My grandfather was a WWII veteran. He died when I was nine, and so did the stories that he might have been inclined to share. I have old photos of him in uniform, and I know a few of the jolly stories – including how he courted my grandmother – family folklore that made us kids giggle. But I do not know the anguish, the pain, the horror he experienced as a WWII soldier.
Hence the silence that was draped all over my thoughts when, as a kid, I was passing by the cemetery. There were many rows of graves of WWI and WWII soldiers; the tombstones that said ‘unknown soldier’ were far more numerous than the ones with a name. Back then, as a child, I shuddered thinking what it must be like to lose my mom or dad that way.
I will start with this: I do not like plastic fall decorations. No plastic leaves, even when they mimic the real ones so well, and definitely no plastic pumpkins or plastic fruit to decorate with. There, I said it. I know they are convenient to put up and take down, but they are fake. That’s their problem (fake is in general a big problem, philosophically speaking, but fake decorations made of plastic create an environmental one too.) The appeal is likely the fact that they are not messy, but… mess is good.
Fall has a special place in my heart. When I was a kid, until I left my parents’ home to go to university, as soon as the grapes would start to ripen, I’d go around the yard and get myself a bunch of sweetest ones, usually by holding up the bottom of my T-shirt for an impromptu fruit-picking bucket. Then I’d sit in one of my special places under the quince trees and eat them. One by one, green, black and red spheres, all juicy and sweet, their flavour divinely irresistible.
Last week, during a drive from Vancouver, we took a short break in Hope. It was almost 10 o’clock at night and the fire near Agassiz was raging, mountain aglow and the plume above it a threatening dark grey. As we got out of the car, the air was thick with heavy, grey smoke. Though far enough from the fire, the smell was overwhelming. I could not imagine what it would be like to be right there, gear on, tools and everything, fighting this hot monster up close. Or the rest of the almost 600 fires across the province.
It is good to be missed. Humbling too. I have moved ‘homes’ for a while now and while head is still in the clouds at times, I have been publishing blog posts and columns at www.danielaginta.com. But old habits die hard. Some people said they still look for me here. I checked the stats and they reflect the very story. So it is then, I decided I will cross-post my columns here and there for a while. Blog posts will sprout from the other location alone (a subscription form is available on the homepage at www.danielaginta.com.) My ancestors would shake their finger at me. You see, I grew up with many sayings and the one for this situation goes something like this: ‘do not try to sit in two boats at the same time.’
It is often believed that major revelations come after periods of fasting, isolation from people, or self-imposed hardship of one kind or another, which is expected to bring out of their hiding our other senses – the ones that start with the sixth one. The senses that live like some forgotten tribe in the middle of the jungle; primal and yet capable of bringing a whole new definition of meaning to your daily existence that has been sustained up to that point, with relative success, you’d argue, by the five senses we all know, trust and would never doubt the existence of.
Mine started more like a sunrise of sorts, or a moonrise. The aster is not important, but the rising part. The part where you see the contour of what’s to come, but are still bracing for the surprise, because there will be one.
Two nights ago, Max and I walked the dog to the nearby school field for one last walk before bedtime. It was wet and foggy. Island weather, we joked, minus the island. When we got to the field, I noticed a man walking his dog and recognized our neighbour who has recently lost his wife of many years. Having heard of that a while ago, I was struggling with finding the most respectful, unimposing and inobtrusive way of expressing our condolences. I’ve been through the loss of a loved one many times and I know there’s no right way of doing it, more so when you barely met the people a few times. I also know what it feels like when people avoid getting in touch following a loved one’s death, because they don’t feel comfortable thinking about it.
So I walked right up to him, confessed my struggle and said we are sorry for his loss. I gave him a big hug and he hugged back; I was grateful for his acceptance of my words and hug. He was grateful I reached out, as people are reluctant to talk about death most of the time. We chatted about the preciousness of life, imminence of death included, while our dogs played. We laughed at their antics, and parted, him with an invite to stop by our place for coffee and chat, him with an offer of baby plants, if we are of the green thumb tribe. I said we are.
Max and I walked some more afterwards, the flavour of the meeting trailing behind us like a stray dog that was suddenly enamoured with us and unwilling to part. An unmistakable sense of peace washed over me knowing that we still have time. Or?…
Truth is, we have today. The rest is not even a promise, but a supposition. The rest is hope. Today is the only time that belongs to us fully. That was the lifeline phrase I hung onto after my parents passed away, processing the best I could their disappearance and the meaning of stringing up one today after another without losing hope as it all ends up one day anyway. We become finality’s happy sad apostles once death takes a loved one away from us, making us aware (more than once in my case,) that the only consolation takeaway we are left with is awareness. Bittersweet it may be, but it’s there. It’s a roller coaster, except that you’re not the observer from up above, or the rider, but the very machine that rattles as you go up and down the tracks, feeling as if you’ll come apart every time the track disappears in a down turn.
All of this came back to me as I plodded along my husband, our steps in sync, words and hearts, post-conversation with our neighbour. Time. So much and so little, so slippery. Fragmented; that is how it feels on most days, due to so many things clinging to be done, interruptions of one kind or another, notifications, the many requests to update our calendars, our social media feeds and the guilt that comes from not keeping on top of it all. Above all, and despite sharing time and space with my sons, I always long for more, as I strive to for remember more of what escapes the fragmentation.
A couple of days later I picked up a copy of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon and writer whose life was cut short prematurely at the age of 37 by cancer. It’s the kind of book you read with awe and reverence, and do not just read, but cry and think about it long after you put it down. If you are so inclined. It’s the kind of book that invites to contemplation and reassessment; to gratefulness.
It’s a jolt of sorts. Masterfully written, though it was put together in a hurry, as time was not on his side, the book is not one of mourning and self-pity. On the contrary. It is the story of becoming a doctor, the description of the elaborate meanders of options and the clarity of choice through introspection, the re-evaluations once the terminal illness sets in, the contemplation of death from a safe (somewhat) distance as a doctor, and from up-close as a patient.
It is in this context that I make my decision to resist the fragmentation of my time by activities that do not further my contentment with making the most of it. Connection through social media has little meaning if any, if connection through other means is non-existent (face to face, phone, email). Therefore, I will set the unnecessary aside (Facebook and Instagram), and keep what allows me to share my writing, selectively choose my news and reach out, if needed, to like-minded professionals.
It will look like this (or what stays, what goes):
Facebook (goes): I will have a ‘hibernating’ profile which I need to perform my administrative responsibilities in my work and volunteer work respectively. That includes social media postings on various topics (sustainability, health, community.)
Instagram (goes): While I am fully charmed by so many awe-inspiring photographs that roll out daily through my feed, I am also aware of the daily trickle of time spent seeing the said photos and more. I know I can make better use of my time living it, rather than living vicariously through others. There are ways to follow people’s work – social and environmental, my two major interests – and I will.
Twitter (goes): I will maintain my profile for now, but dormant.
As I consciously engage on this path that enables me to make time my ally, I will continue on the journey of writing here, from what I foresee will become a richer perspective. Unfragmented, mindful presence enabled by all those who inspired me through their life, death, writing and presence. From informal mentions of books and ideas, to life bites that define a day, or a moment in a day, or leave an imprint of the kind worth sharing.
I thank you for joining me, if you will, on my new site and through my new blog at www.danielaginta.com. My promise is to make it meaningful. Through mindfulness, which was, after all, the goal behind reaching out of my shell in the first place.
It happened this morning that while I was walking along a snowy path battered by human steps and animal tracks, I heard the ping of a notification on my phone, barely audible through the crunch of my steps. I pulled my mitts off, got the phone out of my pocket and checked my messages. Without thinking twice, I penned a reply, retyping a couple of words (I do not believe in auto spellcheck) which got mangled by my cold fingers. I hit ‘send’ only to feel an irrepressible urge to look upwards to my left. At the top of the tallest spruce (?… mental note: learn to identify trees) the resident hawk was standing with its head turned towards me. This is the second time it happened; that it made my gaze peel from the most estranging of devices and look towards it. The closeness such an occurrence conjures cannot be put into words, nor can it be placed in the context of today when being hurried is synonymous with simply being.
Time itself is the keeper of such moments, so long as we do not fragment it. That is what I am after. Time, alone and with my loved ones; closeness to what matters. The hawk’s gaze.
As I am writing this, approximately 8,000 homes in the Fraser Valley, possibly more, are still without power due to extreme winter weather. Kamloops is under a thick blanket of snow too, and it’s not over yet. It’s started snowing again this morning.
No complaints from where I am standing. I love winter and its beauty renewed by a fresh layer of snow every couple of days. I am also aware that if you have power and a decent amount of food in the house, it’s but too easy to call it charming and snuggle with a book and a cup of tea until you feel like poking your nose out. Which you might soon enough because shoveling notwithstanding, the white fresh powder is fascinating and there’s nothing like a walk in the deep snow with red cheeks and eyes swimming in the surrounding white wonderland.
Again, if you have all you need. We do, and that is to be grateful for. But what if power goes out, or you’re stuck on the road somewhere? Not fun. If there’s one thing that became more evident than ever in the year that we leave behind is how comfortable we have become with having our necessities taken care of. Clean (enough) air, running water, hot or cold, power, food available in stores. Shortages due mostly to extreme weather conditions bring out the question though: what if we did not have this, even for a short while?
In one of his essays, George Monbiot, a British writer, and political and environmental activist, mentions a sobering quote he heard during a talk: ‘Every society is four meals away from anarchy’. Food for thought indeed, no pun intended. It goes for more than just food I’d say, and the concept is surely worth a closer look by all of us.
What better time than now?
At the end of the year it’s good to pause and consider whether our levels of gratefulness match the life we live, more so when the daily news provides an insight into the realities of life without the comforts we’re often taking for granted. All of us who are not struggling with poverty, or other harsh realities that hack at one’s peace of mind and overall well-being, are we truly thankful for what we have?
Imagine, for example, if there would be no running water and we had to go back to melting ice or snow, so we can have drinking and cooking water. Forget laundry machines, dishwashers, daily showers or baths, or hot tubs. It sounds preposterous and yet…
Much like the Fraser Valley residents have experienced and some still do, imagine having no electricity in your home at all, even for a couple of days. Is that enough to bring up our gratefulness to the point where we ponder carefully over how we use resources to prevent waste in the year to come?
Same goes for food. We had plenty of headlines and investigative pieces on food waste in Canada and we have had the report on poverty come out with dire numbers. Can we learn from the two and bring the numbers to zero in both cases? It can be done, it should be done.
Looking back at what 2017 brought, there is much to consider in terms of blessings. From the easily forgotten blessings of everyday life, to the dramatically increased needs in situations of crisis (floods, wildfires, power outages), we have it good. Not perfect, as many can attest after dealing with extreme situations, but good.
We have heartful people around us, willing to open their homes, wallets, and arms to embrace those in need, we have creative minds that can help a community evolve, and we have, above anything else, freedom to express our opinions. We have a health system that allows for people to be given care without having to sell their homes to pay their medical bills, and we have access to information and knowledge, as well as services of various kinds. Room to improve on all of these you say? For sure, and just as well we have the choice to help influence some of those changes by choosing to change the world around us for the better, from our immediate one (yourself) to your immediate community and the community at large.
The list of blessings is a long one, and our gratefulness should match it. We are better for it when we are thankful. To recognize that is to be humbled, and in doing so, is to be lifted above simply taking everything for granted, and instead responding to the obligation to give back in any way we can. Even by being kinder towards those around us, family, friends, or strangers, and by creating a positive ripple with each of our actions.