Gratitude makes the journey better and so does kindness

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Live and Let Live – Does It Still Apply?

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, September 18, 2017. 

Two years ago on a sunny early afternoon in June while driving to Vancouver, my family and I witnessed something that has yet to be surpassed in absurdity and, I got to say, horror. Passing a lady riding her motorbike up the hill past Merritt, we noticed that she was texting while driving. Distracted driving taken to a whole new level. Talk about a teachable moment for the boys and a new level of awareness for us adults.

How many people do that? How many people I drive by who, unbeknownst to me and many others, are either distracted by their phones, are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or tired enough to fall asleep, even for a second, which is often a long enough second to change lives forever and for the worse? How many times was I, my loved ones, or you and your loved ones close enough but lucky enough to still be here today…

Stats provide numbers to answer my questions. Many times. Car and motorcycle crashes in British Columbia have been increased in the last three years. According to ICBC stats, the number of crashes in BC in 2016 totalled 320,000. Which translates into an average of 875 collisions a day. Some are mild enough for the drivers and passengers to walk away and thank their lucky stars, while others result in tragedy.

There are 1.2 fatalities (to a total of 430 deaths per year,) and 18 hospitalizations per day, according to BC Injury and Prevention Unit. Impaired (alcohol, drugs, and extreme fatigue) and distracted driving (cell phone use) are the leading cause behind most of the crashes. Then comes speed.

I wrote before about speed and its ill consequences. I have been told by many that in Europe they have many highways without any speed limits, which leads to fewer crashes due to better flowing traffic and better driving. It’s an argument that could go on for a while I suppose. Regardless of what other countries’ rules are, in Canada we do have speed limits and they need to be heeded, or else risk a speedy mayhem of some kind. Should the day come when we’ll have some ‘no speed limit’ corridors, we will hopefully be wiser and better equipped to drive safely.

Until then, there are a few things that need attention in order to help everyone on the road get to where they are going safely. Laws that are reinforced constantly and tough punishments for those who violate them, given that they do not just put their lives in danger but many others’. Periodic drug and alcohol roadside screening checks as well as increased patrols to prevent distracted driving, province-wide (and further) education that puts the insanity of using cell phones while driving into perspective, installing traffic cameras especially in high risk collision areas, the list could go on.

We need to be good sports and model good behaviour for children when driving is concerned. If so many things that life throws our way are unpredictable, safe driving makes for one heck of a good chance of not dying sooner than we should, or becoming incapacitated in any way. Most of motor vehicle crash victims in BC are between 20 and 24 years old.

The thing is, all of this works better if we all do it. Well-intended individuals can be affected by someone’s careless, impaired, or distracted driving and, truth is, no consequence seems fitting for a life lost or affected irreversibly by an accident.

Beside the fact that it could be any one of us, there is yet another piece to this. It could happen whether you are in a car, on a bike, or simply walking like Jennifer Gatey did last November when she was struck and left to die on the side of the road.

The stories and tears that the victims’ families and friends carry in their hearts forever are heartbreaking. They make temporary news and make many of us more mindful, at least for a while. The reality is, according to all the stats above, we have yet to come closer to making the streets and highways safer. We are more rushed, we sleep less, and there are those who try their luck with driving under the influence or checking the cell phone while behind the wheel.

It takes one second for things to change forever. When you think of the millions of seconds we spend on the road every year, that means millions of chances to make it out alive every time. It is worth taking another look at our ways and putting a better foot forward.

Compassion Starts Where Judgment Ends

Initially published as  column on AM News, now part of NewsKamloops

This past week I was among the many people who got to see the photo of a little Syrian boy who washed up on the shores of Turkey as a result of the horrific crisis that has thousands of refugees flee Syria. It’s the kind of photo that shakes and rattles people’s hearts, whether they have children or not.

The crisis is not new and there are now 4 million refugees in five host countries and a total of 15 million people in need of assistance inside and outside of Syria, according to Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid organization presently on site in the Middle East.

While most people were horrified and considered the very image a visual of our failed humanity, some opinions opened the door to controversy and criticism. Peter Bucklitsch, UKip member and parliamentary candidate in the 2015 elections, said the boy was well dressed and well fed and his parents too greedy for the good life in Europe.

His tweet (deleted since) garnered supportive comments alongside highly critical ones. The ones defending the comment said there are plenty of hungry people already in the UK and other European countries lining up for food at food banks, there have been cuts that made impoverished people poorer and increased crime, and an influx of refugees would make matters worse.

Most people called him heartless and worse. Factually speaking, the comment is nothing but harsh judgment applied to people he knew nothing about and, from a compassionate point of view, there is little more one should say about a dead child other than ‘that is sad and unfortunate, unacceptable by anyone’s standards.’

Others argued that there are many children dying, not just in Syria, but in Ukraine and Africa and that a photo should not steal the front page the way this one did.

These are strange times indeed, where we can show our best or worst sides. There is no competition regarding children dying and where it happens most, and there should be no ‘us versus them’ either. A child that dies is one too many. To argue that too much attention is being given to one cases versus the others causes us all to lose track of what’s important and engage in useless rhetoric.

They do not call this situation a crisis for nothing. While political analysts are not entirely surprised to see how far it got, there are no adequate words to properly describe it either, which is why photographs are worth more than any. European governments have been accused of having supported the US war on the Middle East and North Africa for more than a decade, which lead to the displacements and desperation we see today.

It is overwhelming to say the least. More than half of the Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. In the context of the Western societies protecting their young ones, often to the point of bubble-wrapping, we have to think of what children in war-torn countries witness and go through, and what that says about our world as a whole.

There is no us and them, really. Race, colour and religion do not matter when we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis like the one taking place in Syria.

Some people wonder why anyone would opt to get themselves in shoddy boats in order to cross the Mediterranean Sea, putting themselves and their families, including children and infants, at risk of losing their lives.

Desperation is a mighty beast.

What would we all do if our country was subject to a war such as the one in Syria? How many of us would be willing to live in camps or outside of camps, never making an attempt to flee in search of a better life? How many of us would risk anything for that one chance to have it better for ourselves and our children?

I would argue that the world, troubled and exhausted as it seems, has enough resources still for all who live on it. When there is a will created by compassion in face of tragedy, there is a way to carry out good deeds.

It is easy to express judgment when removed from a situation. Trouble is, judgment stops compassion in its tracks. Whether we are talking about the missing Aboriginal women in Canada and the governmental lack of attention to it, or the human slavery that is still very much alive and an unfortunate part of the western world commercial goods market, or the humanitarian crises happening in many places around the world, allowing compassion to have a front seat reminds us of a simple truth: we are only as human as we allow ourselves to be by opening our minds and abstaining from judgment so that compassion can thrive instead.

The Reason We Are Not Oblivious To Magic

Initially published as a column in the AM News on Friday, November 28, 2014.

Beauty to live byToday’s early morning sky had a streak of blue I had never seen before. It was a blue that you pat yourself on the back when you get it by mixing watercolours; it was that beautiful and unique.

Except that someone else mixed the colours this morning. Not only that, it made sure to sift some sunlight on the north shore hills, a patch of brightness splattered here and there, as if some celestial egg was broken over those spots for a reason.

The only reason I could think of was to see. Not the whole landscape, which habitual browsing takes care of but often gets thrown at the back of the mind, but the small patches that stop you short, making you curious and grateful at the same time.

Curious to see more of the hills many times before, because today the sun is shining just so, making you wonder if you’ve ever realized just how pretty that particular slope is… Gratefulness is an automatic response your mind comes up with when you look long enough. I did.

Two hours later I took a walk with my oldest. He remarked on the murky waters of the Thompson River and the white shores hemmed with sand. By then, the cloud curtain had been pulled aside and a whole hill shone white and pretty. Snowy paths snaked their way behind unknown knolls and I wished to be there. I wished for the sunlight to keep on doing its thing many hundreds of years and beyond.

You could say it was one of those moments, which I am grateful to not be oblivious to.

There was something simple yet remarkable about it all: a growing boy, us walking and seeing the world around, a train going clickety-clack pulling its load through town, the light that kept on shifting revealing hill after hill and the realization that the world is changing, every day, and every hour of the day, and unless we make an effort to see it, we won’t. Unless we make an effort to keep it, we won’t…

Everything evolves, the slogan goes. Progress pushes some items out of sight to make room for new ones, and the phenomenon that promotes them. Yet the sun shone on the north shore hills way before progress was accounted for in the way we think of now, and the river kept shifting from murky to blue-green and clear since before this place had the name we know of.

I want my sons to grow up thinking of that as they go about their day. There are no ordinary moments in a day as far as nature is concerned, no matter how menial the daily activities become as we grow accustomed by them.

Like the walk to and from school every day with my youngest. One morning we woke up to snow and we walked through a blizzard that spat snowflakes into our eyes, on our cheeks and down our backs if the scarf got loose. You laugh yourself silly, because what else can you do…

Another morning we witnessed a most spectacular sunrise: a ribbon of sunlight, fresh and bright, rolling down from thick clouds to the bottom of the hill. Everything was shrouded in thick grey fog, save for the patch that looked like golden cotton candy. We were both mesmerized.

I wondered how many people got to see it that day and how many before us, and if they did, did they step out the next morning knowing that there will be something else to see, equally spectacular or more…

WorthyOne of the biggest accomplishment as a parent and guide to life as it happens for my sons, is to have them point out the ordinary bits of everyday life that steal their eyes and hearts. Leaves that are too beautiful to leave behind even as they lay shriveled up by incoming cold weather, grey mornings that have a mysterious feel to them, the ever so perfectly shaped rock that sits among many on the shores of a lake yet somehow it stands out, the occasional mirror-like surface of the river and the miracle of snowflakes. They point them out, and I know what touches their hearts the most. They know of mine.

And then, there is the magic of reminders that are as poignant as they are unique. One night, past midnight and way too close to the witching hour, we heard noises in our sloped back yard. Boys sound asleep cozily nestled in warm beds, we stepped outside.

The next moment I was staring at a beautiful doe. She stared back. Everything was quiet. She walked towards the neighbour’s yard and before swiftly jumping over the low fence, she looked one more time.

We walked up a couple of steps and under the sleepy apricot tree was a buck; not moving a muscle, he looked at us, and he looked towards where the doe went. For a few short seconds we stood, species boundaries notwithstanding, united by the simple magic of being there when no one else was. I could see his breath and I felt privileged.  Never so close… never so magical.

I felt like an intruder, but witnessing their graceful presence reminded me of the big world we should strive to keep alive. It’s a gift like no other.

Perhaps magic is, after all, not only what lies out there but the fact that we choose to see it and that we are, sometimes, given the amazing gift of seeing it. It is not without purpose that that happens. It’s the only way we can find reason to keep it alive; sunlit snowy paths, nighttime deer and all…

Short-term Blindness

UntouchedIt was after bedtime that Sasha and I sat down to read about ocean life, which is, according to his own classification, ‘his main focus.’ Bedtime strictness be gone, motherhood pays sweet dues to such clear and worthwhile endeavours. So we sat to read.

‘Mom, I will always remember you.’

What would you have said to that? Composure is not an attribute I possess. For a writer with no serious case of writer’s block I should have no excuse. Yet I said nothing but smiled. So will I. Both of you. The gift of open heart when you least expect it. Thoughts of years to come.

Then the thought struck like a most inelegant electric eel. Everything is becoming short-term nowadays. From cell phone contracts to how we think of our impact on the world around, we look at today, this month, this year, if that far. We’re getting used to thinking short-term, we’re being trained to do so.

The attention span of children is reduced by a few seconds with each generation (and what a big virtual chunk of brain power that is) and the objects and contracts we’re told we need to sign up for are measured not in their true value, but in what we have to pay every month and or in how we can make best use of them today.

We’re surrounding ourselves with trees (some of which fake and taking the place of real ones) and we fail to see the forest.

Many think they want to live forever but life is knitted with the thin fabric of something that’s meant to last today and tomorrow.

We think in return policies, exchange for new if something breaks, throw-away and replace with new model; we pay an acceptable-to-budget amount every month without looking at the big picture.

We buy toys for our children’s entertainment today without thinking about the impact of all the broken, thrown-away toys over the years. We feed them refined food they like today, questionable treats that make them grin today, without assessing the impact of the short-term joys on their health, on their world, on ours.

To say that long-term awareness has been short-circuited in favour of the short-term one might sound harsh and I am, yet again, the Grinch that steals today’s fun. But perhaps a refreshed view of the Grinch might save the original, and it may as well save me right now. Dr. Seuss’s wicked thoughtfulness sparkles through. The end of fun was in fact the beginning of real joy. Stripped of all that was short-term glitter, joy stayed put and it came from inside. An act of giving if you will.

Today’s short-term jolly adventures are dangerously plopping themselves in front of long-term thinking, shadowing judgment and making us sign up contracts with words too small and too many to read in one go. Someone must be watching over us rushed people, we assume. Life is happening fast, we are happening with it and the gulps of short-term jolliness make the ride more fun. So be it, where do I sign?

But is the ride more fun? Not quite.

It is refreshing to think that there is still time to think long-term. A rather un-capitalistic view of life, a return to ‘cradle to grave’ objects and concepts alike, perhaps revising investments to make them apply to human richness, in spirit and open-heart goodness rather than have them confined to the financial realm. No one gains money when people’s hearts and minds grow richer but that is the kind of richness that lasts, the one you don’t find in a bank account.

It is fitting of us to consider that while today only comes once and now is a chance we’ll never have again, the long-term concept is building itself out of every today we churn in our rushed existence. The one big problem is that we will not live forever and the generations to come will have a today made from that patched-up, somewhat crumbly long-term we’re building handicapped by our short-term blindness.

Whether Sasha becomes a marine biologist or not (his second choice is to become a carpenter, inspired by a kind, generous toy maker he’s met not long ago) it is not important. My peace of mind comes from knowing that we sat down long enough to read all that he wanted to (hopefully,) we saw enough ocean to understand its boundless wonder (hopefully) and we had enough challenging topics at the dinner table for both of them to understand that us humans honour ourselves and the gift of life by understanding  roots and future (we have.) The roots are being handed to us and the future we create. A heck of a long-term responsibility if you ask me.

Why Be Mindful, Starting Today

It is early morning, the house is dark and quiet and there is no better time to be aware of where I am.

I pull the curtains because it snowed overnight and whiteness makes me feel safe and cozy.

I open the door, breathe in the cold and look at the sleepiness around. Across the street, smoke raises from a smokestack, pointing straight to a sky that’s so clear it squeaks when you look at it. No more snow. I know that from my dad, about the smoke going straight up.

This is the time to be where I am and nowhere else. No planning the day, no urgent this or that, no deadlines.

This is the time to stop.

So much is happening every day, even on those days that seem slow and dull. They are not. They are life. And we barely acknowledge it, even on the good days.

Why so hurried? Because it’s what we do. Life hurries and we hurry with it. Hurrying is a choice; but you knew that. Or not. Is it really? (yes)

Like heading straight down a wild river that we know for a fact ends up in a waterfall, we ride a raft we barely hang onto. White knuckles scream desperation and a need to stop, a need to readjust here and there and take a look around. We’re moving too fast, we know that much.

Speed enables us to persist in thinking we’re doing it right. And speed even more.

Everywhere we look, white knuckles are interpreted not as a sign of desperation but as an acknowledgement of being on this wild river. It’s what everyone does, right? Very few of us will say otherwise and the ones who do, are on the shores, looking around and telling us to slow down. Can they be believed? How would they know? Why are they there to begin with?

The answer is as simple as it is troubling: Because they know that knuckles are connected to the heart and the mind. Not when they’re white and cold though. They only get warm when we stop. But that’s slowing down, isn’t it? That means losing something? More? Less? Enough? At all?

Where’s the truth? Who has it?

Somehow slowing down does not appeal enough to our competitive nature. Slowing down is a right we don’t want to make much use of. We take odd comfort in saying “But I am not the only one.” And oddly enough, that truly is the weakest argument of them all. It really will not matter who was with you and why when you reach the waterfall. You’ll reach it by yourself. As it’s always been.

Gravity evens things out for us all. Which is why it’s so important to mind things along the way, to stop your raft by shores you deem necessary to see, or to simply stop to see. To listen, to breathe and know of yourself. To make sense of why you’re on that wild river to begin with.

To be grateful.

White knuckles will not let any feelings sink in deep enough for you to feel that. Perhaps that’s the best reason why stopping every now and then makes sense.

Quiet after all...Also because when you stop, you learn how to. And you’ll know how to do it next time. And next. And you’ll be ready for everything that comes. Or for most of the things.

You’ll have made time along the way to know faces, not just see them in that mad dash down a river that was never intended for us ride so recklessly and white-knuckled but we do it because everyone does.

Which is never a good argument to begin with. So learn to stop. Today.

Innocence Lost? There Is Still Time To Act…

(Originally published as a column in the Saturday edition of the Kamloops Daily News on July 27, 2013)

I read today that the UK has decided to block access to online pornography; unless people ask for it that is. Internet suppliers will install family-friendly filters and those who wants them off will have to ask for it, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron has decided.

Like a breath of fresh air, such radical decisions make sense. They are meant to protect children from exposure to something they don’t need to see, even more so, something that can alter their perceptions and create a new kind of addiction that is still new to us and, according to recent studies, not easy to get rid of.

Parents used to find magazines like Hustler and Playboy hidden in their teenagers’ drawers or tucked carefully under the mattress. It was one of those “Oh” moments, followed by a talk, a shrug or complete silence, depending on the level of openness. Life went on often with no serious damage. That was then.

Things are different nowadays. There is a world behind the screens that our children have access to, a world we cannot fully comprehend the size of, let alone set boundaries and control the information flux that increases every day and slowly eludes any kind of parental control.

Nowadays we put our trust in cyber nannies; they are supposed to be the impenetrable wall that protects our children from internet nudity and pornography. Right. Unless the kid goes to someone else’s house where the computers might or might not have cyber nannies, or, if the kids equipped with a gadget are able to pick up a wifi signal and… well, you get the idea.

To add insult to the injury, all questionable internet content used to be accessible only to 18-plus. Somewhat protected, you could say. That was then also. Nowadays, things are different in that department too. Typing the very words opens up a world that should not be easily available if at all…

Children are curious, that’s a fact. Come teenage years, curiosity crosses boundaries and we cannot prevent that, but we can guide our children on a better path. A safer one.

It is not prudishness that causes my outrage, but fear and sadness that our children are losing their innocence way too early. I don’t believe in hiding things that are the way they are or coming up with fake explanations; my boys know there is no question I will shy myself from answering.

We talk about everything and though I never thought I will one day have “the talk” with a straight face, well, I did. We did. And more will follow. They will always have the option of reading instead, but for now they prefer talking. Questions and honest answers deepen trust on both sides.

Wanting to play grownups, children see things should not. Way before learning what a loving respectful relationship is about, children have access to information that is erroneous and addictive in a way that has been compared to drug addiction.

What is a parent to do? Aside from bringing difficult topics to the table and setting a good example, trusting that our children will be able to resist temptation and peer pressure remains the sole mid-ocean bobbing barrel we can hold onto. But it may not be enough.

We cannot ask teenagers to be responsible for guarding themselves entirely. Temptation can get the best of them to lower the guard. It is high time we look for ways that can help protect young minds from unnecessary exposure that pushes them into unripen adulthood, stealing their innocence way too soon.

One can argue that such content is meant for adults and teenagers and children should not be privy to it. Therein lies the problem though: They are. Whether we want them or not, whether we are aware of it or not, children have access to online pornography and that’s that. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can find a way to prevent it.

Also, let’s not forget or ignore, online pornography is often the result of sexual slavery, yet another black eye on the face of our world. Our acting on one end might bring enough awareness and courage for people on other ends to act towards stopping and preventing it, from victims to survivors to by-standers.

If all parents and educators ask for family-friendly internet filters because we realize the danger of easy access to online pornography, it will happen sooner than later. In all fairness, we are a couple of years late as it is, but there is still time to act.

Our children’s innocence is priceless, let’s allow them to keep it for as long as possible. From family to society level, we will all benefit from it.

To Be Mindful. A Reminder

Two toddlers died a couple of weeks ago as a result of being forgotten in cars that got too hot in the sun. It is the kind of news that makes your insides roll in a tight ball, whether you are a parent or not, but more so if you are one.

The events are isolated, one could say, but not isolated enough. To say the issue is debatable is an understatement. That parents or caregivers forget babies or toddlers in cars, some experts say, it’s a brain glitch. But, others say, it is unconceivable. Sad reality: It happens.

No parent is without fault and parenting is one challenging journey, everyone agrees. We make mistakes, we stumble, often we think we’re doing a good job just to lose our footing shortly after and find ourselves at the bottom of the hill, ready for a new climb, ready to make it better the next day. Just like it should be.

But this goes beyond parenting mistakes. It allows no trying again to make it better next time. One cannot imagine the pain those parents experience, whether they are the ones who forgot the children or another caregiver.

While every case is different, courts often decide no further charges, since the consequence of the deed itself is the worst punishment; nothing can come close to the pain left by the disappearance of a child and under such gruesome circumstances.

To judge is not the answer and really, who wants to cast the first stone… The reason I have a hard time defining this as a brain glitch though is out of fear that when we accept such things as possible mistakes, then they will happen.

But here’s the big question is: How is it possible? Are we too busy, too overscheduled, too absent from the present moment? If we put a child in the car seat, how could we forget to take her out? If a child is in the car, are we not to acknowledge her presence like we would a grown-up’s?

What rush could cause us to leave the car without even taking a look back? What about the instinctual pull that keeps us connected to our children from the moment they are born, a must in keeping them safe?

Somehow this issue crosses the parenting realm boundaries though.

It is a stark reminder to be mindful. To be where we are when we are there. It’s becoming a thing of the past with each day that passes nowadays.

Stretched between various communication and entertainment devices, busy jobs, various appointments and social obligations, the mind does its best, but multitasking is a dangerous game to play when children’s well-being is at risk.

To be where we are with all that we are means to make the best of every passing moment. Whatever it is that you are doing at a particular moment, be honest with yourself and stay committed to being immersed in that moment, no exception.

When sharing a moment or few with another human being, our loved ones first of all, we owe it to them to be there. In early childhood our children are mindful. When they explore the world outside, they stare intently at all living creatures, they spend enough time to really see it.

When we read to them or tell them a story, they envelop us with attention, they keep track of words and story thread. They are there, listening, cuddled to us and living that moment. We should do the same.

Life is not kind at times. There’s deadlines, stern bosses and obligatory phone calls. We are tired and the mind wanders. Being mindful is often a challenge.

But we cannot afford to be anything less, and we cannot settle for mindlessness, the price is too high and it will ultimately rob of all moments to follow, or rather the capacity to enjoy them.

To be mindful has great rewards and while we cannot change the world or slow down its pace, we can adjust ours. Better yet, let’s make it a team effort to truly make it work. Let’s not allow anyone’s pain to become but a news item, and anyone’s memory to slip out of life with no proper heeding and learning from. We can all help prevent future mistakes of this kind.

Originally published as a column in the Saturday edition of the Kamloops Daily News on July 13, 2013

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