Friday, December 29, 2006


Alice’s Christmas letter said: “I am 92 years old.  I have lived a wonderful life.  And now I am ready to be in the arms of Jesus.”


We read the letter together and sighed.  If only it could be that easy, to make a decision after a wonderful life and then go gently.  Less than two weeks later we sighed again.  Just before Christmas she was gone.  The obituary in the paper said: “Alice is now in the arms of Jesus.”


Think of the changes Alice saw.  Her life began at the start of World War I.  She outlived three husbands.  , raised a family with the first, spent brief time with the second before he was diagnosed with cancer, and married the third after getting reacquainted at her seventieth birthday party.  We got to know her in the widowhood between second and third. 


Alice made a difference in our lives.  We met her shortly after she returned from Scotland, in the time before she was reacquainted with John.  She came alone to Mill Woods United Church, the only senior citizen in a brand new suburban congregation populated largely by people under the age of twelve.  By definition she might have been a grandmother to us all.  This was not the role she chose.  She liked to talk about her travels, and the interesting things she had done as a volunteer.  She liked to tell us about the unexpected arrival of her youngest child.  .  She may have been a grandmother, but she was also a board member for the growing church.  Senior citizen she might bee, but she was still building new things.


Alice was our friend, even though forty years of living separated her age from ours.  We will never forget the summer evening when she was our dinner guest.  David brought a plate of spaghetti with meat sauce and placed it in front of her.  Unfortunately the spaghetti continued on its journey after the plate stopped, remaining airborne until it made itself at home in Alice’s lap.  We were horrified, stunned into uncharacteristic silence.  She responded with grace and good humour.   That was the way she accepted whatever happened to her. 


Her third marriage took her from us, moved her a few miles away, just outside the boundary of our world.  We missed her, saw her only a couple of times in twenty-odd years for brief social how-are-you-we-are-fine conversations. 


Still, Alice did not give us up completely.  Our one reliable link was the annual Christmas letter.  It would have been easy for her to let us go.  Our time together had been only a brief scene in her history.  She must have sent a lot of Christmas letters, given the scope and duration of her life.  We were always pleased to hear from her.  In her final letter she dared to write that she was ready to be with Jesus.  We are privileged to have known her. 


Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Just a note of thanks to you, Mom, for all the Christmas dinners you cooked us.  We knew it tired you, especially in the later years.  We could see it wearing as Christmas eve stretched to Boxing Day.  “Do a little, less,” we urged, and we even brought things.  But somehow the occasion just grew and grew. 


Yesterday, as we stumbled groggily around our house, biding farewell to overnight guests, emptying the dishwasher of the last stray pieces of china, avoiding the sticky spots where the punch had dripped on the floor, our legs sore from the hours of standing in the kitchen, our senses numbed by the Boxing Day dilemma of whether to choose left over lemon tarts or left over mince, we turned to each other and said we were beginning to understand how tired you really were, all those Christmases, year after year. 


We wondered which parts we might leave out another year, to give our selves a break.  And we concluded that everything had to stay.  Fatigue, apparently, is a less powerful teacher than tradition.  In a month we will recall the warm glow of the midnight church candles, the raspberry tang of trifle, the card games where contestants aged nineteen to ninety squared off in fiercely laughing competition, the cooling sweetness of punch, the new clothes that fit perfectly, the delicious cheese dip that Ruth brought, the afternoon naps in front of the television.  And, just like you, we will have forgotten how tired we were. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


The young man who almost charged us too little said simply: Ï am thinking about my finals instead of my work.  I wasn’t scheduled to be here tonight, but we are short staffed.  My head is too full of school stuff.”


Perhaps his distraction was partly our fault.  We have a tendency to talk to store clerks, to try to find out who they are.  He is studying telecommunications.  That is what he told us as he re-established the total and bagged our purchases.  He has three exams in the next three days.  He will be finished the program in another five months.  He has five job offers to consider when he is ready. 


Then we were off to the liquor store, where the young man behind the counter left his post and smartly secured for us the Harvey’s Bristol Cream that had eluded our search attempts.  It is not something to be proud of, knowing the location of liquor on the shelves,” he said as he bagged the bottle, took our money and tried to make a response to our thanks and praise.  He hopes to be known for other things.  He has been at the liquor store just over a year now, is studying at a centre for the arts. 


The world is full of fabulous young people, we say to each other as we head for home, exhausted from the combination of work and all the other things that happen to us in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  We should talk more to them, talk more about them.  It might give us more hope, a readier response when we hear about the sorry state of today’s youth.  In the space of fifteen minutes we met two capable, hard-working fellows with excellent manners, dreams for their future, and patience to work toward them. 

Friday, December 15, 2006


Sandra is a teacher, has been a teacher for a long, long time.  She used to lie in bed beside me, reading me Bible stories from a book on the high shelf.  I remember her tracing on my arm so I would feel the relative lengths of the lifelines in the book.  How we marvelled at the incomprehensible longevity of Noah.  Could any man live to be 950 years old?  She taught me about the unpredictability of volcanoes, and then dried my tears when I cried in the story of a dog who, carrying a raisin bun in his mouth, was found at Pompeii buried beneath the lava that exploded out of Mount Vesuvius.  And when I was all grown up, she took me to a storytelling festival, a day that inspired my grown-up storytelling dreams.  


Sandra is a teacher.  She taught me to tie my shoes, an accomplishment that could only be fully appreciated in later years, when it became apparent how clumsy my fingers were planning to be.   She taught me touch-typing as soon as she learned it.  She was thirteen.  I was six.  She taught me to climb on to a horse’s back, make a chocolate pudding, change a baby’s diaper, test the temperature of bath water, cook a frozen TV dinner, tuck in my sweaters and keep my knees together in a skirt.  Nobody knows how she learned to be a teacher.  She must have been born to it. 


Sandra is an officially sanctioned teacher.  She started young, was granted a license to teach before her twentieth birthday.  Year after year, decade after decade, she has performed her miracle, changing pre-reading children into readers.  She got new books to keep herself interested, learned new methods to keep up with the current trends, took cash out of the bank to buy supplies at Teachers’ Conventions.   


Sandra is an officially acclaimed teacher.  Her colleagues nominated her for an Excellence award.  , Acclaim of the official kind has been a rare thing in her life.  She was born healthy.  Her two sisters were born blind.   All three girls earned their place in the spotlight, but her extraordinary abilities were less noticeable because she had no disability against which to display them for contrast.  So much was expected of her, too little credit given for things that would have made her the centre of attention in other families.  But among her colleagues she was known to be exceptional.  When she was chosen for special recognition, they celebrated the honour with her and her family.   The Minister of Learning said: “Some of the most valuable lessons teachers offer cannot be found in textbooks or the curriculum. Great teachers help us to discover our unique talents.  They inspire us to dream of all we can achieve and fuel our desire to learn.” 


And now Sandra is preparing to be a retired teacher.  Already her workday is shorter than it used to be.  Soon there will be an end to scraping the windshield on dark wintry mornings, driving to work on roads too dangerous for the school bus, being professional at conferences with angry parents, teaching the ropes to new principals, drafting report cards. 


Nevertheless, Sandra will still be a teacher.  Here come her grandchildren, popping up as steadily as steps on an escalator.  Her home is a haven for cribs and highchairs, shapes and colours, letters and numbers, new books and old books.  CD’s and DVD’s fill the spaces where long-playing records and cassette tapes used to be.  There is a difference between having a career and having a vocation.  Fallen arches and pension credits can lure a teacher out of the classroom.  It takes more than that to take the teacher out of a teacher. 



Thursday, December 14, 2006


Music is the language of ceremonies and special occasions.  My parents used to say that IF you had a gift of music, you were duty-bound to give it.  There were songs for bridal showers, songs for weddings, songs for anniversaries silver and golden.  There were songs for birthdays and songs to fill out the program at Christmas concerts. 


And now, a new trend that has gradually been taking hold in my life, songs for funerals.  Tomorrow will be a sad day for those who knew Brian as a husband, a father, a friend.  While Marilyn and I play the Pachebel canon, building steadily toward the final triumphant crescendo that has brought us thunderous applause on other days, I will ponder the differences in the music that comforts us, some asking for the lonesome cry of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes, others turning to the Pachebel, presented in rousing splendour, the way they heard it at previous celebrations. 

Monday, December 11, 2006


The theme of our Christmas tree is eclectic historic.  Crystal stockings bought in Montreal before the kids were born, textured balls bought at Safeway before we could afford a trip to Montreal, beaded candy canes the kids made with grandma, soft birds with feathered tails that hung on David’s childhood tree, the latest pewter from the office gift exchange.  The lights are assorted.  All colours are fine.  The tree is cheap at Ikea, the kind that drops needles all over the place if you leave it up too long the kind that necessitates some careful decision making about how to correct its irregularities with ornaments.  The act of decorating it is a walk through the past.  The conversation as we dig through the boxes could be recorded as the basis of our autobiography. 


Ruth grew up with our trees, but Ruth’s tree is perfect, well as perfect as a cheap Ikea tree bought alongside ours can be.  Its adornments are silver and white.  She declined our generous offer of leftover decorations.  Aside from the irregularities, her tree is pretty much the same every year. 


The radio says the silver trees that were in fashion ten years ago are now back in style.  Only now, they can be red, or purple too.  I wonder what happens to all the decorations that go out of style, and it gives me a sick little feeling to think that Christmas trees, like so many other things, are the puppets of fashion rather than the celebrants of memory and tradition. 


I doubt if our tree will ever be anything other than eclectic, and I am learning that all Christmas trees do not have to be like ours to be meaningful.  For Ruth’s stylish tree has given us some of our happiest Christmas mornings, mornings in her living room unwrapping our presents, eating chocolates  and drinking coffee.  As soon as she mentions putting it up I get that old friendly feeling, that traditional feeling. 


So maybe if your tree doesn’t have to be eclectic, maybe it doesn’t have to be the same every year either.  Could it be that there is some twenty-year-old writer out there reporting with sweet nostalgia, “Our Christmas tree was a different colour every year and we just couldn’t wait to find out what colour it would be.”  


Friday, December 08, 2006


Writing stories from the construction worker’s perspective is one of many items on the list of things Mike hopes to do some day.  And who better to do it than Mike?  Go to Mike’s house and you will find a transformation of magnificent hardwood and custom cabinets where the linoleum and prefabs used to be.  Mike observes that there are many books about writers, just as there are so many movies about show business.  Construction workers, he says,  have stories too, but they tell their stories to each other with their mouths full and their lunch pails open.  They don’t generally write very much.   Mike likes to write, but he doesn’t have much time.  He is busy with other things. 


When you go to mike’s house, you easily find out that the expert craftsmanship is Mike’s work.  But this is a tiny percentage of his work.  His cabinets and bookcases adorn many homes, included in the packages offered by companies who call themselves Master builders, rarely, if ever mentioning the names of the people who actually do the building.  Those craftspeople remain in the background, their labours essential and beautiful, their stories untold, their role unacknowledged.   It is almost as if they don’t really exist. 


Invisibility is present everywhere when people work together to achieve something.  But you also find it where you would not expect to.  Take, for example, in the world of story-gatherers.  Not long ago I spent a morning with three people making three minutes of television.  The camera crew showed up first, two guys who scouted the place, made trips to their van, and had the furniture arranged for filming before the host arrived.  After the host got there, the camera crew became invisible, standing behind the camera, following orders and making the occasional tactful suggestion if something seemed unworkable to them. 


I was the subject of a lengthy interview.  When the host asked me about shifts in perspective, I mentioned my accordion, how it was a treasure to me as a child, a source of shame and humiliation to me as a teen-ager, a closet-filler for many years, and lately, because it comforted my mother during an illness, a renewed source of interest to me.  A few minutes later, the host briefly left the room.  The cameras were off.


A cameraman appeared.  “I have an accordion too,” he said in a low, conspiratorial tone.  “You might remember the show on CFRN television, Kiddies On Camera.  I played on that show.  There was a girl who played the drums and we did Jail House Rock as a duet.  I had it memorized, but they said I could use a music stand, so I took the music in with me.  Then, right at the last minute, they took the music away because it was ruining the picture.” 


The host returned.  Back to work we went.  But a while later, she left the room again.  The cameraman began to tell me he also knew the shame of a teen-age accordionist.  We were getting into the stages of psychological development when the second cameraman appeared.  “I have an accordion too,” he said. 


“Oh yeah,” said his partner.  I was suspicious too.  You can understand how we felt.  We were having a great time and maybe he was just trying to get some attention. 


“Oh yeah,” he said.  “It’s red.  It’s a Hohner.”  We couldn’t argue with that.  I hadn’t mentioned it yet, but mine is a red Hohner also.    “I used to be in the music business before I started doing this,” he said, in answer to our questions.   “I have all kinds of musical instruments.”


By the time the host returned, we were talking about the difficulty of keeping the bellows from cracking when you pull them apart after—say—twenty years of idleness.  We were sharing information about authentic accordion repair shops in Edmonton.  But none of this will be on television.   


So keep your dream in sight, Mike.  There will be interest in your stories when you get them written down.  There aren’t many accordion stories, but they probably outnumber construction stories.  And we need stories of all kinds, all the better to understand each other. 

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Lucky are the babes who call Jennifer Nana.  For they shall have great memories to pass on to their grandchildren. 


Some women yearn to be grandmothers, count the days, buy all the baby furniture in anticipation of the momentous event.  But I don’t recall Jennifer bubbling with excitement when the prospect was announced.  Her response looked more like quiet acceptance, and this in its own way was uncharacteristic, for Jennifer is a woman of bubbling enthusiasms. 


In a time so short it seems impossible, fate has delivered her two incorrigible little grandsons.  No evidence of quiet acceptance now.  She has turned our annual church Christmas dinner into a re-enactment of the summer camps we shared with our children.  With all the determination of a leadership candidate drumming up support at a party convention, she is working the room as people take their seats, stirring up mischief.  There is chaos.  There is laughter.  Everyone has a part to play.  A chorus of Jingle Bells interrupts the master of ceremonies every time he says the word table.  And when he says Christmas, the crowd bursts out with Fa la la la la la la la la.  We smack the hand of our neighbour on the closing line of the Johnny Apple Seed grace.  “The kids,” she explains as she co-opts me as a partner in crime, “The kids don’t know about the things we did at camp, like the Announcement song. 


There are so many things Jennifer does with a sparkle.  A Christmas vegetable plate is a foundation of mayonnaise adorned in bright vegetables arranged in a huge Christmas tree pattern.  A bridal shower in her home is a morning event for forty guests featuring the tiny buttermilk pancakes her mother used to serve the Camrose ladies.  A cheeseburger for our kids drips with a mixture of hot cheeses and comes to you with a skiing story from one of her myriad cookbooks.  She introduces me to Pavlova, that yummy meringue and fruit dessert, and I never forget Pavlova because she tells me about the Australian athlete for whom it is named. 


When Jennifer was forty, her favourite song was Rainbow Connection, by Kermit The Frog.  For years she stood in front of the congregation, teaching songs to children, with the interests of the children as her first concern.  Make it fun; make it a song that children can sing.  Be a little outrageous so they will always remember.  Make it really beautiful if it is a prayer or a round.  But this is not all she was doing.  For while she was making a place for the children, my irrepressible friend kept up a constant stream of dialogue with me, the pianist.  Though her husband warned her of the dangers of possible offence to me, she knew it would all even out.  She, standing in front of the microphone, could say whatever sprang to her lips.  Then I, unable to respond in the moment, having no microphone of my own, would have extra time during the sermon and prayers to engineer a reply. 


One time she threw me—a tedious birthday whiner--a surprise birthday party.  Perhaps she knew it would change my birthday story forever, bring an end to the whining.  There were two cakes, baked in her mixing bowls, one shaped as the left breast, the other as the right.  She was compensating for a shared deficiency.  Neither of us was particularly well endowed in real life. 


Sometimes you lose track of the things you most love about your friends.  These loves get buried in the clutter of life events, of fatigue, of straying attentions that obscure the joys of fully living.  Still they are your beacons, the touchstones of your life.  If something happens to you, they reappear in an instant, and you feel no surprise, only gratitude for their abiding presence. 


Jennifer has been carving a path for me for a long time, embracing motherhood first, showing me how to care for ailing parents.  And now, as my future grandchildren remain hidden below the horizon, unrevealed until their season, I see her making memories for hers, and it is enough to join her in a mid-life display of outrageous behavior, to be part of the story these little boys will tell.  She is expanding my grandmother images far beyond the narrow confines of aging women.  As I watch in genuine delight, her cup is replenishing itself from the fountain of youth. 

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Christmas morning is a time of tradition.  My Christmas mornings have, for the most part, been remarkably similar.  In my childhood, after I marry, as our children grow into adults, the pattern perpetuates itself.  We get up, we eat breakfast, we open gifts.  On the busiest days we prepare to serve guests.  On the quieter days, we prepare to be guests. 


Then one Christmas Day, a quieter day, something new is added.  My son Mark has made the outrageous suggestion that he and I should fill our backpacks and walk the streets of the inner city before we open the gifts.  This is a shot in the dark, for he has no prior experience to tell us what we will find.  Such a voyage would have been unthinkable only a year earlier, for we never walked the inner city streets in those days, unless to park the car with a hurried flourish and race into some store, wanting to ensure the car’s safety by returning to it as soon as possible.  But now, since our move from the suburbs, the inner city lies in a walkable path between our home and the office.  Somehow its inhabitants are less scary in person than they were from the car window.  They talk to you about the weather when you are close to them, when you speak to them while crossing at a light.  So the place feels familiar, yet unfamiliar as we journey out on the deserted streets.  Any other day the traffic would be whizzing past.  On Christmas day there is no traffic, no need to stay on the sidewalk. 


On Christmas morning the sun rises some time around 9:00 AM.  As dawn’s first rays extinguish the streetlights, we find people drifting into the open air.  The shelters for the homeless spill out men and women of all ages with no particular place to go.  They hover in doorways and alleys, sit smoking and chatting in circles on vacant lots.  They walk, rest, walk some more.  If you approach them with a friendly greeting and an empty cup to fill with coffee from your thermos they will proffer a cigarette for a light.  You will soon be having a conversation about the weather, family, plans for the day.  If you have something they can use, a sandwich, gloves, warm socks, a hat, a little money, they will accept that thing with hearty thanks.  Nobody takes everything you have, no sign of conspicuous greed, no hoarding here. 


The first time we visit the streets on Christmas morning we are tentative in our approach, cautious in our advances, fearful of causing offence, relieved by the graciousness shown to us.  Even as we walk home to join the others around a tree laden with gifts, we are making plans for next year.   


The following Christmas is a busier day, our turn to do the family hosting.  Nonetheless, we scramble to make the time.  The second visit begins remarkably like the first.  Some of the streets are deserted.  Some of the people we greet lower their heads and hurry past.  Then, with a shout of greeting, a man emerges from the shadows, running across the street to hale us.  “Remember me?” he cries.  His whole being is vibrating with the kind of excitement you see when a two-year-old bounces down the stairs to find that someone has placed a full stocking beside the empty milk glass and cookie plate.  “Remember me?  We met outside the liquor store last Christmas.  I was just telling my buddies about this man and his mom who came around here last year and here you are again.  Remember me?  Remember me?” 


One hand reaches into his shirt pocket drawing out first a cigarette for a light, next a bar of chocolate to offer as a gift to us.  The other hand beckons his buddies to join us.  In a moment the others are straggling across the empty street, clustering around, reaching for coffee, wanting to know why we are here, what we do on the other 364 days.  There is banter, there is laughter, and then, because last year’s remembered friend is asking for it, there is hugging all around, Marry Christmas wishing.   Time is flying.  It is time for us to go home.


I once told this story during a hope workshop.  One member of the audience was highly offended.  She wrote me an angry letter, accusing me of the worst kind of charity, the look down on the poor kind of charity, the hand out five dollars and then go home to a laden tree instead of really helping kind of charity.  I thought it was the injustice of the thing that hurt me most.  If the people of the inner city were glad to see me, why should she want to take that from them?  Later I thought it was the truth of what she said that hurt me the most.  It is true that I sacrificed nothing for them, nothing except a little of the time on the morning I have always found to be most precious.  Today I speak up whenever people say they won’t go to 96th Street because it is too scary.  I tell them we walk the area several times a week, sometimes even on Christmas morning.  I tell them we talk to the people.  They aren’t as scary when you are close to them.  They are just people, albeit different from us.  If helping is what we want to do, we will know better how to help them once we get to know them.  If changing them is what we want to do, we may have to be prepared to change as well.  If laughing with them, celebrating with them, is what we want to do, Christmas morning—hot coffee in hand--is an excellent time to do that. 

Monday, December 04, 2006


Other people are sleeping peacefully, or eating breakfast, or reading the newspaper before heading off to the office.  I am playing wrong notes on the piano.  Only one question seems relevant: Why do I say yes to these things?


This isn’t my problem.  It’s Bob’s.  He has written a song which he wants to sing.  The song needs accompaniment.  Since Bob neither reads music, nor plays an instrument, his song will remain a song for the shower unless somebody composes and plays an accompaniment.  If Bob had been a little less humble when he shyly asked if I could create music for a song he had written, if I hadn’t imagined the song to be a simple song in the key of C needing only a few cords, if we hadn’t been standing at the back of the church right after a sermon about reaching beyond yourself, then I might not have said yes.  But I did say “yes” and the date when bob will perform the song is already set. 


I’m a sucker for flattery, a pushover for anybody seeking volunteers.  All they have to say is: “you’d be great for this job,” and I’m right there, doing their work when I ought to be doing my own.  So here I sit, winding and rewinding Bob’s cassette tape, fumbling in the impossible key of E major, a woman who never plays the blues, wondering how they play the blues for a guy who croons like Elvis.  It will take hours to figure it all out, hours to play it with confidence, hours to practice with bob.  And what will be the gain?


Now the performance day has come, and here we are, crammed into the far end of a narrow airless room with a tin can sound system and a piano that probably had its most recent tuning some time around 1950.  Fluorescent tubes blaze along a ceiling so low I can almost touch it.  Some members of the audience are asleep, aided possibly in their rest by hearing loss.  Others fidget in wheelchairs.  The place smells like—like--like a nursing home.  Just how much time did I spend preparing for this?


The moment has arrived.  The piano and I are negotiating the introduction.  Lean on the soft pedal.  Keep the rhythm slow and steady.  Bob is positioning the mike.  He’s breathing in.  Now he is singing the low notes, making them mellow, feeling the rhythm.  Now he’s building in the middle, resting, breathing.  The lights seem softer somehow.  Now he’s up in the high notes, the E, the D’s, soaring, gliding.  The piano has forgotten to be out of tune.  Indeed, it seems to be playing itself, coming out of itself to be with Bob.  It is supporting.  It is lifting.  It is singing too.  Having awakened the audience, Bob takes a moment to twirl them at the top before he starts the final descent, coming down softly, leaving them gently.  The last low note ushers in the silence.  Nothing left to do but take a bow. 


Applause rings out.  Tomorrow a bustling nurse will nod politely when a white-haired gentleman tells her Elvis was in the building.  But tonight the place seems to smell better than it did an hour ago, maybe as good as the Winspeare Centre, or maybe like a hotel theatre in Vegas. 


Saturday, December 02, 2006


What do the experts say about the staying power of their fruitcakes?  Martha Stewart makes a fruitcake that will keep for 25 years.  Food writer Cinda Chavich tells us that her mother’s fruitcake keeps for a yeaar.  Ours never lasts more than a couple of months, shorter time if covered with almond paste.  Nobody knows how long it would keep.

Friday, December 01, 2006


I know two people who have no food in the cupboard and no money coming in the next few days.  Neither of them will have money for the rent if they buy food with the next cheque.  It ought to be easy to deal with this problem, given the plethora of charity fund raising that goes on at Christmas.  The food bank is everywhere, on the radio, at every concert.  They are intelligent.  They are aware.  It is inconceivable that either of these people are unaware of the food bank, but neither has mentioned it, and so I tentatively mention the food bank to both of them. 


They are different these two, different in age, in gender, in stage of life.  Yet their response to my suggestion is virtually identical.  Silence!  I wait.  More silence!  The silence of the measured response, the silence of people swallowing a reaction too caustic to throw in the face of someone they trust, someone they respect.   “no,” they say.  “No.  Not the food bank.”


And then they wait for me to answer, wait in the silence.  More silence.  The silence of a counsellor who doesn’t know how to help people regain their mental health when they have no food to eat, the silence of someone who admires their courage in the face of deficiencies incomprehensible in the context of my own life.  I want to tell them that I don’t get it, that their refusal is stupid, that it makes me feel hopeless amid the bombardment of charities in this Christmas season.  Only trouble is, I do sort of get it. 


These are kind people, nice people, charitable people struck down in their prime by the pervasive mental illnesses that filter through the generational divides in their families.  They want to give, not take.  And while they may or may not be able to receive a cheque in private and sneak it to the bank under cover of confidentiality, they cannot imagine hearing themselves beg for food and then choose macaroni over lentils.  They would paste on a smile of gratitude, force out a polite thank-you. They would go home and give the food away. 


I just want to ask them over for dinner.  But the psychology profession would call that poor boundaries.  I fear the professionals would not defend me if things turned out badly.  “You can’t change the world,” they would say.  That is why we have government and charities. 


And I know they are right.  I cannot change the world.  But I still want to try.


Thursday, November 30, 2006


“Let there be no mistake,” says Tina.  “My social life is just about non-existent.  But then I call up this friend who I know is really busy, and she suggests we go out for dinner on Friday.  Her husband is totally caught up with work at this time of the year and she is spending her evenings alone.  And I am really surprised, because I have been thinking that I am the only person who isn’t completely booked up at this time of the year.  I am thinking that maybe if I make a few calls, I will find others who aren’t as busy as I thought.  I have had an Epiphany, and Advent hasn’t even started.”


Wednesday, November 29, 2006


There once was a boy whose parents sent him to places where the people were deaf, mean and stupid.  Take kindergarten, for example.  “Hello,” said the teacher, as he untied his shoes.  “What is your name?”


“Lowence,” he whispered.


“Pardon me,” said the teacher.


“Lowence!” he said louder, but not loud enough, it seemed.  Because she went to her desk and got a piece of paper.  “Oh,” she said.  “Lawrence!”


Standing right beside him were a big tough guy named Jason and a sniveling little girl named Andrea.  When the teacher was getting a Kleenex for Andrea the guy named Jason whispered, “Lowence eh?  Can’t even say your own name.”


So Lowence kicked Jason, good and hard!  And Jason yelled: “Owowow.  He kicked me!”  The teacher heard that.  Now the teacher wasn’t the only adult in the classroom at the time.  There was also another really mean woman, a black-haired woman who took him firmly by the arm and marched him along down to the principal’s office where he had to stand in front of a counter and talk to somebody else who also turned out to be deaf. 


The mean woman said: “This boy has been violent.  His teacher has sent him to see the principal.”


“Oh dear,” said the lady behind the desk.  “What is your name?”


“Lowence,” he mumbled.


“Pardon me?”


“Lowence,” he said louder. 


“Lawrence,” said the mean woman with the black hair.


While he waited for the principal who was busy doing other things, he crawled under a table, and when he jumped up, the table jumped too.  So did a big cup of hot coffee that spilled on some other people who were waiting to see the principal.  People started yelling, which was really stupid, because the whole thing was an accident. 


Well, as you can probably imagine, this was a really busy time for his parents, going to meetings about his behavior and chasing after him when he ran away from school, and worrying about what ought to be done to teach him to read and getting him tested so he could qualify for special funding.  Nonetheless, one Saturday morning, right when the best cartoons were on, his mother said they were going to see a speech therapist, which was really stupid because he had speech therapy at school.  He did not want to go.


Later he had to admit that the morning turned out better than he expected.  For one thing, his mother bought him a slush from the 7 11 on the corner, which was something she really never did.  And the first thing the speech therapist made him do was look at pictures and say their names. 


After they had spent some time with the pictures, rabbits, roosters, rulers and the like, she told him he had a very handsome mouth and brought a mirror so he could see it.  It was a pretty handsome mouth.  He grinned a little.  Then she showed him her mouth, and she held it just so, open a little with her tongue curled backwards, and she made this sound: “RRRRRRR.”  Actually, her mouth was quite good looking also.


Then she said something he really could not believe.  You could hold your mouth just like that and make that sound too.  Why don’t you try it!  Come on!  Try it!”” 


She was right.  You could hold your mouth just the way she held hers, a little bit open with your tongue curled back and you could make that sound!  “RRRRR!”.   Even he could make that sound!  He sounded like a dog who was getting his bone taken away.  “RRRR!” He sounded like a tiger warning another tiger to stay out of his way.  He was a pack of dogs.  He was a whole zoo full of animals, all growling their heads off.  He growled and growled until his mother and that lady got the giggles and made him giggle too, which made it tough to go on growling.


Then that lady said something really ridiculous.  Now you can say Lawrence,” she said.  “Just hold your mouth like that and growl in the middle.” This is how it will sound.  It will sound like Lawrrrrrrrrrrrrrence. 


He looked into the mirror, he held his tongue just right, and then he said it, “Lawrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrence!”  It sounded so good that he said it again, and again.  The lady said it with him.  His mother said it with him.  They marched when they said it.  They clapped when they said it.  They said it and said IT until their throats hurt. 


And after that, it seemed like there weren’t so many deaf people in the world.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I wonder why we counselors write so much about our work, and so little about emotions.  What work, other than counselling, could be so totally fraught with
emotion?  All of us are human, filled to the brim with feelings we carry into and bring out of our work.  It strikes me as odd that, when we do write about
emotions, we put so much emphasis on learning to deal with client emotion and so little on making the most of our own.  Why, when we talk about our emotions,
do we so often phrase our language in terms of burnout and boundaries? 
 Most counsellors tell me they like their work.  So that raises a question: what could encourage us to write about counselling as the work we love, the
work that thrills us, rewards us?  Perhaps we need some leadership, an example to follow, permission demonstrated through action.   Okay, I will take a
turn.  But even as I contemplate my love of counselling, listing the practices that have made me the happiest, taught me the most treasured lessons, I
cannot think of a single publication where I would have the confidence to send such a piece of writing.  The happiness research tells us that life satisfaction
comes from the blending of three things: pleasure, personal engagement and meaning.  So here, on my blog, where I make the rules about what can and cannot
be said, are my top six hopes, based on what I have noticed about satisfaction with my work in the past, and what I hope to notice in the future.  .
 1.  I hope to ache with caring.
 I hope to ache with caring, a phrase given to me not by a counselling expert but by a children’s author, Mem Fox.  I hope to ache with caring, even though
it hurts to ache, because when I ache with caring I make one more phone call at times when I think I have explored all the options.  I write referral letters
with greater conviction.  When I ache with caring, there is more chance that I will be understood, less chance that my genuine compassion will disappear
behind a mask of professional propriety.  When I ache with caring I read more books, ask more advice, take more risks, try new things.  I am inoculated
against apathy.  I have moved beyond the conscious effort of showing empathy by paraphrasing and reflecting feelings.  I actually hurt.  It’s uncomfortable,
but I do better work when I ache with caring.
 2.  I hope to learn by listening.
 When I listen to people, really hear what they are saying, they all sound different, and I am curious.  It is the curious part of me that keeps me interested
in other people, keeps them from falling into categories, makes each of them unique.  Listening to them seems to make them more interesting than anything
else I have tried.  When I listen with open ears, open to things I would like to hear and things I would rather not, I get the answers to the big why’s
of life: why do young men carry weapons?  Why are people so resistant to taking prescribed medications?  Why do we grieve the loss of people who were mean
to us?  Why do kids skip school?  When I occupy myself by learning through listening, I am usually too busy to give advice or point out the difference
between good and bad, between right and wrong.  There is always plenty of time for that later, and my opinion seems to carry more weight if I still want
to express it after I have listened first, learned first. 
 3.  I hope to be a source of hope.
 I hope to be a source of hope, with a spongy layer to soak up more of it.  When I hope I am given an extra set of binoculars with a view of a future I
would like to be in.  Any kind of hope will do: hope that is brave enough to scare off fear; hope that is powerful enough to dislodge inertia; hope that
is tenacious enough to out-maneuver despair; hope that is bright enough to light a path through fog or darkness.  If the events of my history or the tools
in my counsellor’s collection can bring hope or find hope or inspire hope or nurture hope or foster hope or enhance hope, then these are the tools I will
use with pride.
 4.  I hope to bubble with laughter.
 I like laughing.  I believe in laughter: private smiling mirth; irrepressible giggling; gut-wrenching, teary-eyed deep breathing laughter for the fun of
it; laughter for the health of it.  To those who say we should laugh less and deal with problems more seriously, I say let us laugh if we are able; laugh
first so we can build up the strength to deal with the problems.  It is hard for me to work with people who cannot laugh.  But then, pretty much anybody
will laugh if you help them.
 5.  I hope to inspire with stories.
 I like telling stories in counselling almost as much as I like hearing them, and I really, really like hearing them.  My love of stories took root early
in my days of bottles and diapers.  Over the years it has grown, found more places to express itself.  I am willing to risk wasting a little time with
stories, because stories do so many good things.  They settle us down, rivet our attention, make us feel warm, pique our curiosity, give us heroes to follow,
comfort us in times of fear.  They make the whole process interesting.  And as I said before, I like it when it is interesting.
 6.  I hope to be surprised by joy
 Surprised, you say?  Well, yes, surprised by joy, just like the title of that old William Wordsworth poem, since joy is in short supply in counselling. 
So many of the people who finally resort to counselling, having waited until they could not stand it one minute more, have lost their joy, or have tucked
it away under their sorrow, or left it at home, not expecting to need it for that hour.  So when joy—however fleeting--joins us in the office, bursting
forth in the news of triumphs, seeping out from the clutter of untidy memories, it is a welcome guest, a heralded celebrity.  In the face of disappointment,
and depression, and illness I am so often surprised by joy.  May I never get over being surprised!

Thursday, November 23, 2006


I might never have had a blog if they hadn’t started calling me The Hope Lady.  As far as I knew, blogs were for teen-agers and politicians on the campaign trail.  Besides, I’ve never been a journal keeper. 


My journaling history is a saga of failure, several journals begun, none growing larger than three entries before abandonment.  I had the idea that a journal ought to contain personal secrets and could not bear the thought of my secrets from any particular day being discovered.  There is safety in knowing you can change your secrets, and you can change them, so long as you haven’t put them in writing.   What’s more, I never could get very interested in writing anything that wasn’t going to be read by anyone. 


The Hope lady is a title others gave to me, not one I would have chosen for myself.  I am definitely no Mother Theresa.  But when you work for a centre for hope studies, and you talk about hope day after day, year after year, to people who may, or may not be able to remember your name, some of them are bound to refer to you as The Hope Lady.  Some days it feels like a good fit.  Other days, when the world is violent and the news is discouraging, and the drinking water has turned to acid rain and the bird feeder swarms with noisy magpies, and the computer has frozen and the kitchen tap is dripping, and the stock market is sliding while the only stock we ever sold is rising, and my favourite clients are suicidal and some professional journal editor has rejected the writing that kept me awake for six days—well—those are the days when it seems that there are actually two of us, The Hope Lady and The Real Me. 


The Real Me howls and wrings her hands.  She blames the politicians and pollutes the water.  She angrily turns off the radio and unplugs the computer because you can’t always turn it off when it’s frozen.  She curses the forces that shape the stock market and vows never again to buy birdseed.  She says something rude to the plumber’s receptionist and promises to rip up the editor’s comments.  But that will have to wait until the computer starts working again, because she has not printed them yet.  The Real Me is not the person who should receive a telephone solicitation from a charity, or a request to volunteer.  She is not the one who should be summoned to comfort the suicidal clients.  The task of being a good person on a bad day is delegated in full to The Hope Lady. 


The Hope Lady is no Mother Theresa, but she can do some surprising things.  She can write a little, and has wiped out 53 years of unsuccessful journaling with a blog faithfully kept for eleven weeks.  She feels no pressure to reveal secrets because it is a public journal, and no pressure to make it perfect because she already knows it will have few readers.  Nevertheless, she is purposeful in its writing, because somebody just might read it.  Grounded firmly in the world of The Real Me, she sets out to notice what The Hope Lady ought to notice, to give voice to the things The Hope Lady ought to write.  Surprisingly, her writing has received the stamp of approval from The Real Me.


And what has The Hope Lady noticed in the past eleven weeks?  The joy of a blind woman who can read the newspaper and the triumph of important issues in research; the comb concerts that celebrate racial progress in Selma Alabama and the gripping power of American civil war stories to make us work for peace; the pheasant at the bird feeder, feasting on the grain the magpies have spilled; the young people who learned to control their behavior, grew up nicely, shared their food with hungry strangers, interrupted their rushing journeys to help people in need; the old people, remembered with love and wonder; the cat getting a bird’s eye view from atop the piano; the proud accordion player coming out of the closet at last; the left wing, public health care supporting Albertans who were so totally welcomed in red-neck Tennessee.  She has written about hope-opotamuses, dogs with a secret past, unexpected roses, long-time half-empty vessels that filled to bursting in only a moment. 


There it is, this imperfect blog; out there in the universe where anybody might accidentally stumble upon it.  It is the foundation of evidence for hope that keeps the two of us on track on the worst of days.  It is the old chest we route in when we need to find hope.  It is the weight of reassurance that steadies our anchor when The Hope Lady and The Real Me venture into the world inhabited by suicidal clients. 


What would The Hope Lady do that The Real Me wouldn’t?  Even on the worst days she would look around to see if she could notice any hope.  And if she could summon the words to describe what she found, she would record it in a blog.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I was starved when they found me and missing one eye

My features encrusted, a canine mud pie

So they christened me “Pirate’ and fenced their front yard

With wire and picket they thought would be hard

To escape, but it isn’t.  I crawl underneath

I engineer gaps with my paws and my teeth


If I could tell stories I’d keep them enthralled

With the places I’ve lived and the names I’ve been called

They sooth me with petting, they ply me with bones

They coddle me more than most kings on their thrones

I’m a paradogs daily, intending to stay

While incessantly plotting a fast get-away.

Monday, November 20, 2006


I am thinking of two Bills who have been important to me.  Bill Beach was the minister at Mill Woods united Church when it was chartered.  He taught us how to set up a church, how to form a board, how to make a Sunday school, how to build a building.   The other is Bill Tymchuk.  He hired me into my first professional position, set an example for a job ought to be done, showed me that a gracious retirement is possible, came out to cheer for my accomplishments at every opportunity.  Now both Bills have Alzheimer Disease.  Their wives, ever their best helpers, now take the lead wherever they go.  But still my Bills are setting an example.  Bill Beach, a golfer from way back,  brings is putting machine to the Alzheimer forum, so that other patients and their families can see how they might continue to pursue a former passion.  And Bill Tymchuk calls me on the days when he is well saying: Ï thought I would call on a day when I can remember you. “


Knowing these two men, how can I think of Alzheimer Disease, and not be hopeful at the same time?

Thursday, November 16, 2006


From the Dixie Chicks lyrics: "Am I The Only One (Whose Ever Felt This Way)"


There Is No Good Reason

I Should Have To Be So Alone””


I wanted to get tickets the moment I heard that the Dixie Chicks were coming to Rexall Place.  I was a little sorry about the venue.  This over-sized hockey rink is not exactly a citadel of acoustic perfection.  But Neil Diamond sang for me there, and his music kept me on my feet cheering through most of the second half.  And when Sarah McLaughlin sang for me in that place, it took twenty-four hours for me to emerge from the dreamy pleasure of her mellow sound.  A Dixie Chicks concert seemed like just the place where I would want to spend $120.  In my mind’s imagination I heard three beautiful voices entwined in soft feminine harmonies, lightly dancing among shades of violin and banjo.  I heard the sweet words that bring me to tears, the stories about lost love and little girls who fall for doomed soldiers. 


Our $120 put us up in the nosebleed section, a healthy climb, not for the faint of heart.  But then, though we were not the oldest people present, the crowd was much younger than we had expected.  We had been in our seats not more than a few moments when the aisles began to fill with strapping young men carrying trays of beer.  Within half an hour those same aisles vibrated with the descent of the hoards who now needed the washroom. 


Amid the action, three women came out on stage, exchanging instruments during the applause.  A noise roughly equivalent to the roar of an earthquake filled the place.  Amid the din the vague shapes of familiar songs reached out to claim the ear, then receded in the chaos.  Words and instruments disappeared entirely in the roar of the back-up band and the buzz of the sound system.  Deaf from the pounding of the music, I had no idea what they said between the songs when the applause died down. 


Bombardment is the word that seems to describe the experience.  At some point we made a conscious decision to avoid the danger of being trampled by the beer carriers and bathroom seekers on the steps, even though it meant suffering through to the end.  Having attended an event with $12,000 other people I felt curiously alone.  On the way out I heard a young girl say she had cried during the sad song about the soldier.  The newspaper said the Dixie Chicks were a real crowd pleaser.  After all, they mentioned the Oilers and everybody cheered.  I recalled their mentioning the Oilers, but I can’t remember if I cheered.


By mid-afternoon the next day, with my hearing partially restored, and the waste of $120 partially forgiven, I played my old CDs.  There they were, those harmonious voices, those clear-as-a-bell instruments.  They were whole.  They were magnificent.  They were just as wonderful as I remembered.  They were not gone forever. 


I have learned a lesson about wanting to have it all.  My Dixie Chicks are back in my ears now, and I’ll never try to see them in concert again, not even if they come to the Winspeare.  Well, maybe if they come to the Winspeare.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


I post this for those of you who ask for it after hearing it at my presentations.  If you are the unacknowledged author of tis delightful piece, please step forward and you will be acknowledged.  


IF YOU CAN.......

(author unknown)


If you can start the day without caffeine,


If you can get going without pep pills,


If you can always be cheerful,

ignoring aches and pains,


If you can resist complaining and

boring people with your troubles,


If you can eat the same food every

day and be grateful for it,


If you can understand when your loved

ones are too busy to give you any time,


If you can overlook it when those you love

take it out on you when, through no fault

of yours, something goes wrong,


If you can take criticism and

blame without resentment,


If you can ignore a friend's limited

education and never correct him,


If you can resist treating a rich friend

better than a poor friend,


If you can face the world

without lies and deceit,


If you can conquer tension

without medical help,


If you can relax without liquor,


If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,


Then You Are Probably the Family Dog!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


And here comes Lenora, early to work on this snowy morning when the whole world is grinding at a snail’s pace and those who make it to work are shiveringly gritting their teeth.  She is smiling, this humble seamstress, this woman with the sewing machine that always used to jam.  It seems that her old machine has somehow been infused with a touch of magic.  For now she has made a tiny curtain, the first she ever made by following all the instructions, the first she ever lined.  This delightful creation is a dollhouse curtain, a forerunner of curtains to come.  Soon her living room window will no longer fight alone against the winter’s chill.  The winter will not daunt Lenora.  A woman who can make a little curtain can also make a big one.