My (now) occasional columns are originally published on the Armchair Mayor News, this one included.
I saw the tiniest hummingbird the other day, while on the morning hike. No bigger than a (small) dandelion flower, it was hovering around a Saskatoon bush. I got home and promptly put up the red hummingbird feeder in the backyard.
I have this simple blade coffee grinder that I use for grinding flax seeds. It lost a knob during one of our many moves, but it still works. No points for looking pretty though. We also have another basic blade coffee grinder, which has all parts and has been fully functional for the last 20 years (OK, we had to sharpen the blade a couple of times). Donating either in favour of new ones might just mean the end of the road for both, since they look past their prime. And then again, why would we? They work just fine.
I was driving through the downtown, down 4th Avenue when I got startled by yelling and hand-waving coming out of a car parked on the side of the street. A bunch of teenage girls in an SUV were trying to get people to let them join traffic, making silly faces and acting in a rather annoying manner.
have been too easy to roll my eyes and say ‘Ugh, teenagers…’. After all, I have
seen grownups acting in awful ways while in traffic or making rookie mistakes.
It was almost midnight, almost Friday, when I started writing this. The house was quiet and warm and outside sudden wind gushes were throwing snow up in the air creating white ghosts that seemed unable to make up their minds which way to go. The heavy snow that started the night before draped thick over the city and surroundings.
It’s winter wonderland around us for sure, and I love the quiet I get immersed in during my morning hikes with the dog, and I love the swirls I see dancing through the window on a windy night. But I know all this joy would be obliterated, should I not have a warm abode to come back to when I am done.
Which is why the opening of the homeless shelter by the Kamloops Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association on November 1 is a timely, welcome event. I dropped in during the open house held last Monday in what used to be the gym of Stuart Wood Elementary School. It had been a while since I was there last, when the boys were still in school and my husband and I would go see the plays, usually held in the gym. It looked different now. Mattresses were arranged neatly in rows, dressed, and each with a blanket; waiting.
Staff members showed me around. ‘Here’s the kitchen, the laundry area which the staff will operate, the extra sleeping room for those who snore or have pets…’ There was a sense of accomplishment in the air. No one will be turned away, I am told. The shelter has a 50-person capacity but if need be, rearranging the space will make room for more. No one will be left in the cold… I go back to playing that sentence in my head. It is humbling to realize how lucky we are, all of us who never had to worry about a warm bed at the end of the day, more so in winter.
I cannot think of a better use for the old Stuart Wood school building. It is after all a building that sits empty at a time when temperatures are dropping to painfully cold. Once again, Kamloops shows its heart, and I know it will continue to do so with every opportunity.
Then came the weekend. If you happened by the Superstore on Summit Drive or the Independent Grocer on the North Shore on Saturday, you might’ve noticed some big army trucks and people in uniforms. The Rocky Mountain Rangers in collaboration with the Food Bank did a food drive which brought in 1,200 pounds of food and other needed items. More is always needed.
Truth is, our society sees a lot of stuff, perishable or non-perishable food items, and many other objects, go to waste. Many of us have long lost items that are in perfectly good shape yet lost among other objects in our home. We often see food end up in the garbage in our own home and in food stores too, and yet hunger is still a reality for many. There are initiatives that show the opposite is possible though and that’s where hope lies. The foodSHARE program by the Kamloops Food Bank helped divert 9 million pounds of food from the landfill and use it for food programs and, if expired, as animal feed.
I’ve heard some say that this time a year you cannot go anywhere without being asked for donations and it can become too much. There is even a name for it: compassion fatigue. Yet I encourage you to not give that thought too much room to grow. There are many people at the receiving end who count on our compassion to get a meal, the bare necessities for life, or a warm bed to sleep in. Many of them may be fatigued by life and its trials, yet they cannot step away from it just by looking the other way.
The Poppy Campaign conducted by the Canadian Legion (all funds go to veterans and their dependents) has volunteers stand many hours no matter the weather conditions, because every little bit helps, and they believe in it to brave the elements. There’s the Christmas Cheer Fund (all funds go to those in need), more food drives still, and hospital charity campaign. Then there is the stuff that comes in the mailbox or via petitions online.
Also, some argue that if money is donated, not enough goes to those in need but it is diverted towards administrative funds and such. That in itself is a whole conversation, yet if too much energy and time is put into in bashing some of the fundraising campaigns, there is a risk of not leaving enough consideration for those in need who are at the receiving end.
If that is a troubling thought, I encourage you to look for opportunities to help right in our own backyard. Whether it is food donated to the Food Bank, or items needed by shelters such as the newly opened CMHA shelter (twin fitted sheets and quilts, pillows, pillow cases, towels, changes of clothes, for example) or time you could set aside to help as a volunteer, please welcome the opportunity.
I’d argue that compassion is the most significant gesture that can make a difference in one’s life. For those who give, aware of the hardship people endure, and for those who receive the help in any form or shape, the bond of compassion is one that holds society together and puts one’s faith in humanity back into place. People in Kamloops have proved it many times and that is something to be fiercely proud of.
Saturday was a cold, wet, and slightly dreary day, though rain was such precious commodity during the summer that I cannot get myself to dislike it, no matter how much I miss the sun. On our way to the farmer’s market, my oldest son and I bumped into Vaughn Warren, who was as enthusiastic as ever about the time capsule that was about to be attached to the new Freemont Block sign he was recently commissioned to restore. Come by the Makerspace between 3 and 5 today, he said, so you can sign a postcard for the time capsule.
Most of the day had already been scheduled for a few activities but we made it there a few minutes before 5. The sign looked beautifully vibrant and the table next to it was full of cards, photos, and other mementos to be sealed in the time capsule. We signed the guest book and then proceeded to write something on the card before writing down our names.
I had to stop a while and think. This was something that someone, a hundred years from now, will read and think about for a few moments. Much like I was taking my time trying to stretch my thoughts to the other side of the hundred years, that person, or people, will be trying to imagine what it was all like here, now.
An exercise in humbleness if you will. A hundred years from now on I will be long gone, and so will my sons, most likely. Sobering indeed. It’s a thought that makes you hear all the noises in the room suddenly, and makes you see everything around in a different light. It makes you shudder, too. there is a finality attached to you and your life, and there’s no two ways about it. It’s part of the deal. A rainy, cold day is the day you’re in, a gift like no other, and not a dreary time slot you can’t wait to be done with.
The day was already inviting to a lot of reflection regarding the thin line between life and death we’re all due to cross at some point. It was my late friend Richard Wagamese’s birthday (he would’ve turned 62,) and it was the day chosen for Christopher Seguin’s funeral service. Their passing, as well as the passing of some many people I’ve known over the years, my parents and other close relatives included, left me with a cloud of questions: What matters after all, what is worth striving for while you’re alive and what will the others remember of you once you’re gone?
From all that I’ve seen so far, it’s not the material things but the heart matters that live on. They do not only linger, but continue to grow and fill that empty space one leaves behind once they’re gone. The things we do because we choose to show and wear our humanity with pride and gratefulness is what matters; it’s what will inspire those who miss us to keep on going, choose to act with courage and joy, and leave a mark on the world by allowing their humanity to shine through as they live their days.
It is the whole range of acts that count, not just the ones that are news-worthy. It’s the mark we leave behind us when no one’s watching. The gestures, big or small, that can restore someone’s smile, restore someone’s trust in humanity and change the way people around us choose their next steps, so that their hearts show through.
When we choose to live heartfully and with compassion, there’s glowing that transcends your immediate presence. It’s the kind of hopeful shiny stuff that guides those left behind you towards decisions better suited for the greater good, less judgment and more compassion towards those who need it.
A few days ago, I read about an incident in Williams Lake. An elderly man was lying on the ground in a parking lot after having suffered a heart attack, and though many people passed by, no one stopped. Eventually, a woman stopped and called an ambulance, informed the man’s family south of the border about his condition, and took care of his vehicle and boat (the man was on his way to an annual fishing trip with friends.)
Whatever accomplishments the woman who saved his life has achieved so far or will from now on, that she showed her humanity at a time when someone needed it the most is something she will be remembered forever by the man she saved and by his family. Perhaps she will inspire many to be compassionate rather than judge.
Visuals can be awfully deceptive at times. Wearing one’s heart to be seen as we walk through life never is. That’s what I hope a hundred years from now people will still value and strive for. Because before w are anything else, we are human. That is the gift that is handed to us when we’re born, the one we’re supposed to make the most of while we’re alive, and the one we’re leaving behind when we go. That’s what I’ve learned so far from those who lived letting their hearts walk alongside. It’s the kind of legacy humans ought to bestow onto humans.
Until two days ago, I thought I had figured out the column. It was to revolve around denial. The news that poured down the media pipe last week following the inauguration ceremony south of the border offered plenty of reasons to delve into the topic.
First came the news of the approval of the Dakota and Keystone XL pipelines. Some celebrated, while others decried the lack of vision for the future at a time when acting on climate change should be necessary. Regardless of which side you’re on, there is something undeniably real about climate change. It’s happening. We’ll still be using fossil fuels for a while, that is a fact, but there is energy to be harnessed that is renewable and can ensure jobs and a future.
Denial is a treacherous path to walk on. It may benefit a few for a limited time, but it will fail all of us eventually. Denying that climate change is real bites us all in the end; some are already suffering from its ill effects, and by suffer I mean just that. There is drought, famine, war, severe weather phenomena and extreme conditions. If you spend enough time on environmental news, it’s darn clear that we’re engaged on a path we might not be able to maintain control of, should we not leave behind our dependency on fossil fuels. It’s but science talking. Facts, that is.
My interest for political news stopped temporarily when I came across a heartbreaking story involving suffering on one side, and denial on the other. Ethan Dizon, a 14-year-old boy living in Edmonton, committed suicide three weeks ago.
The school continued to call the boy’s home to inform his parents that he did not show up for classes. A mistake, you might say. The second call was made on the day of his funeral, but that is not the worst of it. According to his sister and many others who lived through it, Ethan’s suicide was likely caused by the bullying that is allegedly rampant in that school.
If you pause for a second to imagine the pain and hopelessness that can push a 14-year-old child to commit suicide… can you? My son is the same age and I cannot go there. No child can be left in that dark corner by themselves and yet many are. The stats on teenage suicides in Canada speak for themselves.
School officials denied such claims. That’s not a singular case. Many know that bullying and cyberbullying happen in schools, yet claims are underreported and most often ignored. Just read the comments left by many students, former students, and parents, on the online petition that Ethan’s sister started. Yes, denial seems an easier path to follow if you have the luxury to not be directly involved. But losing lives to it makes it all wrong.
Where should we start in rearranging our priorities then? What does it take to get us there? The answer, at least a partial one for me, surfaced in the last few days while observing my boys as they went about their days. One had to do with a day of winter adventures that included ice fishing. My husband and the boys went to Walloper lake, fished, cooked some of it right then and there, and brought some home.
There were many questions that crossed their minds regarding life and death. Providing food should involve knowing where it comes from. When a life ends so that we can put food on the table, there is a plethora of thoughts that abound and should, ideally, create compassion and gratefulness, though to some of us that sounds counterintuitive. When we make decisions about our individual lives, we ought to know what they mean for those around us. Everyone’s actions ultimately affect everyone else’s life.
Another evening we were all huddled around the kitchen table; the boys and my husband slicing apples to dry, and me catching up on correspondence. There was laughter and chatting, some topics as sobering as others were light and silly. We talked about racism; why thinking a human life to be less important due to skin colour, religion, gender is plain wrong and history has plenty of examples of that. Suffering we can learn from and stop by repeating, but how?
By bringing up children in a way that teaches them compassion and kindness we may avoid the dark splashes that get us all muddled eventually. There is no right and wrong that is absolute, but I think deep down we each understand what is kind and what is not. Our children learn that as they grow up. By tackling subjects that are tragic, sad or worrying, be it climate change, death, mental health, drugs or racism, you name it, we can hope for a better outcome down the road.
The one caveat which is in fact a gift: we ought to spend enough time to make the conversations flow and have children share their thoughts. When they revolve around uncomfortable topics, it takes courage. For them to open up, and for us adults to receive their question with an open mind and show by example what compassion and kindness mean.
Denial in the slightest amount can lead to pain. Denial at higher levels can claim lives and more. The only thing that can stand in the way is an open mind that feeds on compassion and relies on facts in order to fix the wrongs of today for a better tomorrow.
Every now and then I come across a quote that resides in my thoughts for days. Such was the case of the words I later discovered to belong to David Orr, professor of environmental studies and politics (quite the combination), writer, and activist.
It goes like this: “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
Truly riveting, isn’t it?
It could sound rather counterproductive and somewhat the opposite of what we’re telling children about life nowadays. That these very words are part of a book called ‘Educational Literacy: Educating Our Children for A Sustainable Future’ makes all the sense and more.
When my oldest son was in grade 1, he asked what being rich meant. I said that though it may seem otherwise, true richness has nothing to do with things but with what we carry inside. It has to do with how much of the stuff that we cannot measure we have. Though he is inching his way towards becoming an adult, should he asked the same question now, I’d tell him the same, though some might think I am depriving him of the much-needed impetus for building a successful career.
A day or two after discovering the above-mentioned quote, I came across two news stories that fueled the debate with myself. One had to do with the salaries of some of the most successful CEOs in Canada; the numbers peppered throughout the report were in the millions, and lots of them. Really, if too many zeroes are used to describe one’s monetary compensation, numbers kind of lose their significance. Unless some of that sum is used to add goodness to the world.
The second story had to do with a Montreal-based small restaurant owner who offers free meals to those in need, no questions asked. That averages to four or five meals a day (and less wasted food.) The ripple effects of the free meals reached further than expected: People who eat there started leaving small sums of money to help cover the cost of the free meals.
If you were ever in a desperate financial situation, even once in your life, you know what a godsend a free meal can be. Compassion invites gratefulness, which in turn invites more compassion. Deep down we all know that. It’s easy to forget to look back, and at times it may seem easy to shrug and hope someone else will take care of the ungracious side of the world.
If success was measured in how much better we can each make the world around us by exercising compassion (and not judging), we’d definitely need as many successful people as we can get.
For the world to carry itself forward with unselfish grace, it is us who need to supply it by raising children who think outside of their own personal boundaries. Moreover, we need to raise children that follow passions, dreams and become fulfilled in ways that go beyond financial success while preserving the kind ways of the heart.
No one ever lost anything in lending a hand. Still, many of us are afraid to commit to it because the amount of wrongness to be fixed seems insurmountable and ever-growing. Many of us are perhaps of the opinion that paying it forward works best in the movies. Every now and then, stories that prove good deeds invite to more of the same surface, and with that, one can hope, the conviction that letting our humanity show is but the right thing to do.
And then again, there is the very opposite of the coin that prompts doubt, anger even. In our community, the recent hit-and-run that took a life and left so much sadness behind shoots down all hope that people carry warmth in their heart no matter what.
There are heinous acts in every part of our world. There are people who act senselessly; they steal, hurt, kill, do irreparable and atrocious damage, and truth is, no one will ever be able to stop that from happening. But the aftermath is where we can lend a helping, healing, loving hand. We live, you could say, in a perpetual aftermath where every day is a good day to start.
Part of doing that is raising compassionate children by making helping those less fortunate common place, and by helping them understand that life and death are but brackets and the in between is where we can make a difference in how we live.
We are all born with smiles sketched across our minds and hearts, yet many peel off as we go. We learn that success involves climbing ladders that often claim the softest parts of our hearts. What we can teach our children is that being successful does not mean leaving compassion behind.
Indeed, in the age of a growing and often ailing population, due to hardship related to climate change, wars and everyday societal wrongness, it may be necessary to forgo the urge to push our children towards one-sided success and help them instead carry on with heartful, giving steps. We’d all be richer for it and smile more.