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Posts Tagged ‘appreciating life’

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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I cannot believe that I have not written a word here in over six months. Perhaps I should break that statement up. I can’t believe that I have not written, period. And I can’t believe it is nearly six months.

Externally, nothing has changed. We remain unsettled, searching for employment so that we can have our own home again. But internally, where it counts, there’s been growth and healing. The battle isn’t over, but we feel like survivors. More than ever before, we recognize the strength of our union. Not all marriages could have withstood all that we have. We make a damned good team.

It’s easy to gloss over the difficulties we’ve experienced. Grief, worry, regret – every negative thought that had plagued us for over two years continued to lurk in the background these past months, waiting for those times when we seemed most vulnerable. Late night drives into our current subdivision brought flashbacks of the night of our move, and caused me to have panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep. Food suddenly caught in my throat as I ate. I was drowning in guilt over what I should have done differently. My husband was obsessed with feelings of failure. Gradually, though, we collected an arsenal of “weapons” to combat the pain we’ve felt. Such is survival. It’s instinctive.

The day-to-day needs of our new household became our lifeline. Mindless chores kept us from dwelling on our situation. We took our sweet little dog on long walks through the subdivision, the nearby park, the trails winding their way through the protected forests of the Oak Ridges Moraine. We compared one home’s choice of landscaping to the next, and laughed as our dog compulsively left his mark on every pole and tree he could find. It’s hard to stay depressed as you watch a tiny shih tzu attempt world domination in a half-hour walk.

There were times when we allowed ourselves to hope: the possibility of a contract being extended; companies that expressed interest in consulting contracts; success on the first day of a new sales job; a third interview for a new position that was a perfect fit. But inevitably, there were disappointments. A contract ended; a company decided against consulting when they checked their books and saw another month “in the red”; the realization that customers simply weren’t buying Toyotas, and that seeing just one customer a day left him earning less than minimum wage; a sudden silence after a third interview, and the suspicion that the only edge another candidate likely had on him was being younger.

Each time, we searched online for homes near these positions, so that if things worked out, we’d be ready to move. We collected a running list of “favourites,” keeping track of those that sold, and the new listings that came up. And when our hopes crashed, we learned to pull back for a while, stop looking, and give ourselves time to regroup. We read. We walked. We watched television and played mindless computer games. Did you know that Spider Solitaire can practically put you into a trance, if you play it long enough? I dreamed about playing it. It was better than not sleeping at all.

In many ways, those days in between the times of “hope” have felt timeless, a sort of limbo. Forced to live just in the moment, unable to predict the future and not wanting to revisit our past, our sense of time feels altered. One day melts into the next. We’ve been neither here nor there, our lives somewhat on hold, and subconsciously, I guess we’ve sometimes fooled ourselves into thinking the rest of the world has stopped as well. For example, summer was over before we knew it, and with that came a wardrobe dilemma I’d never anticipated. I never expected that we’d live with our friend so long, so I’d only brought summer clothing with me. When temperatures dropped in October, we drove to the storage facility to collect my warmer clothes, only to learn that the bins they were in were virtually inaccessible, lodged under and behind large pieces of furniture and boxes that couldn’t be moved. It was one more reminder of just how “out of sorts” our life felt.

Certain dates have also jolted us into reality and reminded us of the awkwardness of our situation. The first day of school, and no longer connected to that day as a teacher or parent; Thanksgiving, and the effort needed to show thankfulness; no longer preparing for Hallowe’en; and then, more than any other day, Christmas.

The first reminder saying “Just forty days left to shop for Christmas” was like a sucker punch. I felt sick and even more than that, I wondered how I’d possibly get through the day without becoming weepy and maudlin, ruining Christmas for everyone around me. I thought of our Christmas decorations stored away, how I loved to make our house look festive, the many friends who used to visit us, and Christmas morning, when my younger son and his girlfriend would arrive to join my husband, my oldest son, and myself to exchange presents. Where would we meet this year, with no family home to call our own? Whenever I allowed myself to dwell on the situation, my sadness grew, so I pushed it out of my mind, compartmentalizing it into the part of my brain reserved for regrets and losses.

Then I went shopping.

And in the end, Christmas was as it should be. Free of the massive debt we’d accumulated, Christmas didn’t carry the usual worry for us. We exchanged gifts in the morning with our friend and his family, and then we shared a hearty Christmas brunch casserole I’d made the night before, along with hot cinnamon buns, orange juice, egg nog, and coffee. In the afternoon, I prepared dishes to take to my sister’s for Christmas dinner, then arrived to find her house sparkling with decorations and filled with family and the laughter of children. My son and his girlfriend were able to join us, and though we missed exchanging gifts under our own tree, as we always had, nothing could touch the happiness we felt at having them there with us. Joy bubbled inside me until I worried it might spill over in blubbering sentiment and embarass the men in my family. I held it tight inside, something precious and wondrous that no one could take away.

Philsophers say that all growth comes from pain, that clarity of thought is the gift you are left with when the trappings of material wealth are no longer clouding your vision. For so long, I’ve worried and agonized and despaired and grieved over the changes in my life. I’ve felt detached and disenfranchised. I’ve used the solitude of the shower to shed my tears. I don’t ever want to feel that way again.

I know that our difficulties are not over, that our situation is far from settled, but I also recognize the gifts I have gained. I’ve had seen the good in people in unexpected gestures of kindness and generousity’ and that has strengthened my spirit and resolve. I’ve arrived at a place where I can look at the worst that might happen in our lives, and still say with all conviction “I am blessed.”

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border-21On July 20, 1999, I am reminded to count my blessings.

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A LIFE BEYOND PERFECT

In four short days, I have learned of five deaths, most unrelated but all with the bitter taste of needless loss. They were young, distanced from the reality of their own mortality. I find myself dwelling on the loved ones left behind, and the agony they are forced to endure, because I have lived their pain. I am jarringly reminded that in the end, there is only birth and death that matter, that the charmed, happily-ever-after lives we so achingly strive for are just insignificant backdrop when death beckons.

The first death was the son of a beloved president whose public assassination shocked the world. I close my eyes, and see John F. Kennedy Jr., just three years old and the epitome of innocence, saluting as his father’s funeral motorcade drives by. I remember my mother’s words “God only gives you what you can handle” and “suffering makes you stronger.” I wonder why this family has been chosen for such sorrow, and I am sick that once again they’ve been broadsided by senseless tragedy. I tell myself that life is not a game in which moves are strategically planned by a master player, that there is no logic or fairness in the roll of the dice. I try to let go of the subconscious hope I have unknowingly held for years: that this son of a slain president, who had seen so much tragedy in his short life, would rise and carry on the reign of a slain and beloved king; that “Camelot” would be restored. I have been holding on to a fairytale, like so many others, waiting for a hero prince to return from exile.

His death is not solitary. With him are two beautiful sisters, one living a Cinderella dream in her marriage to John Kennedy Jr., the other’s life barely lived. I sense the pain their parents must feel, the cruelty of charmed lives cut short.

A day later, the eight-year-old son of a vice-president at my husband’s company wakes up with a headache. By mid-afternoon he lies in a coma. He dies a few short days later, never waking. They are strangers, these parents, living hundreds of miles away, but I think daily of their anguish. I am sick with the realization that they had no warning, no way to prevent or prepare. I dwell on how perfect their lives must seem to outsiders. They are young, affluent, successful. Without ever meeting them, I know they would relinquish everything for the return of their child.

This weekend, a young man, just twenty, dies in an automobile accident. Up too late at a party, he waits until completely sober to drive home, then falls asleep at the wheel. I recall the chubby, red-faced twelve year-old struggling to save goals on my son’s soccer team; his parents at every game, their precious Yorkies tucked inside their jackets.  I remember my envy of his mother, the founder of her own private school, an accomplishments teachers like myself can respect. Her son grows into a handsome young man, polite and full of promise. Her pride in her career pales in comparison to her joy in her son. It is a drop of water compared to the ocean of heartbreak she now faces.

It is near noon as I contemplate these sad losses. I have driven my eldest son to work and my youngest son of twenty still sleeps. The careless signs of their presence in our home often upset me. Today, my car holds empty pop cans, a pizza box, candy wrappers, and less gas. As I enter our home, my gaze wanders to the unswept grass clippings in the driveway, the shoes left scattered, yesterday’s opened mail on their placemats.

I walk down the stairs to the family room that is their favourite space. Dishes arae left on the coffee table, the unscraped food hardened. Video game’s controls are stretched across the floor, and clothes, once left folded on the billiard table for them to put away, are now askew, beds for our many cats.

Tentatively, I walk down the hall, ready to see the unkempt rooms that make me despair, but today, I feel different. There is no anger as I see the unmade bed of my eldest, or the disorganization of his pat-rack existence; and as I watch the still-sleeping form of my youngest son, I don’t feel my usual frustration. I glance at the evidence of what I have often considered an irresponsible life: the late nights after his restaurant shift, the clothes in disarray, a carpet that needs to be vacuumed. All I feel is relief, because this morning I realize how lucky I am to still have my sons. A sense of peace fills my heart as I quietly close his door, and turn to walk away.

In our country home, with two parents, two sons, and four cats, we do not lead charmed lives when seen under the daily microscope. But I have known loss, and this week has reminded me that sloppy rooms matter nothing when viewed next to the harsh reality of a child’s mortality. Today, my life is beyond perfect.

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