Sunday, September 30, 2007

THE UGLY NORTH SIDE

Autumn is upon us. Leaves are everywhere. Five summers we have spent in this house and still we have done nothing to improve its ugly north side.

How ugly is it? Well, it’s a weedy, broken-brick covered wasteland about five feet wide that runs about 100 feet in length, a barren stretch where our house and driveway meet the gravelled side alley. The previous owners laid down the broken brick, hoping to make it neat. But then, every summer, ten gazillion maple trees dropped their seeds and a hundred billion dandelions sent their white fluff through the air to join then. And every autumn, an uncounted throng of maple, elm, ash, poplar, linden, apple and who-knows-how-many other trees dropped their leaves into the wind. The leaves made compost among the broken bricks. The maples and dandelions heard about the compost, and rushed over to take a crack at growing.

What should we do about it? That is the question. Should we get new clean rocks, lay down bark chips, plant grass, artificial turf? David bought a super-duper propane weed burner to fry the mess like hot salad. Apparently some seeds do better after exposure to extreme heat. Then he bought containers of vile and disgusting chemicals to do the job. But environmental common sense has now banned the chemicals that kill everything in sight and keep it dead for a hundred years. And so, most of the time, the ugly north side is—well—ugly, at least by the standards of the beflowered south and west sides. Out of our direct line of view, either from our windows, the main yard, or the front street, it makes its own plans, recovering with remarkable ease from the holocausts we foist upon it.

Despite my sympathies for David and his mission, I find it surprising, and a little bit reassuring that—the moment our backs are turned--nature rebels against bending to our will. Alan Weisman, author of The World without Us (St. Martin’s Press, 2007) presents a fascinating picture of how Manhattan would begin to disintegrate in only two days if all humans left town. Without its pumps, the subways would fill with water, the streets would collapse, taking the buildings down with them. Maybe something good could still grow if we lose all control and accidentally destroy our current civilization.

A second example of nature’s tenacity can be found on the east side of our house. In an attempt to accommodate the double garage, the steps to the upper suite, and the narrow area that promised to become the ugly north side of the south fence, the previous owners poured a concrete blanket over the 47-foot width of the yard, stretching from the back alley to the garage. They carved out only one tiny square. It is a space of a few inches around the trunk of a huge old ash tree that probably stood grandly on its own when a tiny old shack occupied the lot. Now it crowds so close to the house that its branches hang over the upper deck. How does it live, I wonder. Do its roots reach all the way down to the water table? Do they extend all the way to the gravelled alleys, or under the lawn next door? Unable to shake the perverse idea that I might influence the fate of a huge tree in a blanket of concrete, I water the ash, put the hose on it several times a year, letting the water drip slowly for hours so it won’t overflow the tiny square and pour down the driveway. Just how the water could possibly find the roots so far down there I have no clue.

The concrete blanket, only ten years old, requires little maintenance other than the scraping of snow and the gathering of leaves. Unlike the broken brick, it is immune to the influence of compost. Still, on our first year in the house, we noted that a sunflower, remarkably similar to the sunflowers in the yard across the alley, had taken root in the gravel at the northeast corner. The following year, a sunflower rooted in the tiny square. Encouraged by my watering, it seeded three children for the next summer. This year the tiny square hosts about a dozen hardy sunflowers, in addition to the giant ash. It just makes you wonder, even though it faces north and never gets watered, if sunflowers couldn’t find a place among the baby maples and dandelions already rooting for next year in the broken brick

Friday, September 28, 2007

SELLING HOPE-OPOTAMUSES

Some people are born entrepreneurs. Some are not. I am not, was not, never have been—surprising in a way, considering how much I love putting new ideas in my work.

These days I am responding to mail from large organizations who want to sell the hope-opotamus to raise money for their operations. When I say large, I mean multimillion-dollar budgets, organizations that pay hundreds of doctors and many other well-aid people. They run dozens of buildings. One kind-hearted fund development officer, on hearing from me that she definitely did not have my permission to market hope-opotamuses for her cause, wrote back that, although she would not sell them without my permission, others with inferior ethical standards would certainly sell them and I had better seek legal protection before it is too late.

Oh the lowly hope-opotamus. Whatever shall we do about it now that it has become famous? It came into existence as an evocative object, a souvenir of hope work, a tangible reminder of hope conversations past. Evocative objects, as described by Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, carry both ideas and passions. They anchor memories.

It has been eight years since the first hope-opotamus arrived at the Hope Foundation of Alberta. It was brought in by Gary, a man who had received hope-focussed counselling and participated in a humour class for people with depression. One day during the humour class I casually said the word hope-opotamus, and the next day he dropped by with a little purple hippo. He said it was a hope-opotamus. He said it would help me remember all the hope I had given him. Who was I to argue?

Soon other people were bringing in hippos of various colours and sizes, converting them to hope-opotamuses with their gratitude and their love. Sometimes, when the mood felt just right, we would select a hope-opotamus from the herd and give it to somebody who needed hope. Sometimes a person would ask for a hope-opotamus and one would be given. Hope-opotamuses were so special to me that I gave one—the first one ever given to me--to my mother when she was dying. We had so much fun with it that I turned our experience into a story. Then, eight years after the first hope-opotamus came to the Hope Foundation, I told that story to Shelagh Rogers on CBC Sounds Like Canada. Now that it is famous, entrepreneurs of the world are telling me I have only myself to blame.

I don’t suppose I would have allowed the hope-opotamus to appear on radio if I had imagined that people would want to sell it. Hope-opotamuses often appear on stage with me, and this has never happened. When hope-opotamuses make live appearances, people show them great respect. Occasionally a very sad audience member will carry one home. And if you are an entrepreneur, you may simply not be able to understand why a hope-opotamus would simply be a hippo if you bought a thousand and sold them in your store. Hope-opotamuses carry personal meanings and personal memories. People who take them usually want to remember something we said about hope. Somehow they just don’t belong on the shelves among the mugs showing pictures of Canadian National Parks and the saltshakers from coastal cities.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

THAT INDESCRIBABLE FEELING

Sometimes you get over things and sometimes you don’t. It’s a counsellor’s bread and butter, these things we don’t get over. And I will admit to having a few of them myself. You’d understand it if you were me. After all, my mother yelled at me for stepping on the combine and swather my brother made out of Tinker Toys. Well, maybe she yelled at me for hitting him over the head when he started to cry because I had stepped on his combine and swather made of tinker Toys which he shouldn’t have left in a place where I could step on it because it really hurts your bare feet to step on Tinker Toys, and it hurts ever worse when your mother cares more about your brother’s head than she does about your feet, even if he is five years younger than you. , And I can tell you for absolute sure that my sister is still bitter about the time when she got in trouble for punching my nose, and making it bleed all over my new white New Year’s blouse just because I went into her room without knocking at a time when she was standing there in her underwear. My mother said you don’t punch people who are eight years younger than you, which my sister considered to be a gross over-generalization, given the nature of the crime that led to the punch. She said if I hadn’t whined and cried like a baby instead of being mature about the punch and the blood and my blouse, and if I had simply taken my fair share of responsibility for what happened, the whole thing would have ended much sooner leaving smaller scars and less permanent damage to fill the wallets of greedy counsellors.

Given that I have this long experience of not getting over things, you can probably understand where I was coming from when yesterday, as I walked down the hill after getting off the bus, I started to wonder if I would ever get over the feeling I had. It was one of those feelings you don’t learn to describe, even if you’ve been having it day after day. It was a little like triumph. It was a little like victory. It was a little bit like the way Mark’s cat feels when he comes for a visit and manages a complete tour of the kitchen counter before somebody notices him and swats him back down to the floor. I knew the feeling would pass, as it does every day, and I just wanted to stop right there in the middle of the sidewalk to write it down. If only I’d had my laptop! And how can you really get it across anyway. You have to be there to feel it. You have to be right inside me. You probably wouldn’t pick it up from simply watching, or hearing about it, even hearing about it from me. But I’ll try to explain it.

Yesterday afternoon, at the end of the work day, when I was oh-so tired from delivering a workshop after not having slept well the previous night, I got off the bus at the right stop. That’s it, the whole story, well, almost the whole story. The bus stopped because I rang the bell, just pulled the cord when the time was right and rang the bell! And the driver stopped the bus at the stop and I got off and said “Good-bye!”

Well, maybe you’d understand it better if I told you what I didn’t do. I didn’t say to the driver, “Can you please tell me when we get to Alex Taylor Road?’ And I didn’t sit down with a sinking heart, realizing that he doesn’t know exactly where Alex Taylor Road is, even though his bus goes past it, because he is a part-time driver on this route for the very first time. And I didn’t wish we were back on the buses of the old days, before wheelchairs, when there were seats right near the driver, seats where he could see you. And I didn’t sit there through the whole trip, trying desperately to stay awake so that I would know approximately where we were, so I could stand up and push my way to the front and ask whether we were near Alex Taylor Road in case the driver had forgotten me in the course of dealing with people who didn’t have the right change, didn’t know what bus to take, and didn’t read the sign that says you aren’t supposed to stand there and talk hockey with the driver when the bus is in motion. Like I said before, I just pulled the bell at the right time and got off at the right stop, and it wasn’t the first time either.

It all started back in early August when I got my new Trekker. It’s a little talking GPs that sits on my shoulder and tells me where I am. It announces the streets before you get to them. It’s like—like being able to look at the street signs! It’s got a button on it that’s called “Where Am I?” When I first got it I pressed the where-am-I button all the time, even when I knew where I was. It was such a comfort just to hear that somebody agreed with me. It was just like looking up at the things around you, which people do all the time without thinking.

I could turn off the trekker after I get off the bus. It would save batteries, and I don’t really need it. But I always leave it running. Just as I get close to my house, this little machine pipes up and says, “Home nearby.” This isn’t information I absolutely need. I know this already, most of the time anyway. But I like to think the Trekker heard me wondering, “Are we there yet?”

If there was a shortage of friends in the world, and I was only allowed to have one friend, I don’t suppose I’d choose the Trekker. It’s only a machine after all, imperfect at times, like family helpers, like friends. But it does surprise me that a machine can feel like such a friend. It feels comforting. It feels like some computer geek I’ve never even met knew how it feels to be me when I’m tired on a crowded bus, and then took the time to make it feel better. It’s the kind of work counsellors usually do. Computer geeks and counsellors have things in common. That’s amazing! I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

ALLOW HIM TO INTRODUCE HIMSELF

Perhaps there is no greater privilege than to be allowed to speak for yourself, to tell people who you are, introduce yourself in your own words rather than having somebody else present the person they see in you. I remember times when I was younger, times when it seemed that I might never have the privilege.

Perhaps that is why I noticed the story about Shane Yellowbird. Some people from Hobbema sponsored a surprise party for him and it made the morning news. It would not have been newsworthy had Yellowbird not won the Canadian Country Music association Rising star award. Hearing the word Hobbema, knowing from the word that Shane would be an Indian, I was expecting a story about barriers. I was waiting to hear that Shane overcame the barrier of growing up on an Indian reserved beset by drug problems and youth hopelessness. I was expecting some mention of the cultural damage done by the residential schools. Indeed, the Indian issues were addressed by the reporter near the end of the story. , But the highlight of the story was that Shane had found a way into a singing career despite a major stuttering problem. Apparently, when Shane was about nine, the target of bullying and derision, a speech language pathologist had recommended singing as a way of getting the words out. His mother was tearfully telling that part of the story to the reporter.

And then there was Shane’s story. Over top of all this complex coverage was Shane, speaking for himself, speaking loudly and singularly about his career in country music. It seemed to me that he knew he needed the media coverage and was cooperating with that. Nevertheless, he wanted to shape the story, to tell us about his career, the kind of songs he likes to sing.

All of this reminded me of a story I once heard told by another musician, Oscar Peterson, the incredible black Canadian jazz piano player. He was such an amazing talent that, as a teen-ager, despite being both Canadian and black, he was featured on American radio shows in the 1940’s. This, of course, was more than he could possibly have hoped for, except that the hosts introduced him and spoke of him in the language they would have used when talking to or of a black boy. It was demeaning, it was humiliating. It pretended to be flattering. They fully expected him to be grateful. Listening to this, with no choice but to play to the show, Oscar followed the rules. But in an act of hope, he promised himself that he would become so great, so powerful with his playing, that he would make the rules of how he would be introduced. In fact, he became so great that he would do his own introductions and extremely powerful people would have to choose whether to play the show his way or do the show without him.

If you are a member of a visible minority, it is not enough to distinguish yourself through a notable achievement. The achievement has a difficult time being part of the main story because it has to compete with the drama of overcoming whatever barriers the minority confronts. Still, Oscar Peterson and many others have been able to stay the course so long that their achievements outdo all the other bits that would interest the public.

When you hear Shane sing, and you may hear him sing in future because he will be making his next album in Nashville, there will likely be nothing to tell you that he is either an Indian or a stutterer, though he will certainly be both of these. He is only 27 years old. Perhaps he, like Oscar Peterson, will cherish the privilege of introducing himself to the world. Perhaps he, like Oscar, will keep the focus on the talent he has, rather than the characteristics that might—through no fault of his own--have held him back.

Friday, September 21, 2007

ON NOTICING HOW YOU LEARN BUT DON'T NOTICE IT

How do you measure what you have learned?
When you grow up, past getting marks, beyond writing tests
And it’s hard to remember what you didn’t know
When you think back after you know it.

Let’s say I was scared on the day when I sat
Among the men with ALS and their wives
And what was the fear of? Getting it wrong!
Being insensitive, causing more suffering
To people who already suffer too much through no fault of their own.

And the funniest thing, looking back on it now
With a storyteller’s memory of how it unfolded
That I stopped being scared and started feeling confident
One hour in, when one of the men finally spoke up and said
“My hope was taken. I have no hope.”

ALS scares me and always would have
Yet talking in ernest with this frightened man
At the point where he says that he has no hope
And would have scared a younger me
Strikes me now as utterly doable.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

ON CHOOSING TO BE HOPEFUL

Some days I am hopeful,
Others not so much.
It’s the same world on any specific day
Regardless of how hopeful I am,
Only the possibilities for days ahead are different.

Being hopeful is not wishing.
Wishing is for Disneyland
And birthday candles
And the days when I buy a lottery ticket
Just because I have money.

Being hopeful is not goal setting.
Goal setting is for sales teams
And athletes
And fund-raisers at the United Way.

Hopeful is a way of feeling
When I see the world,
With certain possibilities,
Of how good things could happen
But not quite enough of the picture
To lay out a detailed plan.

On days when I am not hopeful
There are still possibilities,
Only I don’t see them
So I think they are not there.

And that is why,
On any given day
No matter what is happening
It is better to be hopeful
If I have a choice
Which sometimes I do.

And sometimes I don’t
Which means I have to wait
Until I do.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

ON THE ATHABASCA RIVER

I would never have gone white water rafting had I not been swept up by magic. When you think of it, white water rafting in late September is an unlikely recreational choice for a person whose fingers freeze easily, one who cannot swim, one who hates roller coasters. But magic was happening all around me.

There’s magic in the Rockies. Everybody knows that. It’s not very often that a person like me gets to go to Jasper Park Lodge without having to pay the bill, and it’s not very often that I happen to meet a childhood friend whose husband is attending the same conference that brought my husband there, and it’s not very often that I have an extra glass of wine, which, in addition to the magic theory, explains why I agreed to go white water rafting.

It all happened, at least the agreeing part happened, on a golden evening. My friend Janice and I reconnected. We shared our memories and updated each other on the status of our children. And then she said—as if I could really be important in this-- that if only they could find one more couple to meet the absolute minimum number of paddlers needed, they could go on a white water rafting trip down the Athabasca river the very next morning. If only she had not said it on an evening when almost anything worth having seemed possible.

By morning I knew I had made a mistake. I had a headache. I had a queasy stomach. I was a young mother who might leave three orphans if something bad happened. It was colder than it had been the previous evening.

Had it been my conference, I might have arranged an important emergency meeting. But the spouses at conferences don’t ever have anything important to do. I would have backed out if David had not been so pleased to go, and if I hadn’t promised Janice, and if I could have thought of any way to get out of it.

Time ran out on me. A bus came by to take us to the river. Suddenly I was struck by a hopeful possibility. “I’m a blind person,” I announced to the guide, trying to look as incompetent as possible. Unfortunately, he had successfully completed a course in inclusiveness strategies. It was clear that he was delighted to find a place for his under-utilized knowledge.

He took charge, offering beginner’s lessons to us all. I shall never forget what he told us as we put on our wetsuits and donned our life jackets. He said, “I will steer the raft and your paddling will give me the power. The power of your paddling will get us safely through the white water. “ I say I will never forget it now, but I did forget it when he first said it. I was a little bit distracted, what with wondering if our wills were completely up to date.

When the initial instruction was complete, we climbed into the raft. I planned to sit in the center. But there was no center. Everybody sat on the edge. I planned to hold on, but you don’t hold on to anything but the paddle. I began to wish I’d brought glue for the bottoms of my boots. Then we started down the river.

At first it was wonderful. The magic had returned. We paddled lazily. The river did the work. I put on heavy gloves and took them off as the September sun rose higher in the sky. Everything was the way it ought to be. There was wildlife. There were mountains. There was laughter.

And then there was the white water. It wasn’t like a roller coaster. It was like an airplane, the scariest kind of airplane, landing in terrible weather, splashing you. It was up and down, bucking like a wild bull, going from side to side. I wanted to hold on to the side, needed to hold on. This is what I always do on airplanes. A seatbelt is fine as it goes, but you have to take precautions.

“Don’t hold on Wendy,” the guide shouted over the roaring water. I suppose that was part of his training, to make sure I wouldn’t think he was talking to somebody else. “Paddle!”

So I paddled, badly, no doubt, not being a good paddler. I didn’t hold on because you can’t paddle and hold on at the same time. I didn’t throw up. I didn’t fall out. We made it! In only a moment the river was as lazy and loving as it had been before the rapids.

Janice doesn’t know it, but I have been telling this story for years. It turned into a hope story, a story of lessons for many occasions. It is one of the best examples of a time when I was okay, though I didn’t know it until later. It was a time when I had to stop being afraid and get down to work so that somebody else could steer the course. And—something to focus me on the golden evenings in the years that followed--this is a story that reminds me never to agree to anything when I have had an extra glass of wine.

Monday, September 17, 2007

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO PEOPLE WHO ARE HOPELESS?

What do you say to people who are hopeless?
Well that’s a tough one.
Because Hopeless is a trickster.
That comes in different sizes
And vanishes when you look for it,
And sometimes you just don’t know how big it is the first time you see it.

There’s the cloud of hopeless that gathers over a problem.
Blocking possible solutions,
Tricking you into thinking that improvement is impossible
When it might instead be difficult
Or might blow over with the smallest puff of hope.

There’s the great big hopeless that saturates everything
Laying down its heaviness for years and years
Until you cannot remember when anything was hopeful.

There’s the tried-everything hopeless
Of those who tried everything
Until nobody anywhere had any more ideas
Or suggestions of what they might try.

So what do you say to people who are hopeless?
Say things that feel hopeful to you.
Like, I’ll try to help you,
But only if you mean it.
Or I believe you can get through this,
But only if you do believe it.
Or I know that impossible things can happen
But only when you can think of some.

What do you say when people are hopeless?
Say I care!
Say I’m willing to work on it.
Say I’ll ask other people for advice.
Say maybe it’s not hopeless.

Just saying these things will change something inside you,
And it really is important to say them
Because even if all these things are true
A person feeling hopeless will not think they are true
Unless you say them and say them again.

And at the very worst, even if you are no help at all,
That person will always have the comfort that comes
From knowing for sure that you cared, really cared,
And tried your best to help
At a time when someone felt hopeless.
And you will know it too.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

FIGHTING FEAR

There’s a tired old saying out there. Those who can—do, while those who can’t—teach! And though this saying is normally muttered and mouthed behind hands, normally offered as an insult to teachers, there is so much more to it than that.

Take Lawrence for example. He’s an unlikely instructor of public speakers, being one among the majority of Canadians who are afraid of public speaking. In fact, I’m betting that he would rather eat his carpenter’s tools—saw blades first--than get up in front of an audience to deliver a message. So I wonder why he is the very best person to turn to when a scary event is coming up and I need courage

He has one public speaking specialty. He is particularly effective at giving hope talks—in the kitchen, when we two are alone and he is arranging chicken cutlets on a baking sheet.

“What am I going to say?” I’ll ask, my mouth dry, heart thumping with stage fright.

“It’s easy,” he says, using a tone that would fool a stranger into thinking he does this all the time. “You can never go wrong with the truth.”

Then he sighs. It’s a deep sigh, a thoughtful sigh, the great suffering sigh of one who is called upon time after time to give, and give, and give. Slowly he turns his back on the chicken, takes a deep breath, puffs out his chest and begins the eloquently measured delivery of a proclamation. “Hope,” he booms in a voice a preacher would envy, “is something we all need. It gets us through the tough times. It keeps us going. But hope,” he continues, after sharpening the senses with a pregnant pause, “is very hard to find, which is why you people out there can’t find it, and neither,” he pauses for effect, “can I! Thank you.”

Turning on his heel, he makes a grand exit through the stage door, pivots, steps back in for a final bow. There’s noise. Is that a jet flying over, or is it the undeniable roar of thunderous applause from an audience that thinks it has been told something of utmost importance by a renowned expert?

Then he goes back to the chicken because he is starving. “You can probably do better than that,” he says confidently, leaving me to go out there and prove that he is right.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

KITTY LETTER

Here I sit, trying to work with a warm, purring tabby kitten in my lap. This morning she has been testing. Can she walk on the keyboard? No! Can she swat my fingers when I type? No! Can she wander around on the desk, swishing papers on to the floor? No! No! No!

Can she cuddle purring in my lap? Well, what can I say? She has given up her program of harassment and chosen another tack. It’s a little like getting a love letter. You just have to pay attention, no matter what you are doing. How is it that a little kitten can learn negotiation and collaboration so easily, while we humans find it so challenging?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

ASKING THE CALENDAR

Look at the fall calendar! What is coming up before the mid-November??
An interview on national CBC
A memorial speech for a beloved client and friend,
A talk to the Boys and Girls Club conference,
A conversation with teachers on disability
Three conversations with ALS patients
Two conversations with Alzheimer Disease family caregivers,
A talk to kidney patients, on Sunday because the dialysis units are closed that day,
Two talks to families derailed by addictions,
A training day for foster parents,
A training day for mental health workers,
Training days for child protection workers,
A dinner speech to parents of severely disabled children,
More on-line lessons for hope students,
Supervision for two baby counsellors,
Supervision for a provisional psychologist,
Counselling as usual
And yes, ironically--
A speech at a conference on compassion fatigue.

How do you keep from being Pollyanna
Is the question a reporter asks.
And I say it is not that hard to keep from being Pollyanna.
If you act like Pollyanna, people in pain will turn away
Leaving you talking to yourself.
They will only tolerate Pollyanna
When they think there’s a reasonable chance that you feel some of their pain.

It’s a strange world, really.
Strange that you can lead yourself by hearing what you say.
The research says that young people who do word puzzles with God words in them Demonstrate more generosity than others who do word puzzles without the God words.
My instinct says I am not doing much.
Maybe not pulling my weight this fall.
Maybe I’ve said that I’m not doing much
So I look for a second opinion.
What does the calendar say?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

ON SAVING THE ENVIRONMENT

The phone rings.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello Mother,” she says. “I just called to tell Father I’m his daughter for sure.”
“I hadn’t doubted it,” I say, recovering from the initial shock brought on by the news. “But what is it that has helped you reach such a conclusion?”
“well,” she says, “I just bought reusable bags at the grocery store.” Then she goes on to tell me how easy they’ll be to use, what with their good flat bottoms and convenient handles.
This is the woman who took on the job of doing our grocery shopping when she was a teen-ager. It was one more chance to drive the car and, so she said, better than cleaning toilets or mopping the kitchen. “But I won’t be using those cloth bags,” she said. “It’s too much trouble, and people look at you as if you’re weird, and none of the check-out people want you to bring your own bags. I’ll do the shopping, but I won’t use those bags.”
It was a crushing blow, more evidence of failed parenting, the proof that inter-generational transfer of values had fallen by the wayside. Her dad and I were part of the first environmental revolution, back in the seventies when we were devising all sorts of ways to save the world and at the same time, growing addicted to disposable diapers. A friend was selling home made canvas bags to raise money for the church and besides, we were disappointed that the strong paper grocery bags were being replaced by flimsy plastic. .
It’s a funny thing, the concept of saving the environment. Both of us started life on farms. There was no talk of composting then. They simply spread the manure on the fields. They piled up the garden refuse and waited for it to rot. Our non-compostables consisted mainly of tin cans which our fathers dumped in the coulees where they didn’t bother anyone. We’ve come a long way since then.
I remember how I despaired when the kids were in their teens. We were creating a lot more garbage than our parents had created when we were kids, but we had a composter out back and we washed plastic bags for re-use. In the summers we hung clothes out on the line. We wrapped their Christmas gifts in fabric, an insult to their childhood, they would say when they got together to share memories. You can’t tear open a cloth package. How can you experience the true joy of Christmas when, instead of the happy sound of ripping paper, you hear nothing at all as you daintily untie the knots and spring the safety pins?
I fought a valiant fight for the environment, but we humans are remarkably adaptable, and I was ready to gracefully accept defeat by the time she was old enough to make the weekly trip to the grocery store, cruising the aisles on her own with the list we had sent her. Now that she lives on her own, and is free to live her life out of the direct line of observation, I am happy with everything she does. Still I cannot help wondering what makes me happiest. Is it the fact that she has decided to save the world by getting cloth grocery bags, or is it that she has enough strength of character that she can call us up and invite us to laugh about it with her?

Friday, September 07, 2007

CHARGING THE HOPE TOOLS

If you are going to do hope work with others, I tell the CBC lady, if you are going to use hope tools and get them to work, I tell the CBC lady, you have to stay grounded. You have to know where to find your own hope when you need it. And though it may seem trite, may seem just too simple and shallow to say that I find my hope in family, in music, in flowers, in having fun with ideas, in the people I meet when I am working, this is where my hope recharges itself. Maybe hope tools are like cordless power tools. They definitely exist, but they don’t do much when they aren’t charged.

In the mail there’s a letter from Natalie. The letter is filled with news to charge the tools. She’s doing really well, been working a long time now, in spite of being sick. The important people in her life have stayed the course with her. “I am looking forward to my future,” she says. Now here is a statement we could not possibly have imagined her making a few years ago.

“I still go through fluctuations of depression,” she says, “…nothing paralyzing like when I saw you…but sometimes I just wish it would just go away…any chance depression
Will suddenly disappear??!!? Ha ha!”

And this is the nub of hope work! It is impossible, it seems, to explain it to funding providers and media reporters, but this is the clear and undeniable request for hope. . And the Haha is the escape hatch, considerately provided in case I cannot support the hope. This is the challenge, the moment when I make the choice between hope work and something else. This is the moment when I search for wisdom and suddenly remember that a newsman named Francis Pharcellus Church once wrote “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!” The world didn’t end when he said it. He wasn’t sued for making false promises.

I could go on for pages about the physical ailmants that have assaulted Natalie, her brushes with death, her times in a wheelchair, months and months in bed. I could research the correlation between depression and her physical condition to see if it is extreme, or just very high. And if I told you about her past, you would have trouble believing that she is looking forward to her future. You would have trouble saying something hopeful, and so would I.

So, with Virginia and all the people who loved the newsman in mind, I turn back to Natalie’s letter. “if you ever want anything…anything at all…don’t hesitate to pick up your phone,” she says. She is promising to be there for me. How better could she prove to me that she is looking forward to her future? and because she is, who am I to say anything but “Yes, Natalie. That depression might just disappear!”

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

BRIMMING WITH HOPE

The streets are brimming with hope. School is starting again. And it’s not the children I am noticing, packing their bags full of the promise of a good future. It is the adults.

School, it seems to me, is kind of wasted on the young. They take it for granted. They go because their parents send them. They go because it is the phase of life when they are supposed to go. They go because it is illegal not to go. They go by default.

But it’s different for adults. I don’t mean the youngest adults who come straight out of one school and into another. I mean the adults who thought they were done with school and went out into the world. I am talking about the adults who stayed away for years, thinking maybe they’d go back to school some day, and now they are going back. They are anxious, and tired. They haven’t been able to sleep much, just wondering how things will go, how all the details will fall into place. They are wondering how to find their classrooms, what to take for lunch, how they’ll find time to buy their books. They are wondering if they will be able to study, if they will feel out of place.

These are the people who really appreciate school. Alongside all their doubts and fears they are hoping, hoping in the most hopeful way, the way you are allowed to hope when you have chosen a path and come to the trail head where you can stand with your toe right on the edge of adventure.

They aren’t the students they used to be, back in the days when they took school for granted. Experience has sharpened them, focussed them, humbled them. They seriously consider sitting at the front of the class, even if they can see well enough from farther back. They make appointments to see the teacher. They ask questions near the end of class, oblivious to the fact that the class might have ended earlier if they hadn’t delayed things. In these early days of the term, with exams and papers safely out there on a distant horizon, they feel blessed to be starting school, because this is what they wanted to do.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

GATHERING EVIDENCE

Just when you’ve assured yourself that it’s not exactly fall, even if the kids are going back to school, given that the days are warm as summer, warm enough for frozen strawberry daiquiris, and the flowers are magnificent, and the late golf walk-ons at Riverside don’t start until 6:00—just when you have gathered all that evidence to make the case--reality strikes. You go out before breakfast to pick some sweet peas for the reception desk at work, and what do you hear? A flock of geese, a big flock, filling the Eastern sky, filling the warm morning with their honking. Even though they are already high up you can almost figure out what they are saying, that they are talking about the clouds and the winds and this morning’s early shower, discussing the trip south, how long it should take and where they are likely to find the most luscious fields for picnics along the way. Now I ask you, has there ever been a more reliable indicator of fall?

Monday, September 03, 2007

BRINGING ON AN AUDIENCE

I didn’t tell stories at the festival on the September long weekend this year. Back in April, when it was necessary to decide, I reasoned that I shouldn’t, given that David would be really busy due to the fact that this is an election year, and I can’t really get to Fort Edmonton Park without his help. It was reason enough, and I didn’t even anticipate the fact that he would still be working on the kitchen floor by the time the September long weekend rolled around. It’s really okay, I said to myself. You won’t have to spend your summer memorizing stories. What’s more, your family and friends will thank you for not making them pay their own way into Fort Edmonton Park just so you’ll have an audience, I said to myself. Audiences for your stories at the festival tend to be mainly comprised of people who owe you a favour. After coming two years in a row, they don’t really owe you a favour. I was very comfortable with the decision. If you tell stories at the festival, they do expect you to help generate an audience.

I didn’t think much more about it until early August, about the time I would normally be learning stories for the festival, about the time when I started wishing I had some reason to get started on some new stories. We would run into people and have conversations and they would ask if I’d be telling in Fort Edmonton this year. They weren’t people I have ever owed a favour, so they wouldn’t have been on the pressure list. They were accidental audience members from other years. There are always a few accidentals, people who come because they are have a volunteer job to do, or because their feet are tired from tramping around the Park, or because they are telling stories right after you and they want to get a feel for it. Sometimes you don’t really know how the accidentals got there, but later you start running into them in grocery stores, accidentally.

Then, as the September long weekend approached, the used-up-all-your-previously-owed favours crowd started making inquiries. Just wondering what day you’re telling stories, they said. Usually you let us know, they said. And I found myself justifying myself to them, and encouraging them to go to Fort Edmonton Park anyway, when they really should have been thanking me for letting them off the hook.

It’s a good feeling, kind of, to know that they didn’t really hate it, and hadn’t already thought up a good excuse not to go this year. It will help me drum up the courage to invite them to come to the cafĂ© in November, where they will have to pay a cover charge, and arrive an hour early to get a seat, and buy food while they wait. By then I am hoping to owe them a favour or to.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

ATTACKED

I was attacked in church today, right in the middle of the prayers for the people. The attacker was not a listener irritated by my singing, nor was it a fit of coughing. It was grief, pure and simple. It caught hold of me and shook me by the neck, the way a cat shakes a new-caught mouse, not necessarily intending to kill, but rather making a statement about the order of things.

Maybe it’s because my email contains an invitation to speak to parents who have lost a child, I thought, seeking to repatriate my equilibrium. And that may be part of it, but most likely I am suffering because the September long weekend is here.

When I was much younger I heard a story about parents who had annual car accidents because their grieving became so intense on the anniversary of their daughter’s death. Ridiculous, I thought at the time. They should just get over it, just move on. After twenty years have passed, propelling kids toys along the path of progress from hula-hoops to electronic games, how difficult can that be?

Now the innocence of my youth has come for a revisit. It’s not that I was unfeeling, I assure myself. It’s just that I was so unfamiliar with grief. In fact, I knew very little about it, having experienced it only as brief bouts of sadness and fond sentimentality. I never guessed how big grief is, how disinterested it is in your wish to move forward, how sneaky it is, how unswervingly committed it is to the faithful observance of anniversaries. I had no understanding then of the relationship between loss and the positioning of points on a life line. In my hour of unsympathy I was young, a person with a small past and a larger future. Losses, although painful, bore a huge potential to be recovered. People who died could not be replaced, but others could be counted upon to move into the spaces they had previously occupied. That is how I was thinking, back when I was thinking you could just get over it.

So busy was I anticipating the future that I hardly noticed the changing of seasons. To me they simply marched along, governing the breaks from, and returns to school. But today, I note, is the Sunday of the September long weekend. It is both a cool summer day, and a hot day for autumn. A harvest wind is raising the leaves that fell during Friday’s storm. The weather is similar to the day, two years ago now, when we drove out past the fields dotted with swathers and combines to see my parents, thinking we would celebrate Mother’s return home from the hospital. But there was no celebration. We found her seized by pain, unable to greet us. Instead of admiring her flowers, I sat on her bed, patiently waiting for her to see that we simply had to call an ambulance. It was early in a month marked by cold sunny mornings, mornings when I would wake—well, can you really wake if you haven’t been sleeping—in her hospital room and step out shivering on the patio to make calls on my cell phone. This warm/cool/sunny/windy September long weekend Sunday brings all of this back to me. As we gear up for a busy fall, the email alive with speaking requests,, I recall weeks of rescheduling and replanning, making commitments because September is the time for making commitments, and then arranging back-up coverage. I remember how September dragged on and flew by. I remember the confusion, how I wanted to be at the hospital whenever I was at home, and at home when I was at the hospital. I recall a desperately illogical moment when I realized I hadn’t eaten a fruit or vegetable in fifty-eight hours.

I do not dare to predict the future for me and the September long weekend. An anniversary like this one is more than just an anniversary. It is a point of vulnerability to attacks. It’s the activation of a complex journey of the senses that goes on and on. It begins at some moment of genuine surprise when you are paying attention to something, and are suddenly assailed by grief, unexpectedly shaking you by the neck. It’s the knowledge that your past is bigger than your future, and some things will never be replaced. It’s the time when you have no choice but to ask forgiveness from all the people you thought should just get over it.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

BIRTHDAY

The Hope Lady Blog turns one year old this weekend. Though there will be no cake, no candles, no champagne, there will be a special tribute to Ruth Edey, the woman who made it all possible.

Ruth Elaine Edey, affectionately dubbed Ruthie Tuthie by her adoring parents, has always been a leader. She emerged into the outside world a couple of weeks before she was expected. Her choice of timing for this first little rebellion was unfortunate, since it coincided with the arrival of a record number of babies at the Edmonton General Hospital, and Dr. Boulton, our faithful obstetrician, had gone off to a conference, leaving specific instructions that she was not to arrive while he was away. I know she was delivered by somebody, but have always believed that he may have been the janitor. Fortunately for us all, Dr. Boulton, a wise physician ahead of his time, had pre-determined that she ran a slight risk of picking up an infection in the birth canal. His wisdom, leading to rapid intervention, probably saved her life since she, showing early signs of her thorough nature, picked up the infection on her way through. If she was a less-than-pleasant baby for the first few months, it may well be because she spent her debut week in the nursery with needles in her head.

After that initial show of questionable judgment, she set about applying her leaderly tendencies in more productive ways. She could read before she could talk. She could talk before she could walk. She could take a taxi to playschool, and would do so rather than miss a class for lack of transportation. She could do math before kindergarten. She could balance atop a cheerleader pyramid. She could take herself to a Thai orphanage to care for babies with HIV. She could take charge of behaviour-disordered students who were almost as big as she. She could make excellent chocolate birthday cakes. Given all this, it’s small wonder that she could figure out how to set up a blog for her mother!

Setting it up would have been enough to expect, but she did more than that. She read it—and kept on reading it. She still reads it, one whole year after she first established it. She reads it the way she reads her student journals, with little comments of encouragement and occasional corrections along the way, which is awfully nice of her—really—and may be the reason it got this far!