Wednesday, November 25, 2015

November 25, 2015

A month from today is Christmas. Are you ready for it? I’m not. I pride myself on being organized and yet every year, Christmas draws near and I realize I am nowhere near being ready. That’s really silly, given that the holiday comes every year on the same day. You’d think by my age, I’d stop being surprised by its imminent arrival.

I don’t think it’s a question of Christmas not being important to me. I know it is, but it’s the day itself, and its significance of it that matter to me—not all the hoopla we have, by secular tradition, attached to it.

There’s another factor, especially these last nine years that play into my resistance to all the lights and glitter of the season. When you’ve lost a child, even if that child was an adult when he died, it forever leaves a hole in your heart. It’s kind of difficult to fully get into the spirit of joy when a piece of you is forever in mourning.

Therapists will tell you that this is one of the most stressful times of the year for many people. The older we get, the more we celebrate our special holidays while thinking of those loved ones no longer with us. Yes, missing children and grandchildren is harder—we’re not truly meant to bury those younger than us by a generation or two. Most of us as we reach our middle years, or enter into our December years, miss our parents and some siblings as well. The Christmas season, when we were kids, was filled with joy and magic. As we age, I think we hunger for that sense of wonder again. We long for the days when life seemed only bright and beautiful, and when anything—anything at all—was possible.

We’d all like an escape, every now and then, from adulting.

A month away and I can’t tell you how, exactly, we’ll pass the day. Our surviving son and his family generally spend their Christmas with my daughter-in-law’s people. That’s fine, because as I have noted in the past, and find it to be more true than not, that sons do that very thing. That old saying that says a son’s a son till he takes a wife is based on truth, after all.

Because Christmas falls on a Friday this year, it’s a working day for my daughter. I don’t yet know if she’ll have a couple of hours late afternoon to stop in and eat. We’ll figure it all out. Too, there’s nothing wrong with just the two of us having our quiet Christmas dinner together. We get along pretty well, for a couple of older folks.

It all went by so fast! It seems like not that long ago I was a child, bubbling with excitement to see what Santa left under the tree. Then, just a few moments after that, I was a young mother, bubbling with excitement to see our little ones’ jubilee over what Santa left under the tree.

These days if I feel bubbling, I’m tempted to call the doctor.

Still, I must say that giving remains my favorite part of the secular holiday. I’ve been told on more than one occasion by more than one person that I am way too generous. I know that I am. My first instinct has always been to offer a hand up, to give to those who are in need as well as my loved ones, just to see them smile.

I make no apologies for that. For a lot of people, giving is the best part of Christmas. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

November 18, 2015

We live in a society governed by rule of law. Most of us agree to live by those laws, and understand that if we want them changed then there is a civilized means through which to do this.

Most of us willingly give ourselves to live under the dominion of our governments. We don’t always agree with the person or persons who’ve been elected to run the show, but we respect the institution of government and know those people may be replaced at the next election. We can even volunteer to help that along, by becoming involved in the process.

If we’re really unhappy with the decisions being made by our officials, then we can pick up pen and paper and write our representatives; if we feel strongly enough, we organize petitions, rallies, get media coverage, understanding that this is one of the routes to change in our countries.

Here in North America, if we feel the move to evangelize, to bring others to our own point of view faith-wise, then we speak to others of our faith; we give testimony of how our faith has worked in our lives.

We don’t pick up guns, gird ourselves with explosives, and kill people we don’t even know. In fact, we tend to think the people who do that are psychopaths.

And really, that is exactly what they are.

It’s very, very hard for us to wrap our heads around the events in Paris last Friday. Our thoughts and prayers were immediately engaged and invoked for the victims and their families and friends.

We all have begun to think, “There but by the Grace of God go us.” But something else is afoot as a result of the events, too, and while I understand it, I can’t, in good conscience, agree with it.

Of the over one million refugees fleeing the same violence we witnessed in Paris, one person is thought to have been one of those psychopaths. And because this may be so, many now no longer wish to welcome any refugees into their communities.

We’re afraid. We’re afraid, because we don’t understand the violence. It’s foreign to us, and we don’t know how to fight it.

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if that was the whole point of having one of the attackers get to Paris that way. The psychopaths were faced with the dilemma: how do they keep their immediate victims there, how do they stop them from fleeing? “They are millions, we are only thousands. If they all flee, we can’t stop them. Oh, I know. We’ll taint them with one of our own—just one, that’s all it will take—and no one will want to take in any of our victims who are fleeing for their lives. Winter is coming. They will die. And the rest, knowing there is no deliverance, there is no escape, there is no mercy—they will stay put.”

That thinking on our part, where we say, “none of them can be trusted, keep them all out, turn away the stranger at the gate”, that thinking makes us no safer than we were, but it does make us much less than we were.

I turn back to the early lessons in my life. As a kid I was bullied, and sometimes that was hard to take. It made me angry and I wanted to get back at those who were treating me badly. But my mother would tell me, that if I did, I would be “lowering” myself to their level, that I would then be no better than those who persecuted me.

And she reminded me of the Sermon on the Mount, and the admonition to turn the other cheek.

This situation is much more serious, this situation with those psychopaths who ran rampant and murdered and injured hundreds in the City of Light. Turning the other cheek against murderers isn’t the way to go.

But neither is making those not responsible for the carnage pay the price for those who are.

We need to be very careful that we don’t ascribe blame to a particular religion. It’s easy enough to do. It might even be emotionally satisfying in the short term. But it would be very wrong to do so.

We need to focus on placing our anger where it belongs: on the organized group of psychopaths who are directly responsible for the violence and the killing.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November 11, 2015

One hundred years ago this year, the first Great War raged across Europe, but its impact truly was felt world-wide. When Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Canada, as a part of the British Empire, was automatically also at war.

Many of the young men of the day signed up to serve—some as soldiers, and some as medical support. One of those who volunteered his services was a Doctor who’d been born and raised in Guelph, Ontario (just down the road from me), who’d been a resident at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland at the dawn of the 20th century, and who had already seen the affects of war on the human body. His name was Dr. John McRae, and when he enlisted, he was appointed as a medical officer to the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery—and given the rank of Major.

McRae wasn’t just a doctor. He expressed himself in words—as a poet, and a writer of articles for medical journals—and he was also an artist who rendered pencil sketches of some of the places he’d been during his world travels.

He wrote to his mother, while stationed in Belgium, of the carnage of war. He did what he could for the wounded in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, often doing without much sleep or relief of any kind for days on end. And it was while he was in Belgium, and after the death of a friend, that he gave us words that are as timely now as ever they were, and a symbol we all recognize as synonymous with honoring all those who’ve died in military service to their countries.

That poem is called In Flanders Fields. In case it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, here it is:

In Flanders Fields 
In Flanders fields the poppies blow 
Between the crosses, row on row 
That mark our place; and in the sky 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the Dead. Short days ago 
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow 
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie 
In Flanders Fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw 
The torch; be yours to hold it high. 
If ye break faith with us who die 
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 
In Flanders Fields. 

Today is a day we pause, and with a minute of silence, honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live our lives blessed with freedom. 

That first Great War, and the next one—the Second World War—seem far removed from us in 2015. And yet, today, there are other wars, and rumors of wars, and there are acts of war not committed nation against nation, but man against man. 

Now more than ever we need to stop, and pause, and reflect: lest we forget. 


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

November 4, 2015

Sometimes, I have trouble with the concept of keeping the main thing, the main thing. The everyday living of life can be overwhelming at times, with some occurrences taking on more importance than they need to. This is especially true, at least for me, when things don’t do the way I hope they will—or maybe the way I count on them to go. Let’s face it. Crap happens in life to all of us. Sometimes dealing with that crap can be a challenge. I mean, who can think when unexpected glitches arise?

Do you ever listen to Ted Talks? Have you heard about them? These are a series of “talks” or mini-lectures, most of them under twenty minutes long, by experts in varying fields. Arts, sciences, religions, social issues—there are more than a thousand “talks” and they can all be found here, for free:

This past weekend I listened to one given by a neuroscientist entitled, “How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed.” It turns out there’s a medical reason why I can’t keep the main thing the main thing when I’m having one of those days. It’s a chemical called cortisol, it gets released by your brain into your body when you’re stressed, and one of the things it does is to cloud your thinking. You chemically can’t be logical and concise in your thoughts with that stuff floating around free inside you.

The scientist’s suggested solution to the situation was to conduct a “pre-mortem” for any upcoming special event—that is, to sit down and try to think of all the possible things that could go wrong in the upcoming situation, things that if they occurred would stress you out. Then, he said, think of a solution for each possible problem. He reasoned that you could think clearly ahead of time when not under stress, and then if one of those situations did arise, you’d not be hampered my muzzy thinking. You’d know what to do. In my thirties or forties, I might have rolled my eyes, hearing this suggestion. Now I’m sixty-one, and I’m thinking that his idea has merit.

I can totally see myself doing this. I already have an edge on anyone else who might have heard this talk at the same time I did and decided to incorporate the good doctor’s advice. I already make an extensive clothing list when I’m going on a trip!

As I’ve explained in a few past essays, I make a list of the days I’ll be at an event, list the activities I’ll be participating in, and then assign an outfit for each day. Sometimes I might have two activities on a single day, and there might be a wardrobe change required. I’ve even, in the past, after finalizing my list of outfits, gone ahead and picked out my accessories, put them in individual baggies, and assigned them a number or two, so I would know which outfit or two they’d match.

It would appear I was already doing that whole “pre-mortem” thing with regard to my clothes without knowing that was what I was doing. So I suppose that taking the process to the next level – making a list of all the things that could go wrong on a trip, or in the event of some other special occasion like throwing a dinner party, or attending a special function, and then coming up with a solution to each problem is a great idea.

There are actually only two potential problems I can see with this system, and likely both of them are connected to the fact I’m not as young as I used to be. The first is, will I remember, in the moment of crisis, that I had done the exercise and come up with a list of well thought out, and logical solutions to the unexpected problem?

And the second is much more to the point: if I do, will I be able to recall exactly where that list might be?