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Archive for the ‘REFLECTIONS’ Category

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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I’ve had a difficult time organizing my thoughts and getting them down on paper lately. It’s a problem I really didn’t expect. For the past couple of years, worry over finances and unemployment have dominated my life and sapped any creativity, but I honestly believed the words would just flow once life got easier. And it has. So what’s gone wrong?

The only explanation I can think of is that after feeling detached for so long, I’m transitioned into a phase that is very much the opposite. And it’s overwhelming. It sounds hokey, but everything seems intensified. Colours are brighter, the wind in the trees more soothing. I am mesmerized by the simplest of things, lifted up almost. And somehow, through it all, I find myself tongue-tied, unable to sift through the thousands of thoughts in my head and come up with one cohesive piece of writing.

Hamilton itself is a new experience in every way, more complex than anyhere I’ve ever lived. I never anticipated seeing squalor and hardship juxtaposed by beauty and prosperity. How could I know that a short walk to a wonderful park, the pride of the city, would take me past men and women so obviously sick and in need of help – not homeless, but desperately poor nonetheless? And what of the people who’ve lived here for decades? Have they grown accustomed to the pockets of poverty around them? Is that even possible?

Yes, it is a city of extremes. But the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” seems more due to circumstance than choice. My husband and I have just come through a huge financial upheaval ourselves, but we have renewed hope: a wonderful home, a new job, a true fresh start. It could have been very different. That middle-aged woman I see with the grey unkempt hair, the ratty sweater, the worn pink sweat pants? That could have been me.

Those are the thoughts that spin through my head. It makes me even more aware of our good fortune, but also makes me wonder about the stories of the people I pass each day. They were once precious babies. What could have happened to take them to where they are today? And why them, and not me?

And now I see I have finally written.

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In May of 2011, not long after surviving prostate cancer, and still mending after a hip replacement, Jack Layton, the charismatic New Democratic Party leader, accomplished what to many seemed impossible. He led his party to the level of Official Opposition, winning over Quebec separatists, and thereby achieving a record number of seats in parliament. NDP supporters were euphoric.

Two months later, shockingly gaunt and weak, he announced that a new form of cancer had taken hold of him, and that he was taking a leave from his position in order to fight it.

On August 22, just four weeks later, he passed away, surrounded by his loved ones and closest colleagues. Shortly after his death, a letter was released, written by him just two days earlier (http://bit.ly/netnCX). Moved by his message, the entire country united in an unprecedented show of grief.

Social media gathered hundreds of thousands of supporters, all asking that Layton be honoured in special ways. Across the country, people “Left their Porchlight on for Jack,” “Left a Burning Candle in the Window for Jack,” participated in “Chalk for Jack,” covering the concrete at Mel Lastman Square with messages to the man they admired so much. Orange lights, the colour of the NDP party, lit up Niagara Falls and the CN Tower at night.

He received a state funeral.

Since then, many journalists have asked “What is it about Jack Layton’s death that creates such passion and collective grieving?” After all, not everyone agreed with his politics or his passionate rhetoric during his three decades in politics. I believe there are several reasons for this surprising display of emotion.

The first that come to mind are his patriotism and his “generousity of self,” his willingness to get involved in areas that other politicians chose to ignore. He was approachable and emotionally engaged in every issue he tackled, and was a ray of hope for those struggling with poverty and homelessness. Unlike so many of our politicians, who seem emotionally detached from anything other than heated cabinet debates, he truly seemed to care.

Jack Layton had our back.

For years, there’s been talk of the apathy of today’s youth. Few have faith in politicians and the political process. They’ve “opted out.” They listen with wistfulness to stories recalling the activism and idealism of the sixties, but are often too jaded to believe that can happen again. Jack Layton challenged that belief and inspired so many of our Canadian youth. Years from now, that may be recognized as his greatest legacy.

On a personal level, Jack Layton did even more for me, and I suspect for many others growing up in the sixties and early seventies. He reminded me of who I was forty years ago. His principles, his passion, his belief in a better way, his concern for the disenfranchised and respect for humanity itself – those were the ideals I worked hard to emulate back then. I was young and hopeful and believed I could make a difference.

Somehow, as it does with many people, that idealism and energy faded over the years. Raising a family and working to make ends meet took most of my attention away, but not enough to miss the gradual changes taking place in our country – the focus on finances over people, the hostile and kneejerk response to anyone needing our help. Others set the changes in motion, but some, like Mike Harris, set them in stone. Like many of our youth, I’m afraid I chose to “opt out” rather than remain a teacher under Mike Harris, and with the subsequent election of federal, provincial and municipal politicians, my despair grew.

For a while, Jack Layton changed that. I saw more than a politician. I saw a human being – one who hid his private pain behind a moustached smile so he could lead his party to official opposition status, and who in the days before he died, still reached out and showed concern for others in a letter. As the NDP leader, he reminded his party to forge ahead, saying that the true power was always within them, and that his death wouldn’t change that. As a fellow Canadian, he urged people, young and old, to have hope in Canada’s future, to work to make it happen. As a cancer patient, he protected his fellow sufferers by keeping the details of his illness private, and encouraged them to have hope. His final words will always resonate with me:

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

How many other politicians have ever spoken to Canadians before dying, and in such a manner? Jack Layton was a remarkable man – a tireless, principled political leader, and patriotic Canadian. And for those of us who felt a familiar fire awaken in ourselves because of his shining example, his loss feels very personal.

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Two weeks ago, our wonderful sons threw us a party. Its purpose was twofold: an official housewarming, and a celebration of our forty years of marriage. Surrounded by family, close friends, and some of our new neighbours, the day couldn’t have been more perfect.

In many ways, it symbolized a turning point for us. For over two years, we’ve been weighed down by sadness and a sense of doom, but on this day, we were ourselves again. Able to laugh. Able to feel joy. And everyone with us felt it too. They’ve worried about us for so long, but finally, they too felt hope.

The day was warm and sunny, ideal weather for entertaining. Our guests spilled over from inside the house to the backyard and front porch. Conversations were loud and peppered with belly laughs. I reminisced with friends from high school – women I hadn’t seen since the last alumni luncheon, nearly ten years ago. Being with them reminded me of who I was at eighteen, and who I still am inside.

My husband felt the same spark. At one point, my youngest son observed “I haven’t seen Dad this happy in a long while.” Later, someone made the same comment about me.

Towards the end of the evening, when most people had already left, we realized that we’d yet to make a toast to our anniversary. It seemed fitting that the ones remaining to share the tradition with us were these same high school friends – women who were there forty-five years ago, when my husband and I first met, who were there on our wedding day. With a finesse that only a veteran bartender can manage, my son cracked open a bottle of champagne and carried eight flutes back into the room. We toasted to love, to friendship, to new beginnings.

Later, when it was just the four of us, we drifted to the front porch of the house. Between the rush of preparation and the excitement of having so many wonderful people in our home, we were all too wired to sleep. For nearly an hour, we shared our feelings about the day.

We realized then that here, on our fortieth aniversary, not one picture had been taken of my husband and me together. Our porch “papparazzi” decided that had to be rectified. It didn’t matter that my make-up had melted hours ago, that my hair was askew, and my husband slightly tipsy. We were happy.

You can tell just by looking at us.

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We’ve now been in our new home for just over three weeks, and what a whirlwind it’s been! It seems that we’ve had barely a moment’s rest! But I’m not complaining . Compared to the sadness of leaving our last home and the limbo existence of the previous ten months, this is exhilarating.

The first five days here were a real challenge. It didn’t take us long to realize that we should have delayed the move by a week or so. First of all, my sister’s wedding was just four days later. There was a bachelorette party on Wednesday, the second day of our move, and a hair appointment for me on Thursday. Both meant a long drive back into the city. Each time, we made the rounds of friends’ homes where my husband still had things stored. Seriously, he could have easily filled a house all on his own, and my son had nearly as much to move. To give you an idea of just how disproportionate my husband’s and son’s possessions were compared to mine, someone said to me on the day of the move, “Are you sure you live here?”

The running around before the wedding wasn’t the only complication of the week. The biggest advantage of relocating later is that we could have cleaned first. I have never seen a house in such need of a good scouring. It had been sadly neglected for a long while – vacant for six months and before then owned by a widower who was in deep mourning over the loss of his wife. The house badly needed to be loved again, and that began with vacuuming and scrubbing things down.

Our furniture is now in place, and except for unopened boxes for the office, we are unpacked. We got a great deal on a used refrigerator that could pass for new. We’ve bought a few curtain rods, but no drapes yet. My husband has started to repair our double hung sash windows – original to the house. They must have ten layers of paint on them. They’re very hard to open and because the sashes are broken, they’re being held open by books. He’s removing all the paint and sanding them down to the original wood before repainting them. We’ve replaced locks on both windows and doors – almost all were faulty. We’ve fixed a leaky sink and replaced faucets, only to see that now, our water pressure in the kitchen is down to a trickle. Somewhere, there’s an obstruction.

The second-to-last owner was a big fan of big pot lights. Our bathroom alone has six of them, in addition to two wall lights. My kitchen has twelve of them, but only half of them work. None have covers, and many have wires hanging out. The wiring in this place is insane. We’re still trying to figure out why the lights on the staircase landing and second floor hallway don’t work. I have to use a flashlight to go up and down the stairs in the evening.

We’ve demolished most of the basement in preparation for new wiring. There is a walled off room that has us curious. Time capsule? Stash of money? Body hidden amidst the brick?

The most exciting work has been the complete transformation of our front and backyards. Okay, I’ll be honest. My job was just to supply food and beverages. My husband and sons did the serious labour. And what a wonderful job they did! Just looking at it makes me smile, and our neighbours are thrilled to see the changes.

The neighbourhood itself is a pleasant surprise. The area we’re in, which is just outside the downtown core, is built on a grid system. Daily walks with the dog are filled with new discoveries: heritage homes, gardens loaded with flowering plants that I’ve never seen before, stately homes that once belonged to the original “movers and shakers” of the city, and still show such pride of ownership. I take a different route almost every day. Cadeau, who’s never really experienced city life, is in paradise. Everywhere you look, people are walking their dogs; Cadeau stops every ten feet to pick up a new scent. Most nights, we head to Gage Park, a huge park just a few minutes’ walk room here. There are trees with trunks ten feet in diameter. There are gardens and a greenhouse, water features and playground equipment, a pink bandshell where summer performances take place and huge fountain that’s now being restored to its former glory.

This city has never had the best reputation. It’s quite solidly blue collar, home to Canada’s steel plants, once employing thousands. The view of the city from the highway is bleak. I used to watch the smoke and flames shooting from the chimney stacks of the refineries, and imagine that the air here must be awful.

The steel industry has had its share of troubles, and many have lost their jobs. The downturn has rippled throughout the city, particularly the downtown core. You can’t miss the businesses that have closed, or the higher than average percentage of poor people who appear malnourished, sometimes with signs of substance abuse problems. But this city seems to have a heart. The downtown core is peppered with services for the poor, the handicapped, the sort of person so easily forgotten and left to live on the streets in bigger cities.

We’ve seen that “heart” in the faces of strangers serving us in stores, and we’ve heard it in the voices of our neighbours. We’ve never felt more welcomed by a community. This is home, and after the difficulties of the past couple of years, this newfound contentment is almost euphoric.

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Today is my sixtieth birthday, and the only way I can describe it is surreal. To give you an idea of just how foreign the number “sixty” is to me, I first typed the title of this entry as “On Turning Thirty.” Even my fingers are in denial.

Unlike my teenage years, or young womanhood, or my years as a wife and mother, this is an age I never took time to imagine. It snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking; perhaps while I was asleep, or stuck in traffic, or playing my zillionth game of Spider Solitaire. Somewhere between forty and sixty, I lost time.

Despite feeling a little shell-shocked, reaching my sixth decade doesn’t bother me as much as I expected it might. I’ve watched so many of my friends die much too soon. How can I not appreciate each day that I am given? I’ve been so lucky. Healthwise, I don’t feel any worse than I did at forty. It may be one advantage of having the aches and pains of fibromyalgia for so long. My age has simply caught up with the way I’ve always felt. The asthma that plagued me at a younger age is under control now, thanks to medical advances. To think I once believed that it would probably kill me someday. I never could have predicted that I’d feel this good at sixty.

Surprisingly, I have developed a fascination with the aging process, as if it’s happening to someone else, as if the person in the mirror is not really me. I study the gradual appearance of lines in my face as if noticing them for the first time. I am spellbound by the skin on my hands, how much thinner and drier it seems. My nails have changed. I wonder when all of it began and why I didn’t notice.

And then there’s my neck.

A few years ago, I watched author Nora Ephron being interviewed on a women’s talk show. She discussed her new book on middle-age, and the procedures some women endure to appear younger. She ended by saying “but there’s nothing you can do about one part of your body.” The title of her book was “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” She was right. And the irony is in knowing that at a time in my life when I prefer to cover my neck, I can no longer stand the heat!

Yes, I am now sixty. I may have to say it again and again until it sinks in. I’d like to think I’m a bit wiser than I was at thirty, but the reality is that inside, I am very much unchanged, with the same values, the same passions, the same sentiments. The greatest difference comes from acknowledging that time has passed more quickly than I ever anticipated, too much of it forgotten.

From this point on, I have to try harder to savour each moment, to make the days count for something. Life is much too fleeting, and there are still memories to be made.

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