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Tonight the world witnessed not only the brilliant performance of a Olympic figure skater, but one of the most poignant displays of courage ever seen. Just two days after her mother’s death from a sudden heart attack, Joannie Rochette took to the ice in the women’s short programme, and skated in her honour.

Commentators at the Olympics told stories all week of the closeness between Therese Rochette and Joannie, that her mother was a hard honest critic but also her staunchest supporter. Mere hours after arriving in Vancouver to watch her daughter compete, Therese Rochette was dead. She was only fifty-five, and had no history of heart trouble.

One can only imagine the shock of her loss, and the irony of such sorrow at a time that should have been the high point in Joannie Rochette’s life. And the inevitable question arises. How did this young woman find the courage to put her sorrow aside tonight and do what her mother would have wanted?

It wasn’t for lack of feeling. The tears broke through the minute her programme ended, and she bent over, hands on knees to regain her composure. Around the world, hundreds of thousands of people, immeasurably moved by her performance and personal strength, wept with her. Still, she never crumbled, didn’t collapse in grief as many expect we would under the circumstances. Instead, she stood back up, straightened her shoulders and graciously thanked the crowd, who were by then on their feet. The ovation and outpouring of love must have seemed surrreal. She skated towards the place where her coach stood, and it was only then that the world heard her sobs.

The late Ernest Hemingway called courage “grace under pressure.” We witnessed it tonight in Joannie Rochette. and I doubt any of us will ever forget it.

Your grace and bravery inspired the world tonight, Joannie. Somewhere, your mother is smiling.

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On Tuesday of this week, Haiti, long considered the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, was hit by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. As people gathered to sit down for their evening meal, their world opened up to swallow them whole. Buildings crumbled. Cubans felt the tremors and knew instantly that two hundred miles away, thousands were dying.

Most of us watched, spellbound by the kind of tragedy few people will ever personally experience. Safe in our homes, we cried for the victims and looked for ways we could help, even if only in a small way. Many of us prayed and asked “Why them? Why, once again, is this impoverished country forced to suffer?”

It was a rhetorical question.

Not long after the earthquake, though, someone sought to answer it. Pat Robertson, the host of the “700 Club,” spoke up and declared that just as God had punished Americans with Hurricane Katrina, Haiti was now being punished for having a “pact with the devil.”

He was purposely vague, all the better to suggest to average folk that he was privy to knowledge that was beyond them. According to CNN, Robertson blamed the tragedy on something that “happened a long time ago in Haiti,” adding that “people might not want to talk about it.”

In a couple of brief sentences, Pat Robertson supplied an answer that would make a lot of people sigh with relief – those who need to have every event in life shoved into a box and labelled either “Reward” or ‘Punishment,” those who refuse to accept that there is anything in-between, no bad fortune, no “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Life is simple for them that way, you see. These people live by rules and choose to believe that adherence to those rules assures them of every kind of success in life. It makes them feel safe. Most of all, it helps them to feel superior in mind, body and soul. It allows them to sleep, guilt-free, without thinking of those who suffer.

Remember now, Pat Robertson says that Haiti’s ancestors brought this plague of misfortune down upon themselves. Misery, in the minds of those “holier than thou,” is purely self-induced. That frees the self- righteous from feeling any need to reach out and help.

Recently, I experienced the vitriol of the self-righteous firsthand. I wrote about the difficulties of unemployment after fifty-five, and the turn our lives had taken since then. I was warned that the piece would elicit little sympathy, but I was fine with that. After all, sympathy wasn’t my motivation. I simply wanted the public to know that the problem existed, even though it was often hidden.

Over a week, the online essay generated 189 responses, and I was amazed at those that were not only critical of my husband and me, but self-exalting. I fully admitted mistakes, but some people only felt the need to expand on where I went wrong and where they went right. And I politely answered with, “how wonderful that you made such good choices and you’re now financially secure,” but I wanted to add, “but what’s your success got to do with the high number of older workers who despite their experience, are being passed over for jobs?”

I didn’t have to argue my point. Others rushed in to do it for me. But it got me thinking about some people and what motivates their responses to those who are less successful, whether it’s in regard to finances, careers, health, marriages, or family. And what occurred to me is this. Those who work so hard to appear superior are actually petrified. Way down, deep inside, so deep that they can’t even admit it exists, there is the fear that they don’t have things under control as much as they think they do. Admitting any past mistake, or learning that their perfect plan could possibly fall apart, is more than their egos can handle.

They tell themselves that they are at a good point in their lives because they have adhered to the rules of “good living,” that they’ve worked hard, been frugal, planned carefully, eaten well, gone to church, prayed for wealth and success, paid their tithe, and exercised regularly. It allows them to hold their head high and ignore the homeless person on the street. It keeps them guilt-free as they vote against every government programme that suggests a “hand-up” or “handout.”

And while tens of thousands in Haiti are buried under buildings and dying in the streets, it frees the self-righteous to look out their front window and say, with all confidence, “This is what I deserve.”

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cheese-bun1This is an oldie, published in Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women in June of 2004. While we deal with the current recession, I can’t help but think of it again, and remember that we are often luckier than we realize.

 

Once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly blue and disillusioned with life, something happens to open my eyes. Call it an epiphany, if you will, but it’s a blessing for which I’m thankful.

Not too long ago, I had such an awakening. We were riding the tail of a very stressful month, filled with uncertainty and worry around recent employment changes, and emotions in our home had run the gamut. Finally, we decided to shake off the negativity that enveloped us, and recapture some of our usual fighting spirit. Whatever fate brought, we would focus on what was right in our lives, rather than worry about what we couldn’t control.

That night, the wisdom of our decision was proven to me in the guise of a solitary woman who stood behind me in the grocery store. I had come for just a few items, but being a bargain hunter by nature, I had taken advantage of mid-week bargains. I placed my carefully selected items on the grocery belt; two cases of Coke, two containers of ice cream, and two bags of potato chips, far from necessities, but all discounted; inexpensive laundry detergent; cat food; milk; bread; three bags of coffee. As I faced the the cashier scanning the bar codes, my eyes glanced left and downward and were drawn to pair of feet wearing flowered neon pink socks. The only protection between her feet and the cold November ground were a pair of cornflower blue flip flops.

From the corner of my eye, I gazed upwards. Bare legs, a printed skirt and shirt, and over it all, no coat, but a transparent green hooded raincoat. She stood ramrod straight, a large rectangular floral bag gripped tightly in her hands.

Must be eccentric; maybe an artist, or even a writer; someone who cares little of outward appearances, I thought to myself.

I handed the cashier the money for my purchases, and the woman placed her order on the belt: a single cheese bun.

“That will be fifty cents please,” I heard the cashier say, then “Do you want a bag?”

“No. Thank you anyway,” the woman answered, as she placed the coins in the cashier’s hand.

From over my shoulder I turned quickly to catch a last glimpse of the woman, and then I saw what was not apparent at first. For she didn’t wait until she was outside to hide her hunger from the rest of the world; there, in the suburban grocery store, she began to eat.

In that second, I knew the truth, and I sensed her shame.

In the parking lot, I quickly lost sight of her as she moved on foot between the cars. I wondered how far she had to travel on such a cold night, dressed so poorly. Then I looked down at my own clothes: the warm leather boots and brown lambskin coat, my carefully matched purse and gloves. I opened the trunk to my car, still like new, every option possible, all shiny black paint and chrome and tan leather, insisted on by my indulgent husband. I drove home, her image branded into my memory.

Somehow, she seemed abandoned, a solitary lonely woman. Beautiful once, and would be even now if sorrow and hard times weren’t so indelibly grafted into her skin. Perhaps younger than I, but I couldn’t be sure. Long, gently curling hair. Clear blue eyes which stared straight ahead. Tall and slim, good bone structure, she could have been a Hollywood actress on a set. But this wasn’t Hollywood.

Did someone love her once? Had she ever known the joy of a small child’s arms around her, or the warmth of a grown son’s hugs and the words “I love you, Mom.”

Did she one day have a husband like mine, who even then, despite work worries, was home in a cold garage, doing his own version of “Junkyard Wars” to create a closed cabin for his old snow plow? A husband who jokingly calls me “Highness,” who makes love to me and brings me tea, who tells me I’m beautiful and smart every day of my life? Has she ever loved someone who could make her laugh until she cried, who shared private jokes and silly stories with her?

If she did, was the sorrow I sensed the mourning of what was lost?

No matter what else life has dealt me, I have been lucky enough to know such love. I watch my husband from afar, and sometimes, his thick hair, now graying, seems once again the color of honey. The years disappear, and I see the vulnerable boy I fell in love with so long ago.

So, thank you, mysterious lady. You have helped me see once again how truly blessed I am. I hope that some day fate allows you to feel a similar joy in your own heart.

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untitled-human-spirit1Last week,  our close friend passed away. For the better part of twenty years, Janet fought cancer and outlasted the dire predictions of the best oncologists. Despite her frail appearance, she seemed invincible. We regularly compared her to that bastion of commercial longevity, the Energizer Bunny.

What was it about her that kept her alive? Surely, she had to have advice for others. Once, when I asked her for her secret, she answered with one word: denial. As long as she couldn’t see the signs of the cancer in her body, it wasn’t there. She locked the prognosis away, as far from her everyday thoughts as possible, and threw away the key. She decided to live each day on its own merit, and she lived them well. No matter what she was going through, she never lost her passion for people,  for food, for laughter.

Few of us are that wise.  The fear of trouble ahead sometimes cripples us. It doesn’t matter whether it’s about our health or our loved ones or even our finances. Instead of using each day to enjoy what we have, we agonize over what we may lose.

It’s within each of us to find the same kind of strength Janet had.  No matter what we lose, we only need to remember to appreciate the abundance of blessings that still surround us.  If we can do that, then maybe our struggles won’t seem quite so insurmountable.

Thank you for teaching us that, Janet. Rest in peace, dear friend.

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79686_full-smallerI started this blog with the best of intentions. I enjoyed feeling accountable to my readers. So, what’s happened in the past six weeks?

LIFE.

If I continue on with the idea of life as a journey, the cheesiest of metaphors come to mind: I shifted into overdrive, blew a tire, drove off the shoulder, slammed into a tree. I’m rolling my eyes as I type. But the truth is, in their own way, all of those metaphors apply, some in spades.

My life lately has been anything but calm and predictable. So much has gone wrong around me, in fact, that I find myself almost embarassed to list it all for fear people will think I’m fabricating it, or even worse, that I’m not quite “all there.” And if there’s one thing I pride myself on, hang onto by my teeth, it’s being “all there.”

Early in December, I wrote about falling in the tub and breaking my arm. Controlled person that I am,  I stayed calm.  I stepped out, dried myself off, took a photo of my mishapen wrist, dried my hair a little, plopped a bag of frozen peas on the bulging break, found a book to read while waiting in emergency, called my neighbour and asked if he could give me a lift to the hospital, and poured a coffee into a travel mug for the twenty minute drive there.

I wasn’t prepared to break my wrist, but I wanted to be damned prepared for my time in the emergency department!

When I arrived at 1:30, there were seven or eight people ahead of me, all waiting to talk to the triage nurse and be assessed. It took ninety minutes for me to make it to the front of that line, and another seven hours to be examined and treated, and during that time, I had front-row seats to a bizarre soliquoy being delivered by the patient in front of me. It was obvious that she, unlike me, was not all there. Still, I was a captive audience, and I couldn’t help but feel compassion for her.

She was in her fifties, and likely very pretty at one time. Now, her graying hair was long and unruly, her face pale and surly. She had broken her ankle weeks before and wore a hard plastic walking cast over her pant leg. Today, the problem was not the ankle. It was her other leg. She sat in a hospital wheelchair and imaptiently rolled it back and forth in agitation, occasionally running into the legs of the young woman in front of her.

“I was getting off the bus to visit my psychiatrist and the stupid bus driver pulled away before I was on the sidewalk and knocked me down. I’ve hurt my knee badly. Oh, God, it’s so sore,” she cried.

“I lost my job working in Dr. Martini’s office and now I’m on welfare and I can’t afford a taxi and I don’t even have enough food. How do they expect a person to live?”

Then again, in case someone had missed it before “I was on the bus and the stupid bus driver, etc.”

She went on and on about the things that had befallen her over the past five years, told the crowded waiting room that she’d had custody of her daughter’s child but he was taken away, told us how unfair her previous employer had been.

Eventually, she forgot that her leg was supposed to hurt. She got up from the wheelchair, walked to the security guards, loudly complained of thirst and started swearing about the long wait, about being alone. Someone brought her a can of pop and she started to cry again, big, sniffling sobs interjected by words of gratitude.

That’s when it hit me. Five years before,  she may have seemed like anyone else: likely still attractive, with a job that required intelligence and responsibility. Something caused her to lose it. That either began her downward spiral, or was one of the major steps on the way down.

It can happen to any of us. Tragedies and stresses can bring to the brink. Something within either tells us to hold on, or to loosen our grasp and allow a freefall. I have been hanging on.  When I list the negative stresses of the past five years, I wonder how I’ve held on and escaped her fate. Is it just that my fingers are frozen in  their grip?  Will a time ever come when all I’ll be able to talk about is the litany of things that went wrong?

I refuse to allow that to happen. I’ll concentrate on all that is good around me, because there is so much to be thankful for. I’ll try not to dwell on the stresses around me. I will voice them now, a purging perhaps, but I will not think of them again today, nor tomorrow: the elderly father struggling to master the use of a prosthesis, and being hit with pneumonia three weeks into his rehab; the husband who’s been too often been the victim of buyouts and restructuring over the past five years; concerns over our retirement; the bravery of a dear friend who’s been fighting cancer for what seems like forever; our sadness for her husband, our oldest and best friend; the sudden death of a beloved pet; the helplessness of watching a son’s heartbreak over a broken engagement and another’s uncertainty over a lifelong  career; and my own health issues, now more of a concern by this neverending circle of worry.

Yes, when I find myself obsessing over the things I can’t control, I’ll remember that poor woman in emergency, and I’ll think of my many  blessings. There is a fine line between us, but unlike her, I am not facing life alone. And that, I believe, is what will make the difference.

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I am getting old. A sure sign is that in the midst of the current global economic crisis, I find myself dwelling on memories from our last recession. Details that I haven’t thought about in over twenty years now feel like yesterday. Somehow, those reflections act as a comfort, a testament to our strength. If we overcame obstacles then, surely we can do it again.

 

Seeing things through these rose-coloured glasses helps keep my panic at bay. The reality, though, is that not everyone and everything will survive an economic downturn like this. There are businesses that will never reopen; people who will never own another home;  some who will never work again. And there are others whose mental and emotional state may always remain fragile.

 

I wonder about someone like Ludmilla.

 

 The Czechoslovakian Doctor

In the early 80’s, Canada was knee-deep in a recession, and unemployment was the highest it had been in decades. As a result, all levels of government allotted short-term grants to aid the unemployed in their job search and thereby alleviate the drain on their welfare coffers. An unusual set of circumstances resulted in me working as such a counsellor, and it was there that I met Ludmilla. She had been a young doctor in Czechoslovakia. It is so long now that I have forgotten her last name. When the Communists took over, she eventually realized she had to leave. With her elderly mother in tow, she immigrated to Canada in the hope of starting a practice here.

It was not to be. Year after year she worked to improve her English and tirelessly applied for any medical position, even lab work. Her mother’s health, always frail, grew worse, and the doctor herself became less stable.

When I met her she would have been in her early forties. The welfare office had referred her to us, and it was our job to help her find work. Hands shaky, hair dishevelled, her appearance gave no hint of the near-genius she once had been. I agonized over her fate as I tried to make sense of the documents she spread over my desk.

She came to our offices almost daily to read the want ads, use the phones, or just get some much-needed emotional support. We struggled to piece together a resume that might get her work in a medical-related field, but in truth, I knew the chances were slim. Each day, Ludmilla seemed more and more desperate.

The week before Christmas, she dropped into the office, and in broken English, invited us to her home later in the week. Crossing the line from “professional to personal” was discouraged, but her invitation was so unexpected that we had no time to invent a believable excuse for turning it down. So we agreed, and on the Friday before Christmas, we left to visit her.

We had difficulty finding her home at first, not realizing that the makeshift structure we were looking at was an actual dwelling. We knew beforehand that Ludmilla lived at the back of a beauty parlour, but it turned out to be not part of the same building. Instead, it was a one-room addition that clung to the main structure haphazardly. It leaned like an after-thought, the floor sloped.

Inside there was a bed, a table and two wooden chairs. They cooked on a hotplate, and shared the bathroom down the hall with the beauty parlour patrons. Their room was piled high with boxes; atop those were what seemed hundreds of books.

There were five of us, the mother, the daughter and we three guests. Two sat on chairs, the others on the bed as we exchanged awkward pleasantries. The mother spoke no English. She smiled as she prepared food for us: tea and small digestive cookies. It was lunchtime and we were hungry, but I found it hard to swallow. I wondered what hardship they had suffered in order to buy those biscuits. Conversation was difficult as we tried not to stare at the signs of their poverty. Everything they owned was in this tiny room.

Atop their old dresser was a small artificial Christmas tree, modestly decorated with some shiny trinkets. As I left, she took six tiny silver snowflakes from the tree and pressed them into my hand. I have them to this day.

Once, she had been a doctor.

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img_0881-smaller2Last year, my husband began the long processs of converting our sixteen by thirty-two foot inground pool into a pond. He’s an ambitious, highly creative type, and it was one of three or four projects he had on the go at the time. It turned out to be a challenge in ways we never anticipated.

He drained the pool then he cut its metal walls down to half their height. He built a replica of a mill, complete with board and batten, and next to it, a water wheel, lovingly crafted to perfect scale. Using the old pool pump for power, he planned the flow of water. When completed, the pump would push water up and over the wheel, causing it to turn, and creating a gentle waterfall at one end of the pond.

This year, we planned to fill some of the old pool with dirt so that the pond would be a more manageable size. But dirt, is, well, anything but “dirt cheap,” and for a while now, we’ve been weathering a serious downturn in our finances. My husband’s been a victim of the snowballing automotive sector disaster, and the past five years have been challenging. But he’s an optimist. He was convinced that living out in the country, he would sooner or later find a road crew wanting to get rid of dirt rather than drive it all the way back to the dump.

He didn’t need to wait long. In June of this year, he made arrangements with a crew to drop dirt into our driveway. He asked for two or three loads. The crew chief said “How about four?” My husband’s first thought was “Sure. More can only be better.” You can guess the rest.

Unfortunately, he was busy when they finally came to make their delivery. If he’d been watching, he could have stopped them, but they were gone before he could react. Stretching the entire width of our double driveway, for a good seventy-five feet, were five loads of dirt, each at least four feet deep.

I’m sure the road crew must have laughed all the way home.

Now came the job of trying to move the dirt, which turned out to be more clay and asphalt than anything else. It would need to go from the driveway, around the side of the house and several trees, and into the “soon-to-be” pond, a distance of probably a hundred and fifty feet.

If the weather had been perfect all summer, it would have been different. If my two sons were living at home and able to help, it may have even been possible. But it rained nearly every night, and the sun baked the clay dry each day. It soon became nearly as hard as rock. And then, one month later, my husband, working as a renovator while out of his regular employment, had an accident. He fell from a ladder. There’s more. He fell from the top rung of a ladder while stretching up to do something much higher. Wait. I’m not done. The ladder was on top of a fourteen feet scaffold.

Miraculously, he landed on his feet, and although he had no serious injuries, soft tissue damage in one foot made walking difficult. The dirt in our driveway sat and sat, much like a great crusty old dragon, mocking us. It was, to say the least, an embarassment.

After all, he’d asked the road crew for the dirt to save money. Now, we were doubly short of cash because not only was he was injured and unable to work as much, but we’d have to pay someone to come in and move the mess. In the end, the irony is that it would have been cheaper to order and pay for dirt from a landscaper!

I was not amused, and my husband spent a lot of time cursing his lack of attention as the road crew dumped the gigantic load. September came, and October, and the dirt remained there. Then one afternoon a stranger came to our door. “Do you want all of that dirt?” he asked. I rolled my eyes and explained the situation to him. ‘I don’t want the dirt for myself,” he said, “but I’ve been driving by here all summer, and every time I pass I look at the dirt and think that the guy who lives here must not be able to move it. No one could do it by himnself.”  

Then he told me that he and his family were renting a home at the next crossroad, and that he had use of his neighbour’s tractor. If we would tell him where we wanted the dirt, he’d move it for us.

I was flabbergasted.

And so it began. Over the next two weeks, he came several times. He always brought his little girl with him. She and I chatted while he scooped the rock-hard clay up and manoevred his way around the willow and spruce trees to the backyard pond. I told her that her father was very kind to help us this way. Honest as only kids can be, she answered, ” Yeah, but I think he really just likes to drive that big tractor.”

A few times, he came only to learn that the ground was too wet and soft. Immediately, the tractor’s wheels would sink and make deep ruts. He’d leave and come back again a day or two later, when it was drier. We’d be out running errands, and return to discover he’d cleared even more away.

Through it all, he never stopped smiling.

If he had been so kind at any ordinary time in our lives, we would have been touched. But coming at a time when our spirits have been low and we’ve often felt isolated by employment and financial woes, his kindness held even greater importance for us. It reminded us that most people are inherently good; that a simple unexpected kindness can mean more than any material offering. It assured us that it was alright to feel humbled, to be the one graciously receiving a stranger’s offering rather than always being the ones to give.

He likely had no idea that his gesture held such significance for us. We, in turn, gave a card of thanks, carefully worded, and in it, a gift certificate for dinner. Both pale in comparison to the gratitude we felt at a stranger’s unexpected kindness.

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