles down the four flights of stairs, with the staircase pulling away from the wall as he descended the last flight.  Moments after he had exited the building with Giles, the entire building collapsed into rubble.

Today, I am thankful for heroes.  We live in a world of survival.  Everyone is committed to his or her own interests.  And yet, when circumstances call for it, sometimes ordinary people become heroes. It’s the type of thing that restores my faith in humanity.

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.

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.

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