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Today, this headline came up in my news feed.

“Respected Canadian charity founder sexually abused 6 women.”

https://beta.ctvnews.ca/national/world/2020/2/22/1_4823222.html?fbclid=IwAR2RdD8nV6g6VkcE8_g218Bdw2WZiHjI_IsawOtP0SwEB1GGMHpkZ1D6JaQ

I am still trying to process my thoughts.

Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote about his influence in my life. It may help you understand the magnitude of the feelings I’m experiencing today.

ON MEETING JEAN VANIER

He was middle-aged when I met him, a tall man whose gentle stoop suggested humility, a willingness to greet those smaller than himself eye to eye.

It was 1969, and I was a high school senior, a combination of rah-rah-rah spirit and hippy heart. I was active on student council at a Catholic girls’ school. The nuns who ran it were progressive-minded by the standards of the day; they believed in exposing their students to special people.

The most special of these was Jean Vanier.

I knew little about him, except that his father had been the Governor General for Canada twenty years earlier, and his mother was loved and respected for her charitable works. I knew the family was wealthy; that Jean Vanier had been schooled in the finest schools in Europe, and wanted for nothing in his youth.

I also knew he had given it all up.

I greeted him on the stage before the curtain opened to the auditorium, and to this day I will tell anyone willing to listen that there was a glow around him, a presence of such goodness that I felt I’d been thunderstruck. We shook hands, and in that second I felt I would have followed him anywhere.

The curtains opened, and he began to speak.

Have you ever listened to someone who chooses his words so carefully, who speaks so gently and slowly that you are entranced? That is what it was like to listen to him. Nine hundred students sat perfectly still, mesmerized by a middle-aged man in a old tweed jacket, its elbows patched and the patches worn. For over an hour, we listened, enraptured by the goodness that emanated from him.

What did he speak of? Dignity: the dignity that lies within each person, no matter what their lot in life, no matter what their intelligence, their economic status, their appearance. The fact that everyone, as a creation of God, is worthy of respect.

Years earlier, he’d been a seminarian, then left. While on the brink of starting life as a wealthy entrepreneur, he had visited a small part of France and learned of mentally handicapped adults who had been abandoned, some at birth, and were now housed with the criminally insane. In that second, he told us, he knew his calling.

He used his money to start a community for them to live, a community called “L’Arche” in France, a take on Noah’s ark. The community was meant to foster dignity among these people who’d been cast aside by society. They worked independently, much like a members of a commune. Some were responsible for growing crops; others tended the animals. Some did the laundry for the community; others cooked or cleaned. Gradually, volunteers came to help, and people who once were treated as nothing found a sense of purpose and a reason to smile.

All the time, Jean Vanier worked there, no better than any of the other people who helped. Those living in the community called him “Father.”

By the time he came to speak to us, other “L’Arche” communities were beginning to spring up around the world. One just outside of Toronto was founded over thirty years ago. There are now over one hundred world-wide.

He never married, nor wavered in his efforts to instill dignity in people forgotten by others.

I doubt I’ll ever meet anyone again who’s as close to being a living saint. Meeting him and listening to him speak that day changed me. It made me question my own response to people. I worked to become more compassionate, more determined to find the worth and respect the dignity in all people. When I became a teacher, and my patience was tested by the most challenging of my students, his words echoed in my mind. Over time, I felt them.

Occasionally, Jean Vanier makes a public appearance for a rare speaking engagement. If you ever have the chance to hear him, go. It may change your life too.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So how do I feel? Shell-shocked. Saddened. Disillusioned. Angry. Disappointed. How could he appear so saintly, when just a year later, he sexually abused his first victim? And even more so, I wonder this. Was the “aura” and goodness he seemed to emanate the very tools that made these women more vulnerable to him? If I had ever been part of his world, would I have been so mesmerized that I could have been manipulated and become a victim too? And finally, how many other women are thinking these same thoughts today?

 

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Three years ago today, my sister-in-law snapped this picture of my husband and me. Despite having been through a very difficult two weeks, I looked perfectly healthy. But this could have been the last photo ever taken of me. Three hours later, I would have have a heart attack commonly called the Widowmaker, given that name because 90% of people who have it don’t survive.

When this picture was taken, I had no pain, but was already sweating profusely. I was clammy. Two hours later, I had what I thought was heartburn. I took antacids but it only grew worse. Lying down to sleep made it worse. I got up, still thinking it was heartburn, and ate a few crackers. I tried sleeping again but by then the pain in my chest was like a vise. I asked my husband to call an ambulance.

They arrived within minutes. By that time, I was feeling pain in my left shoulder, jaw, and arm, but my back was also in spasm, and I was sure that it was the main source of my problem. When the paramedics arrived, I was writhing in back pain and they began trying to work out the knot. It was only while in the ambulance that they suspected I was having a heart attack. And of course tests at the hospital confirmed that.

Three days later, I was stabilized and they performed an angiogram to check for blockages. Later, the nurses told me that they almost took bets among themselves as to whether or not I would need a stent. The doctor doing the procedure thought not. He was mistaken.

My LAD, the artery feeding two-thirds of my heart, was 95% blocked. I looked perfectly healthy and up to the week before, I had no idea that a problem existed. Neither did my GP.

LADIES, NEVER ASSUME THAT YOUR SYMPTOMS ARE INSIGNIFICANT, especially if they’re coming at the end of a particularly stressful period in your life.

(Women’s symptoms are often atypical. Some only experience fatigue (a month earlier, I’d nearly passed out while driving on the highway after a particularly stressful day at the hospital). Sometimes, women only experience discomfort in their back, usually between their shoulder blades).

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gothic-1629448__340Yesterday I watched a young woman on Facebook suffer ridicule because she expressed genuine fear over a number of changes that have already been mandated by the new POTUS. She was articulate and measured in her speech. She did not criticize or name call, but simply asked one woman, a life coach/mentor, for advice in dealing with the anxiety she was feeling.

The mentor spoke calmly and gently about living in the present. She reminded the young woman that more often than not, life goes on as always and our greatest fears do not come to fruition. Without addressing any of the specific concerns the young woman mentioned, she did the best she could to smooth the waters.

A dozen or so people followed the same live video, but for the most part, their responses showed no such compassion or sensitivity. Instead, they mocked her, and joked among themselves about “her whining, and about having no use for people who were as soft as fluff.” They suggested she get a “helmet” and joked with each other about their willingness to fight.

It made me feel sick. What is happening to people?

If you study conflict resolution, the first things you learn is that you must show respect for the person with the opposing view. Whether you agree with them or not, whether you understand their feelings or not, you acknowledge the sincerity of those feelings and their inherent right to have them. You do not mock them, but try to get to the bottom of what is triggering their emotions. You try to find common ground – a common cause – and that in itself helps allay their fears.

Instead, what we are often seeing on FB, and what we’ve witnessed from the top on down in the new POTUS, is a kneejerk backlash against everything that has obviously angered some people for the past eight years. Many of them, freed from what they feel are the “shackles” of political correctness, are revelling in the novelty of saying whatever they want, exactly how they want. You can hear their glee, as if it’s a game. But to most of the rest of the world, it is terrifying. And it’s opposite to the values of respect and fair communication that we thought the States have always stood for. Were we wrong?

The real fear is how far this will go, which families will implode, and which mentally unstable people will grab this mania and take this even further, possibly to dangerous places. Neither “side” is safe. The hatred and tension are palpable. People must not assume that their prayers alone will magically keep the lid on this. God listens to prayers from countries all over the world, and still, for some reason, millions suffer. Americans are no more important than the people in Aleppo. Why would they think that their prayers will be answered first?

People need to wake up and feel a little bit of rational fear in their bellies. No country is immune to self-destruction.

 

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snow-1848346_960_720Eighteen months with no writing. Eighteen months with very little talking, in fact. The words just aren’t always there when I need them.

It’s all part and parcel of fibromyalgia. Since my heart attack, I can’t rely on muscle relaxants and sleep meds as much as I did before. The result? Insomnia, very poor sleep when it finally does come, and a brain that’s not firing on all cylinders during my waking hours.

They say that your brain is like a muscle. It needs exercise. So here I am, trying to force this old brain to work a little more efficiently. It feels like I have a lot of catching up to do, like my grey matter has atrophied, but starting in 2017, I’m going to give writing another shot.

I have no choice really. If I’m lucky, I may live another twenty years, and I’d prefer to be able to still talk in full sentences when that time comes.

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

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Wow! Sixteen months since my last journal entry! Is it possible that some of my readers thought I died? It’s a logical conclusion.

The truth is that health concerns have monopolized my mind and time, and I was loathe to write about it, to give it even one more minute of my attention. Yet, I couldn’t really think about much else. My muse took up residence in a distant corner, put her feet up, pulled her hat down over her eyes and said “Wake me up when life returns to normal.” The truth is, it still hasn’t, and chances are it never completely will. Post heart attack, I am a very different person – but that’s a story for another time.

To bring some closure to the heart attack saga, I have to start by saying it was surreal. Once my pain was under control ( and for those of you who wonder what the pain felt like, the closest thing I can compare it to is the feeling you get if something icy is caught in your esophagus – think brain freeze, but in your chest, arm, neck and jaw), it was largely a matter of being closely monitored and medicated. On my second day, a young cardiologist came to speak to me. Part of me still had trouble believing their diagnosis. I’d been under a lot of stress for months. I’d suffered a personal loss. I had fibromyalgia, which mimicked a lot of other conditions. I’d read about something called Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, commonly called “broken heart syndrome.” After all, I had gone through some scary episodes of chest pain when my mother dies 17 years earlier, and though a EKG initially indicated a heart attack, there was no indication that my heart had suffered any kind of true “event.”

Couldn’t that be what happened again?

He assured me that wasn’t the case this time. Blood work indicated the presence of enzymes that are a direct result of a heart incident. They were highest when I was admitted, then went down. But I’d had a little chest pain again the day before, and the markers had increased. There was no doubt that I’d suffered an attack. He told me that he wanted to do an angiogram to get to the cause. “That way,” he said, “perhaps we can get you another twenty years.”

It felt like those words were written in the boldest black marker. Twenty years? That was nothing! Twenty years was just yesterday! I wanted more than that ahead of me. I expected more. Until that day, I’d never really thought about my age. But I suddenly realized that from young doctor’s perspective, I WAS OLD. Shouldn’t living another twenty years be enough to satisfy me? Twenty years, as opposed to one or two years. What choice did I have?

They scheduled my angiogram for the next day. It hurt much more than I expected, the chest pain quite similar to my heart attack pain. Apparently that’s not typical. I learned later that the nurses and doctor who were to perform the test made bets between themselves that if I did have any kind of blockage, it would be minor. I seemed “too healthy.”How wrong they were! There, on the screen to the left of me, was proof of my attack, and just how serious it could have been. They explained that I had a 95% blockage in the LAD (left anterior descending artery). It feeds the largest portion of the heart. And because only 5% of people survive it, they have a nickname for it: THE WIDOWMAKER.

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Experts say that a heart attack usually hits not when you are experiencing stress, but once you’ve relaxed: on Sunday mornings rather than at the mid-week board meeting; on the golf course more often than at your desk. And that’s how it happened with me. It came like a sniper.

I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks. I’d had a few glasses of wine during the evening and enjoyed fruit and cheese and crackers. I’d laughed with friends and family as they good-naturedly music-jammed, and I’d even joined them at the microphone for a few minutes. It was a good night.

The only abnormality at all was that I was sweating profusely. My hair was soaked underneath and I spent half the night holding it up off of my neck.

We arrived home at around 1:30, and shortly afterwards I began to experience what I thought was simple indigestion. I had some pressure at my breastbone and even burped a little. I chewed two antacids, got ready for bed and waited for it to abate. It didn’t.

When I tried to lie down, the pain in the centre of my chest grew sharper. I have a hiatus hernia, so my first thought was that acid was rising up into my esophagus and causing a spasm. It’s happened to me before. I got up and walked around. I went downstairs, took a drink of water and sat on the couch with my computer. The pain was not as severe sitting up and at some point, I must have dosed off for a while. A sharp stab jolted me upright, and the pain of that movement made me realize this was not simply heartburn.

Very soon, I was aware of pain from my breastbone through to my spine, from the spine through my left side, both front and back, under my arm to my armpit, up my neck to my jaw and down my arm to my hand. I woke my husband and he immediately called an ambulance. It was 5:15 in the morning.

Despite calling an ambulance, I didn’t believe it was my heart. It felt like a mega muscle spasm, generating just under my left shoulder blade and twisting my entire left side out of shape. Having fibromyalgia, I’m prone to such things. While I waited for the ambulance, I writhed in pain, lifting my left arm up over my head, bending sideways and forwards to stretch out my back. My stomach cramped and I threw up. I was light-headed.

When the paramedics arrive, they too first suspected muscle spasms. One paramedic found a huge knot on the left side of my back. “Does this hurt?” he asked. I moaned with the pain.

Heart attack was the last thing on my mind or theirs, until my blood pressure took a rapid drop in the ambulance. Suddenly, everything changed. The ambulance siren kicked in, they gave me aspirin, nitroglycerine, and then an oxygen mask. It was all very surreal.

Once we arrived at the hospital, they wasted no time. There was a flurry of activity around me – EKG’s, blood tests, a constant monitor, and an IV administering blood thinners. I was in constant pain, making futile attempts to find a position where I didn’t hurt as much. The pain came in waves – a dull ache for a couple of minutes, followed crescendos where it stabbed at my breastbone and made it hard to breathe. The curtain in the emergency room cubicle was open, and people glanced at me as they walked by. I cared about nothing but the pain. Finally, a nurse injected me with something that helped, and a young doctor returned to check on me.

I expected to hear “you had a severe muscle spasm that’s now under control.” Instead I heard the words “you’ve had a heart attack. We’re admitting you.”

He may as well have told me that I was now living on Mars. It was that surreal.

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heart_art_200_20071214093616I’ve come to realize that my writing is fueled by passion, not peace, by angst, not serenity. Otherwise, how do I explain the fact that I wrote my last entry here over ten months ago? It is either that, or my need for self-expression is being satisfied by Facebook, which would be really sad. In any case, there is something to be written about now, because it’s just too significant NOT to talk about. I need to process it, and my readers need to think about the implications for their own lives.

On January 18th, I came close to dying. It happened on the heels of an very emotionally difficult time, and there’s no doubt that the stress of it, along with the stress of the past seven or eight years, contributed to it. For now, I’ll concentrate on recent events.

Early in December, my elderly father, already an amputee, had a risky angioplasty to save his remaining leg. Seeing his frailty, my siblings and I began the difficult process of researching assisted-living facilities. We worried over the best way to approach him and get him onside. We agonized over him seeing it as a betrayal.

Shortly before Christmas, my youngest son was injured at a part-time construction job he’s taken while he’s back in school. The phone call came from inside the ambulance. All we knew was that a cross-saw had sliced through his wrist, and it was serious. Later, we learned he’d been lucky.  Though there was significant nerve damage, the saw missed the main artery and surgery could wait. We left the hospital, only to rush back fifteen minutes later when he had a serious allergic reaction to the medications they’d given him. My heart was in my throat. I didn’t even wait for the triage nurse – just pounded on the emergency doors to be let back in. I was terrified he’d go into anaphylactic shock. A swarm of nurses and doctors descended on him right away and within an hour, he was stabilized. By the time we got home, I was emotionally spent.

The rush of Christmas brings its own inherent stresses, but then a few days afterwards, my father fell ill. I was hosting a post-Christmas party and received a phone call from my brother saying the emergency room doctors wanted to know if Dad had a “Do Not Resuscitate Order.” I said yes. I had his POA for health matters, and panicked when I couldn’t find the original form to take to the hospital. My cousin and his wife drove us to the hospital, forty-five minutes away, and stayed with us until the wee hours of the morning.

Less than two weeks later, after positive signs then steps backwards, and many hours spent at his beside, Dad died. We were heartbroken and in many ways, stunned. The decline came so quickly. He’d always bounced back before, and we thought he would live forever.

We lived the next few days in an auto-pilot haze, planning the funeral and spending time with family in the evenings. Everything went smoothly, and we reconnected with many people we hadn’t seen in years. I was sad and I felt numb. I was also tired and weak, but I put that down to stress and lack of sleep. Everyone else felt exactly the same way. Sleep should help, I thought.

And it did. Wednesday and Thursday I did little else. By Friday, I felt much better. While family members were in town, we gathered at our dad’s home to choose sentimental favourites among the dishes our mom left behind. It went well – very few tears and no conflicts. Then we headed out to one sister’s home for a final gathering before others would have to fly home. It would be a “music night,” with lots of instruments and singing. We all needed to let loose and feel alive again. Dad would have approved.

I had no way of knowing that a major roadblock was waiting for me around the next corner.

 

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tree1Recently, a friend and I caught up over an email and discussed the ups and downs of life. I told her about a dream I’d recently had, one that seemed particularly relevant when seen against the framework of my life over the past few years. I would like to share it with you now, in the hope that perhaps it will also help others through times of difficult transition or loss. I hope she will not mind me repeating it as I told her.

“I had the most interesting dream the other night. I often dream about not being in control of things. I wake up in panic. In this dream, I had to scale a vertical wall that had to be one hundred feet up. There were bricks and hooks to grip on, and others were doing it, but I was terrified. Once you got to the top, you had to let go and allow yourself to fall straight down.

I’m petrified of heights. In dreams where I fall, fear makes me wake up before I land. In this dream, I relented and started to climb the wall. Suddenly, it was as if I was being lifted straight up. Getting to the top was effortless. Once I got there though, I was afraid to let myself fall. I had to take several breaths to compose myself. I suddenly felt very peaceful, and rather than letting myself fall straight down, I allowed myself to fall backwards. As if I was on a breeze, I sailed onto the ground. When I landed, I was overcome with emotion. I’d allowed myself to be vulnerable and somehow it worked out.

I know the dream was inspired by a talk I had earlier that day with a family member. We spoke about having faith in yourself and trusting fate, that usually, things work out as they were meant to.

It’s a hard thing to live by, but when you look back at rough times, you often see that kind of pattern. We can’t judge our lives by the valleys we go though. Eventually, it all evens out and we realize we’ve survived.”

Sometimes, you do much more than survive. You overcome, and you see the world around you with fresh eyes and an open heart.

I wish that same gift for you this Christmas!

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Late yesterday afternoon, after the sun had gone down, my doorbell rang.  A boy of thirteen or fourteen stood outside. He said hello, apologized for bothering me, and said that he was trying to raise money. He asked if I needed any yard work done.

If he hadn’t been so young, if he hadn’t been shivering in just a hoodie against the cold, I may have just said “no thank-you” and closed the door. Instead, I scanned the yard to see if our leaves needed raking. They didn’t. I told him that I really didn’t need any help, and couldn’t think of anything for him to do.

His eyes never left my face.

I asked him what he was raising money for, and he answered that he needed to raise fifteen dollars for a class trip. He added that his principal told him that morning that if he couldn’t come up with it by eleven a.m. Tuesday, he couldn’t go.

Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of “Intervention.”  I asked him outright if he was telling me the truth. Was the money for drugs? He said no. He insisted it was for a school trip. And though he was shivering and rather thin, I knew he seemed too “fresh-faced and clear-eyed” to be a drug user.

I asked him about the excursion and he told me it was to Tim Horton’s Day Camp and added that he thought it was called “Onondoga.” He said his parents didn’t have the money he needed.

Still, I was suspicious. I knew that our neighbours, who have lived in the neighbourhood much longer than us, had turned him away.

“I’ll give you my name and phone number,” he said. “If you can give me fifteen dollars now and then call me when you need work done, I swear I’ll come.”

I pretended I didn’t hear his suggestion. I asked him where he lived and he named an area recently recognized in the Hamilton’s Spectator’s “Code Red” series as the poorest part of Hamilton.

“So, why are you all the way over here looking for work?” I pushed.

He folded his arms in front of him, putting each into the sleeve of the other in an effort to stay warm. “I’ve been everywhere,” he said. And it occurred to me then that his chances of earning money in my neighbourhood were much better than in his own.

That’s when I realized that in answering my very pointed questions, his eyes had welled with tears. I immediately recalled a recent article by Flannery Dean, CBC NEWS, in which she quoted Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction:

“In Ontario, there are one in seven children living in poverty. In Hamilton, unfortunately, that number is one in four.” says Cooper.

“We have 28,000 kids growing up in low income households in this city and that’s pretty much enough to bring Ivor Wynne Stadium to capacity,” he says.

Mayo says that while the report cites 36 per cent of food bank users in Ontario are children, in Hamilton the number is far greater, with children making up 46 per cent of food bank users.

Hamilton also has an alarming rate of poverty among recent immigrants, says Cooper, with nearly 50 percent living in poverty.”

I rarely carry much cash in my wallet anymore and had just seven dollars to give him, but I handed it over, painfully aware that this young man probably needed much more than money for a trip. He thanked me and left, but all night long I was left with the image of him shivering in his hoodie, and the feeling that I should have offered him one of the coats that hangs unwanted in our entranceway closet. I could have done much more, if I hadn’t been so hesitant to get involved, so afraid to open my heart.

It’s the kind of gnawing regret that never leaves.

 

 

 

 

 

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Once again I have been away from the page for much too long. How much time must pass before I can say I’m finished processing all that has happened in the past year, and all that continues to happen now? It still feels surreal.

If I were to carry a tape recorder with me all day long, you would at least know the myriad of thoughts that run through my head. There are so many: all connected in theme, but disjointed in time, in emotion. Often, bad memories make me relive some of the panic I felt then. I am like a person who’s been miraculously transported from one country to another, one culture to another. It is really that foreign, that new. Over and over, the words “what a difference a year makes” play in my head.

People say “everything happens for a reason.” When your life is gaining speed on its downward spiral, their words make you want to scream. They sound far too simple and condescending, and though meant to comfort, they don’t help. But the odd thing is that when you get to the other side, and realize you’ve survived whatever mess you were in, you also recognize that something inside you has changed. And it’s what you do with that change that sometimes gives meaning or purpose to the suffering you endured. You find your “reason.”

That’s where I’m at right now. I feel altered, made stronger by what we’ve been through, yet more vulnerable to the suffering of others. I’ve been on the same playing field and it’s not something I can forget.

I can think of no better way to explain it than to share something that happened just before Christmas. First, allow me give you some of the background details. It involves a man who lives in a nearby low rental apartment. I often see him walking his two dogs. His blonde, straggly hair reaches his waist. He appears to be in his early forties. He has a speech impediment and is very nervous, which can make him seem simple-minded, yet I have seen him riding a bike to MacDonald’s to use their WiFi, an old laptop under his arm. His poverty is obvious. What isn’t obvious is what’s caused it. A neighbour has said that he has had some very “hard luck.”

On a very cold pre-Christmas afternoon, I saw this same man crossing a “big box” store centre’s parking lot on foot, a shopping bag in each hand, and my reaction surprised even me. There are some people who would see such a man and immediately think “he’s a bum, he’s on welfare and spending taxpayers’ money on Christmas gifts.” In the past, I might not have been so harsh, but at the very least, I would have pitied him. It would have saddened me.

But at a time in my life when I’ve just “come through the other side,” I found myself celebrating his strength. How wonderful that despite hardship, this man’s spirit soared and connected him to the most joyous of seasons. It brought tears to my eyes, but they were happy tears. It reminded me that when all is said and done, maintaining your dignity despite life’s trials is probably the biggest achievement of all.

Perhaps it is all transference. Maybe my pride in persevering and my gratitude and euphoria over our fresh start lends a gossamer brilliance to the simplest of situations and circumstances around me. But I will tell you this: there, in that moment, there was no person I respected more than that solitary Christmas shopper trudging through the parking lot.

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