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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.

 

 

 

 

 

PERCOLATING

Those of you who only know me through this blog might be wondering where I’ve been. Truthfully, I’ve been nowhere. I’ve not fallen into the vast cyberspace hole where neurotics, failed writers and disenchanted romantics go to brood. After a few years of obsession with my own misery, I am, quite simply, learning to think outside my own space again. I am like someone who’s come out of a coma. The wonders and woes of the world seem new to me again, and like the finest brew, they need time to percolate.

In a world where we are often pressured to make instant observations and judgements, I am allowing myself the luxury of time. I won’t take much longer. I promise.

 

 

 

It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly four weeks since I last wrote anything here. The days pass too quickly. Time is getting away from me.

Not to say that my days aren’t full. They are. But recently, I watched a video called “Living with Fibromyalgia” (see below), and I had a bit of an epiphany. Since then, I’ve been living life a little differently, listening to my body, pacing myself on good days and taking it easy on days when I really need to. And it feels good.

Basically, the video explains the way the illness works and how five individuals deal with it. It really hit home with me. The bottom line is that I’ve wasted too much of my life being mad at my body. It turned against me early on. Rather than accept the way my system works and treat myself with the same patience and compassion I would to another person with fibromyalgia, I’ve let it get it embarrass, depress and anger me. That attitude has probably just made me worse.

Those angry days were wasted days. The days when I felt stupid because fibro affected my concentration and energy and shortened my education? Those were wasted days too. I’ve been embarassed by my clumsiness and my lack of athletic ability for my entire adult life. I shouldn’t have been, but I didn’t understand the way fibro worked.

I realize I need to treat fibro more like childbirth. All of my deliveries were natural. By the time I had my youngest son, I was a whiz at Lamaze. I’d learned to breathe with the pain, find a focus point to distract me, relax my limbs. Fibromyalgia requires the same plan of attack. So, instead of resenting the times the pain is bad, and feeling I have to make excuses to people to explain why I’m unable to do certain things, I’m going to just “go with it.” I’ll work, rest, work, rest. On days when I feel like crap, I’ll have a hot shower, put on my most comfortable clothes, gather together heating pads, cushions, my laptop, and favourite videos, and RELAX. And I won’t let myself feel guilty.

I’m going to apply the same philosophy to the days when my husband’s away on business – which is often. Rather than let myself feel lonely or act like a recluse, I’m going to do the things that I’m free to do because he’s away. That means I can go places he wouldn’t usually want to go. I can have meals when I feel like it – or not. I can eat what I feel like and forget about his favourites. Last week, I had poutine for dinner – first time ever!!! It’s sinfully fattening and unhealthy and delicious!

The specialists in the video “Living With Fibromyalgia” suggested friends and family should watch it too and I understand why. Perhaps it’s hypersensitivity, but I’ve often felt like I was being judged. I’ve been put on the defensive so many times. I wanted people to see the video not for their pity, but for their understanding. That way I’d never have to explain again. Diabetics don’t have to constantly justify their insulin injections, right? I’m so tired of people saying things like “I just ignore my pain,” I don’t let my pain hold me back,” “I just keep going even though I’m exhausted,” because all that says is “You’re a wuss, Linda.”

Just as irritating is having someone say “I’m sure I have it too.” That bothers me because once again, it invalidates what I’m experiencing. Someone else saying that they surely “have it” too basically minimizes my situation. Let’s face it. Specialaists say that 5% of the population has fibro. Now, people who are over 50 have certain aches and pains at various times – because of old injuries or osteoarthritis or lack of flexibility or extra weight on our frames. Menopausal women experience difficulties concentrating, mood swings and even panic attacks. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have fibromyalgia. It’s possible they do, but the odds are still against it.

OMG. I am rambling, aren’t it? Better here, though, than to those living with me.

Anyway, I did something very empowering. I wrote a letter to family members, explaining that I was going to take another tactic with fibromyalgia and part of that was wanting the important people in my life to understand exactly what it was about. I was very careful with the wording – no recriminations, no pressure, a polite request.

One brother watched it immediately and wrote back. A sister-in-law left a phone message saying she wanted to know more. One of her closest friends suffered with it for the last twenty years of her life. One sister wrote back and cautioned that I “mustn’t let myself be defined by my illness,” and I wrote back that my purpose is to change that feeling.

One person wrote to ask if the video took as long as it said it did to download. Someone else wrote three days later with four words: “the link doesn’t work.” (by then it was no longer active). As far as I know, no one else actually saw it. They didn’t write back. My husband hasn’t watched it yet, but said he will. He’s already very supportive, though I think sometimes he needs his own support. Chronic illness can be hard on marriages. One son was unable to watch the video as he’s away on a military base. The other did call and we had our first real talk about it. I wrote to everyone aagain to say that the link to the video was no longer active and I’d try to send a copy of it when I figured out how to send a large file. I may be better off just saving a couple of copies on memory sticks in case anyone actually ever asks to see it.

So far they haven’t, but at least I’ve had the courage to bring my feelings out into the open.

So, back to the rest of what’s going on around me. Actually, there’s not a whole helluva lot. The weather here is perfect, we’re slowly adding more perennials to our gardens, my husband’s new job is going really well, our sons are healthy and happy, Cadeau is trying to get over fireworks trauma from this past weekend, Marcel (my son’s cat, who we’re “grandparenting” while he’s training at a military base) is building relationships with neighbourhood strays on the other side of our windows, and Cleo is still hanging on, enjoying what is surely her last summer on the back porch.

Life goes on, and life is good.

Learn more about “Living With Fibromyalgia” at http://www.livingwithfm.com/.

A children’s story about Cleo, our happy wanderer.

**********

Cleo is a very fat black cat who lives a pampered life in a country home. Her owners love her, and the other cats in the house let her be the boss. She has tasty food to eat, fresh water to drink and cozy places to sleep. She is a very lucky cat.

But Cleo’s life was not always so safe and comfortable. Once, it was full of adventure. If Cleo could speak, this is the story she would tell.

**********

Cleo was born under an old shed that leaned against an even older barn. She had brothers and sisters, five altogether, and in their first weeks of life they were safe, hidden from the eyes of the cranky old farmer who owned the shed.

Sometimes, they would hear his heavy footsteps as he walked nearby. When that happened, Cleo and the other kittens would snuggle deeper into their mother’s fur and lie very still. Once the farmer moved on, they would relax again and fall asleep. One day, though, it did not happen that way, and Cleo’s life changed forever.

It was warm spring morning, and Cleo decided she wanted to play. Usually, it was dark and damp under the shed, but on that day, a ray of light shone through a gap between the ground and the shed’s wall. Cleo couldn’t resist. While everyone else was still sleeping, she squeezed through the space and looked at the world around her for the very first time.

For as far as she could see, there were fields and forest. Flies hovered over a mound of garbage by the barn. Birds flew amidst the branches of an old oak tree. From far away, she could hear large, rumbling sounds like distant thunder, even though the sky was blue and free of clouds.

Suddenly from around the corner a big red tractor appeared. The old farmer sat on top, an angry scowl on his face. He stopped the machine when he saw her and climbed off to chase her.

Cleo ran for her life into the woods and quickly became lost. For months afterwards, she lived on her own. She learned to trap field mice and catch birds so that she could eat. She found cool, clear water to drink from a stream that wound through the forest. She discovered that being a black cat could be very lucky. It meant she could hide more easily from the hawks that flew above the forest in the day, and the wild dogs that prowled in packs at night.

Cleo was a survivor.

One spring day, the sound of friendly voices floated across the farmer’s field. Cleo crept carefully to the edge of the forest to hear better, and spied people laughing and talking in the distance. They looked friendly and she decided she wanted to get closer. She pushed her way through the tall hay that separated the forest from their backyard, and that was how she found the family who would become her new owners.

It took Cleo a while to get used to them. She liked the mother, because she spoke in a soft voice and moved slowly. She brought the thin, scared kitten something to eat and drink, and soon Cleo began to feel safe sitting near her when she was outside. But the big boys and their father scared Cleo. Their voices were loud, and they moved too quickly. Cleo would jump away and run when they came near. They reminded her too much of the farmer who tried to hurt her.

The other cats in the house frightened her too. They were much bigger than she was. They sniffed at her and Cleo thought they might eat her if she stayed still. To protect herself, she hissed at them and swiped at their noses with her tiny paws. Her claws were sharp from scratching the trunks of the forest trees, and the other cats soon learned that Cleo was tougher than she appeared.

Gradually, Cleo grew comfortable with her new family and home. She no longer had to hunt for food or run from enemies. She grew a little fatter and much calmer, and from autumn until the end of the winter, she was content to be inside the house where it was warm. Still, when the last snow melted, and the red-winged blackbirds returned to the fields, wanderlust settled in Cleo’s veins. She yearned to leave her safe home and explore again, and so began the first of her summer adventures.

**********

Cleo never meant to leave and then stay away so long. The first time it happened, the flutter of a butterfly’s wing tempted her. She left to follow it, and found herself once more crossing the farmer’s field and entering the shade of the forest. She played all day there, and that night, even when she heard the mother’s voice calling for her to come inside, she did not return. It was warm outside, and the leaves on the forest floor would make a soft bed. She could hide under a fallen tree and be safe, and so she did.

But when the next day came, she was still having too much fun to go back. She knew she was not lost; she could still see the house. One day turned into two, and then three, and before she knew it, the summer had passed. Only the cooler nights of the fall reminded her to go home. The family welcomed her with laughs and hugs, and piled heaps of food on the plate before her. The other cats sniffed at her coat and imagined the adventures she must have had. They looked at her with a new respect, and dared not push their way to the feeding bowl until Cleo had finished eating.

All had turned out well, so Cleo did the same thing the next summer, and the next, and the next, and the family grew to expect and understand Cleo’s escapes. From the minute autumn began, Cleo would begin to look forward to her next excursion, and that’s how it was until the year she turned six.

**********

Cleo left in late spring that year, eager for the adventures that would be awaiting her. She had no understanding of time, only the sense that there were mice to be caught and butterflies to be chased, and as always, she was happier in the forest than she’d ever been behind walls.

One day, she even came close enough to her house to be seen. The mother called her name, but Cleo ignored her and kept walking with her head held high. She was not ready to return. The forest was too exciting.

Finally, a day arrived that changed her mind. She came upon a raccoon’s shelter, and soon learned that a raccoon only was not as friendly as it looked. Cleo fought back as best she could and escaped, but not before the he had bitten a chunk from the top of her ear. She felt shaken all day by the attack, but by nightfall, there was another new danger. Just as she settled into sleep, she heard coyotes coming. The sound of their big feet and tails hitting the underbrush caused her heart to jolt in fear. She could hear their panting as they searched for her. Their keen eyes spotted her, and they bolted forward, barking their horrible high-pitched war songs. Cleo ran faster than she even knew she could, farther through the woods than she’d ever gone before. Ahead of her, a tree rose high towards the sky. She dug her claws in deep and scurried up the trunk and to the highest branches at lightning speed. The coyotes could not follow.

Cleo waited there for what felt like days. Her ear throbbed, and so did one of her paws where it had been punctured by a sliver of bark. She grew hungry but still was too afraid to come out into the open, even in the daylight when she knew they must be gone.

Finally, she could wait no longer. She slowly wiggled downward, and began her long way home to safety. It was time. The leaves were beginning to turn colour.

**********

Since then, Cleo has stayed away from the forest. The top of her ear has healed in a jagged pattern, and her whiskers have stayed white after her scare that night. Her owners joke that she’s grown as chubby as a baby walrus.

Now, Cleo’s summers are spent following on the heels of her owner as he works in the yard. She no longer fears his voice, because he is her protector. When he is not there, she is content to find a cool place under the lilac bush to lie down. There, she thinks of the stories she could tell, and dreams of chasing butterflies.

Try to imagine spending twenty-four hours inside a 30-inch cube. Once free, you are completely stiff. Your joints ache. Your muscles go into spasm when you walk. Your fingers hurt to straighten and have no strength. You can’t think clearly and all you want to do is rest.

Now imagine it happening for no reason other than increased stress, or a few hours of lost sleep, or time spent directly near air conditioning.

For the past few days, I’ve been sidelined by this invisible condition that few people understand. While not fatal, it cuts productivity, destroy careers, strains relationships and drains self-esteem.

These vague, “here today, gone tomorrow” pains have been a part of my life since early puberty. Before then, I was like any other child, able to run and climb and hang upside-down on our jungle gym. But at eleven or so, muscles in my legs started to spasm. Then, my mother labelled it “growing pains” and massaged rubbing alcohol into my hamstrings and calves to stop the cramping. In a family of seven children, I was the only one who seemed to have pain issues, and though no one said it aloud, I believed the perception was that I was a crybaby or hypochondriac, or simply desperate for attention. It was the beginning of the “stigma” I would feel for the rest of my life as various parts off my body mysteriously turned against me.

Despite being the picture of health, shooting, burning pain and numbness in my left trapezius muscle plagued my teenage years. Sharp stabs shot down my arm, up my neck, and down the left side of my back. Our doctor diagnosed mild arthritis and mild scoliosis and joked that at fifteen, I had the body of a forty year-old woman. He arranged regular physiotherapy sessions for me but it only seemed to make matters worse. Eventually, chronic pain kept me from participating in activities that other girls my age could easily do. Doctor’s notes made me exempt from any physical activity that aggravated the problem, and I soon began seeing myself as “different.”

Everyone wants to feel strong and capable and vibrant, and I am no different. But over the years, nearly every new activity or increase in physical work backfired on me, causing bouts of pain that lasted months longer than the activity. I’ve been in therapy for knee, jaw, shoulder and neck issues more than I can count. They’ve exrayed, scanned or “MRI’ed” every part of me. I’ve seen chiropractors and rheumatoid specialists, and had traction and acupuncture. During two years of right shoulder problems, the muscles atrophied and the joint “collapsed. ” I’ve been told my muscles are “twitchy,” meaning that they overreact to stimuli. And I’ve been through the gamut of medications, from muscle relaxants to cortisone injections, Oxycontin to Demerol to Darvon, morphine to anti-seizure drugs, sleep aids to antidepressants. Then finally, less than ten years ago, came the diagnosis – fibromyalgia.

I realize now that my absences from work, all of those times when my body ached everywhere, like the start of a bad flu, were, in fact, fibro flares. And the entire time, I felt embarrassed and defensive because I was always sick, or aching, or exhausted, when to the rest of the world I seemed perfectly healthy.

Throughout all of this, I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is pace myself. Like someone with digestive problems, I have to avoid too much of anything, so I exercise, but can’t push too hard. I sit, but never for too long. I stay mentally engaged and active, but try to guard against too much stress. Move outside of moderation, and I risk a sudden episode of pain or brain fog. And though I miss earning a good wage, I’m hesitant to commit to anything that would prove too demanding. I don’t feel sorry for myself, because I am alive. Many dear friends have died too young, and they would gladly trade their illnesses for mine.

You could say that I’ve learned to live with it but there is one thing that never gets easier. It’s the lack of validation connected with this illness, just as with other invisible illnesses like MS or Lupus or Crohn’s. Our conditions don’t define us, but none of us wants to be made to feel less stoic than everyone else while we’re in pain, or when we have to curtail our activities to avoid a flare-up. In my case, it might even be nice if occasionally, someone else brought up the elephant in the room instead of pretending that fibromyalgia – or at least mine – doesn’t exist. Just sayin.’

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.