It’s past 5pm on Saturday and the ambulance that has been parked in front of the Superstore for the entire day collecting food and toy donations has yet to leave. A few more people trickle out and add to the pile.
I am one of them. I thank the paramedics for the vital role they have in our community, and once again, for being there when our family needed them. I don’t get to see how much they’ve collected because once I throw a peek inside, I am reminded of the time when my youngest, 7 at the time, was being taken to the hospital. His little body was struggling to breathe due to a particularly severe asthma attack, and I was sitting next to him, holding his hand and hiding tears behind a smile because that’s what you do for your child even when you are broken inside.
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.
Today, on the first day of the year, I had the sweet chance to hold an 11-day-old baby for a few minutes. It’s a form of therapy you could say. Blissfully unaware of the hubbub around her, the baby slept, and her tiny face with occasional newborn grimaces was mesmerizing.
There I was, having just stepped into the new year hours ago, yet the ‘new’ was no longer attached to the year we have just transitioned into but to this new life that reminded me of my sons, of all the new beginnings we crossed together since, of all the lives mine intersected with since I can remember. ‘New’ is an inebriating concept. The desire to do better, to do more, to do, is a powerful one.
My thoughts curled around the many promises I made at the beginning of each year. Lullabies I promised to sing to my boys but sometimes forgot, too caught up in daily must-do activities to remember, too tired to sing out loud.
Promises to keep grace on my side no matter what, to be a better parent, a better friend (to myself included) and a better spouse, to be all of that with room for more… Life got in the way enough times to bring me to my knees. Some promises you keep and some you break, and that brings the humbleness in, the understanding that it is not the performance that matters in the end but the presence.
That some lullabies were never sang is a fact. The snuggles that became deep slumber at the end of the day are lessons I understood later on. Funny thing, that’s what I remember the most. It is about the presence, rather than about the performance. Doing your best under the given circumstances.
It’s what prevents me nowadays from making new year resolutions of any other kind but the ones that bring me closer and truer to those I love. Presence. When well connected to those we care about, we become better, whether we’re aware of it or not. Presence and unconditional acceptance of each other put the wind in our sails. No date stamped on any promises, all that counts is remembering that we are the ones giving meaning to days rather than the other way around.
We saw the end of a year that packed tragedies of many kinds. Every one of them, whether it was war, drug or accident-caused, brought forth the same: people’s lives were ended. People were lost from the loved ones. There is no antidote for absence.
Every one of the stories I read made me cringe in different ways, yet the thought rising every time was the same: presence is what matters in the end. While we still are, while the ones we care about still are, being present keeps us willing, inspired and discerning of the beauty of the journey rather than the promise of a set-in-stone destination.
This year’s promises have to do with holding someone’s hand when they need it the most and reminding people of the smiles they locked inside and can set free. It’s not the beginning of the new year that gives meaning to the rest of the days but our presence in every one of them that moulds them into meaningful bits of life to cherish.
The stories that I’ve learned about throughout the year that passed reminded me of the one simple truth we’re all too often guilty of forgetting: everyone is fighting a battle or more, everyone is carrying a story within. Many have but shreds of happiness in them, yet presence makes everything hurt less.
We are born craving presence, that’s what holding the new baby reminded me. It’s not a feature that requires upgrades or special talents. It requires us to slow down to be someone’s parent, someone’s child or spouse or friend. May this year be the one when we do it a bit more than last year or the years before.
Few things are more disappointing than not keeping a promise. More so when the promise has to do with people who died under circumstances that ought to be investigated so justice can be served. More so when the people who died are all First Nations Canadian women, the majority of them under 45 and mothers.
On our recent trip to Prince Rupert we drove on the Highway of Tears and the overall feeling is one of uneasiness and sadness. There are big billboards warning women of the dangers of hitchhiking. As you stop along the way in some of the small towns, there are signs that grief has touched that community.
And yet… The promised inquiry into the death of murdered and missing Aboriginal women is still far from becoming a reality. It’s not a promise that should be made lightly. Our new PM Justin Trudeau has a full agenda, no doubt about that. But a promise is a promise, and when closure of some sort is at stake, then the promise should be kept.
The numbers are staggering, the grief and pain left in the hearts of the families who are still waiting for answers are too. British Columbia has the highest numbers of missing and murdered First Nations women, 160 of them. Approximately 63 percent are murder cases and 24 percent missing persons cases. The majority of them were between 19 and 31 years old, and 16 percent under the age of 18.
Each of those young women was someone’s daughter, granddaughter or sister before they had a chance to become mothers. One could argue that sadly enough, the system failed many of them before they were born. After all, the drug and alcohol addictions among First Nations people are rampant. So is domestic abuse. A vicious circle that chews up many lives leaving but grieving survivors and unanswered questions.
Which is where the government comes in. the authority that can say enough is enough, vioplence againt women (by strangers in most cases) is not condoned anymore and we will not only find what happened to these women and girls but also work closely with First Nations leaders and communities to educate, protect and offer a way out to those whose are in danger of being mangled by that vicious circle that indifference, political (in)correctness and plain old feet-dragging enable.
It is shameful to not hear the plight of those left behind. And yet…Let’s hope the many questions will be answered soon. Let’s hope that dignity and justice will take their place where they rightfully belong.
I might hear soon that the topics I’ve been writing on are depressing. Or just on the brink of sadness. True enough, yet sadness that crushes many or even a few cannot be ignored. Ideally, we should all be so happy that we’d burst at the seams.
By caring and lending a few minutes and a few thoughts to the side of life that is ungraceful as it is scary, we make it less dark for the ones whose hearts are pounding and crying at the same time. Compassion makes us all better. It’s in giving that part of ourselves which is so vulnerable in the face of suffering that we are afraid to show, that makes us better human beings.
So here’s the answer. For as long as there are indignities and pain, I will bring them up, as many as I can. Some will be screaming louder than others at me. Suffering does not know boundaries. It should not. Yet the case of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women shows that race boundaries exist, though many pretend to not see them.
It’s not negativity to bring these things up but respect for humanity and all its dark and bright bits. It’s not negativity to bring them up in conversations but the hope that one day communities can be safe for all who are part of them.
It’s by letting myself be humbled by people’s strength to carry on after tragedies and heartbreaks that I can be a better person and see beyond my immediate world. That is why I think promises should be kept. Because people matter. Every single one of them.
‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ Mahatma Gandhi
The boys and I used to play a game. If you could have one wish… Or three. What would you wish for? One of mine was always ‘that there is enough kindness in the world’. The boys would smile and tilt their heads.
Of all the things you could wish for, Mom? Of all. Of any. Just like that.
Kindness. It’s what we crave. Smiles and warmth; the touch of brightness that someone’s kindness brings forth and makes into a hug. The thing that’s often the hardest to give.
Not because we don’t want to, but because we’re often locked inside. Because somehow, somewhere, when we were just about opening our eyes to the world, we were met, every now and then, with a cold breeze rather than the warm one our hearts were primed for.
So we learned to hide the wish we wished for. Kindness. We learned to say ‘perhaps I am not worthy of it’… Then, an even colder breeze took ‘perhaps’ away and the certainty of unworthiness spread like an algae plume taking over a lake. Clear becomes opaque and troubled. We’ve all been there, we’ve all lingered a bit too long at times in that realm.
Kindness reverses it. It is always a few words away, a hug away, from wherever we are, whenever… It’s what we need the most of, it is what we often give or receive the least of.
I will always remember the last conversation I had with my Mom. It was kind and warm like an embrace. The last moments I had with my Dad were hugs and tears. Kindness and forgiveness became the ground for later understanding that without them every day is a burden. But each burden becomes a lesson. Each memory too.
I carry mine as you carry yours. We ought to remember the occasional unkindness too. Loud voices, storming away from people, seeking a refuge. Wanting to be at peace with the world and yourself, but running away from both. We all do it until we learn that until kindness comes from within, it can never happen for real…
The parting words to last us into the next hour, or the next day, or the rest of our life… are they going to just echoes of the stomping and the shadows of frowns?… The regret of having let go of kindness for a bit becomes a sharp bite and then a healing wound.
We learn kindness from understanding that we’re all fallible, all humbled by how easy it becomes to bring our hearts and minds to a new start. ‘Try again’ is a soft breeze that takes us sailing farther than anger and resentment ever could…
To be kind is a choice. One that has us open our eyes to a new day and say ‘I want to be kind’. One that has us look into ourselves and upon seeing all the broken bits, we take a deep breath and think that all that we are – broken bits included – deserves kindness. We walk on the path where others walked too, we see the wells of their steps filled by the same: joy and sadness, hope – lost and found again, will to live and love, desire to be listened to and understood, the need for kindness. We gain compassion for the other travelers when we stop to soothe our own aching feet.
To be kind is a choice that powers more than our face muscles to open into a smile. It is what makes us reach to those who need a word, a hug, or no sound at all, but a listening ear. It is what makes us forgive and ask for forgiveness. It is us be willing to show ourselves vulnerable. It is what makes us soar, tattered wings and all. It is what mends them…
To be kind is a choice that allows us to build instead of destroy and see instead of turning a blind eye. To be kind is to come to the realization that we are the measure of kindness and through what we give we can make someone’s world brighter. And just like that, kindness fills the heart of those who give it.
That’s why I wish for it when I’m asked. Not because I am always kind, but because I need to remember to be. Because I can choose.
It is Christmas Eve and the four of us are tucked deep into the heart of Transylvania celebrating the winter holidays with family. Whether we travel or stay at home, this time a year is when we journey to a place that is always different no matter how much we repeat the rituals from year to year in an effort to make it just like the last one.
The thing is, try as we might, it is never the same. It could never be… With each year, I realize that it is not about the gifts but the presence we offer as we approach the day. Presence in more than one way.
It is about giving ourselves to serve others as much as we can, to be kind beyond expectations or at least to match them, to think of those who do not come close to joy because life throws them one too many curve balls, to be grateful not because we have what we want but to be grateful as we say ‘I have what I need’ because, in truth, many of us do.
It is never about material gifts.
The increased need for kindness in our immediate surroundings and beyond is evident. Times are rushed and pressing us into individual corners where we feel isolated and unhappy for it. Fighting back by reaching out seems counterintuitive yet it is not.
This is the time when we should evaluate our presence. In our family with those still present (as much as we believe in happy ever after, eternity is simply not a built-in feature of humans or anything alive for that matter), in our community in how we give time and help financially and otherwise, in what we leave behind as we move into tomorrow.
Since the boys have been born, we have spent many a Christmas time with my family whether in Europe or Canada. My Mom and Dad were there for some but not anymore. One could say that we are poorer with each Christmas as we leave behind slices of life that will never return as such and people who smile back from photos only. The gift that matters is that we once spent time together.
But then again, it is not about what we do not have any more but about what stays with; it is about how we grow from there. Christmas is, in truth, albeit not exclusively, a time of evaluating. In doing so we should go beyond the personal sphere and go far enough to see the bigger picture of our common ground.
This year, more than ever before, it became clear that we need to do so. As a country, we are fortunate to be on the side of those who can help (we can choose to while withholding judgment), just like we are also fortunate to have the kind of leadership that allows us to rewrite the story of our global presence. Gifts of social conscience to be precise.
As individuals we can make choices: to care more, to care enough to make a difference in someone’s life, to show our human side more often even if that means simply smiling to those we meet on our daily path.
During a recent beach stroll in Vancouver, I came across a bench carrying words that reminded me of my parents, my husband, my sons, and the rest of my family, including my close friends. It was about presence, about time, about realizing that we are shaped by what touches our heart.
‘Sometimes love is for a moment, sometimes love is for a lifetime. Sometimes a moment is a lifetime. May this place reminds us how precious life is.’ I would add; ‘may this day and all that follow remind us of the same. May that we not forget between now and the time we need to show it or remember it ourselves.’
Meaningful gifts are those that last long after the wrappings are crumpled up and the thrill of yet another object is lost from memory. It is perhaps the absence of material gifts that make us most aware of what’s really important.
It is when we make room for presence without any material strings attached that we can understand the ephemeral nature of today, Christmas day included. It is when we make room to remember that presence is where we show up many sunrises and sunsets past Christmas, no fancy duds, just as we are, hearts full as they are on the day defined by giving. In truth, every day should be shaped that way.
May your Christmas be an opportunity for gifts that will keep on growing and giving, and for presence that you can find and offer kind and warm each day from now until the next Christmas comes along. By then we will be wiser and even more mindful of life’s fragility and our immense responsibility to make our gifts, given and received, last. Merry Christmas!