Monday, June 27, 2016

Finding a Table


Summer arrived a week ago I watched the solstice sun set and full moon rise over the city. The park near our home is well used by people in the neighbourhood, particularly by families who have moved here recently from other countries. Our city was very white when I came here 40 years ago but now we have a diversity of cultures represented. The newer immigrants tend to live in nearby apartments and row housing without the benefit of large yards. That could be one reason they come and spend evenings in the park. I admire their sense of family and community. We shop at a nearby international food market for items like injera, less common spices and pulses and other treats from the middle east and south-east Asia. The young, friendly cashiers in their hijabs speak English without an accent while shoppers from older generations prefer to use their native languages in the store. It does not take long to assimilate children to a new culture but it is harder for adults to find a place in the community.


I go to the Apple store at the mall a couple of times a year. It is my favourite retail experience of all time. The store is inviting, the staff are helpful but not pushy, you can use the displayed devices for as long as you want, children are welcome, questions are answered, lessons are available, and the customer is truly most important. It is an ideal set up for meaningful social interaction and I think churches could take some tips from the store. Come in, ask questions, share, learn, discuss face to face rather than looking at the back of heads in front of you. And all of this is done without pressure or judgment as employees are not allowed to speak negatively about each other or the customer. It reminds me of “The Great Hall” in C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity where people from all walks of life and different “rooms” come to discuss spiritual things together. 

An “Apple store” approach would be useful in getting to know and understand our neighbours from other countries. We all have things in common. The fear-mongering rhetoric concerning immigrants in America and in Great Britain during the recent Brexit referendum is destructive and regressive. We need to find a common table and take time to get to know and value the people in our neighbourhoods. I am proud that Canada continues to accept refugees and immigrants as it has for many years. But it takes work to build friendships and community with mutual respect and trust.





Sunday, June 26, 2016

Summertime


Lake Manitou, Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada- view from our cabin

My childhood summer memories are spread across two hemispheres and much travel. I was born during a summer thunderstorm in January and my Christmas break from school was also our summer holiday. I remember trips from Durban to northern, higher, cooler altitudes during the hottest season as well as weekends at the beach on the Indian Ocean. I had no sense of seasons in South Africa.

In Canada, I enjoy the marked change of seasons but prefer the transitional ones, fall and spring. My perfect calendar would include two months of May and two of September, sacrificing November, December or even July. Some of our best holidays have been in September and October.

Lake Huron at Goderich, Ontario

I love the months we can sleep with the bedroom window open and when going outdoors is comfortable and convenient. Canadian winters are beautiful, treacherous, long and unpredictable. In our area of Ontario, summers are hot and humid and mosquitoes and other biting insects keep me away from my favourite trails. We have stayed in summer cottages in central Ontario where mosquitoes, black flies and deer flies have left us with scores of welts and sleepless nights as whining insects buzz in our ears.

Common Loon on Manitoulin Island

In my opinion, the only place to spend an Ontario summer vacation is on a LARGE body of water where insects are kept away by lake breezes. I love the beaches on Lake Huron and we vacationed at Southampton for several years when our children were small. Now, we usually spend a week on Manitoulin Island, the world's largest freshwater island in Lake Huron. The sound of waves, the call of the loon, the full moon on the water at night all speak the best of summer to me. A Muskoka chair, a good book and a cup of tea at the water's edge is a picture I keep in my mind on stressful days at work.

Inukshuk on the shoreline of Lake Huron at Goderich, Ontario

One thing I would advise my 20-something year old self would be to settle and work in a community on one of the Great Lakes. We are within 1 to 2 hours driving distance of Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron but I would love to experience their moods every day, not just in the summer. Perhaps that will still happen. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sing, Sing a Song

Street Performers, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Birds sing, frogs sing, cicadas sing, mice sing, humans sing. Even if we think we are not musical, our hearts beat and our nervous systems hum. Each community and culture has a musical identity and we learn the nuances of our native rhythms, scales and tones at a very young age. Musical memories are long lasting and are often seated with emotional memories. Learning is enhanced when it is put to music and children learn the alphabet and numbers quickly to song.

Communities are increasingly diverse with a rising number of popular musical genres. My childhood home was filled with music. We all took music lessons and practiced our instruments in the living room. When records were played, everyone shared the experience. Dad listened to classical music on the radio every night after we went to bed and we went to sleep hearing the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin. Now, we are plugged into our individual iPods and seldom share music together. Once in a while I listen to my daughter’s playlist and try to make sense of “ska”, “metal” and other alternative songs that are as familiar to my brain as speaking Punjabi. My brain is too set to become fluent in new language or music styles.

Singsongs in Miramichi NB and Twillingate NL

This past summer we went to Newfoundland, the only Canadian province we had not visited. Newfoundland culture is unique as geographic isolation has allowed language and music to change at a much slower pace than the rest of North America. Communities on The Rock are often remote and all generations work and play together. Newfoundland kitchen parties are common and we attended a couple of them. The events have live music with instruments that range from guitars, fiddles and keyboards to spoons and ugly sticks. There really isn’t much distinction between audience and performers as everyone is free to sing and dance along. I loved Newfoundland and its people and their spontaneous, joyful musical expression.

Every Friday afternoon, a group of “Newfies”, who now live in Ontario, come to the hospital for a singsong with the patients. They play from a book (words only) with at least 100 songs and take requests from the audience. It is a transplanted kitchen party and they sing for a couple of hours at least. I took a patient with early onset advanced dementia to the auditorium when they were singing  “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver. 

“Peter, Paul and Mary,” he said as he sang the words. 

I am always amazed at music memories people retain. Each week we have a drum circle where patients choose a rhythm instrument and sing simple, familiar songs. Even if they don’t know the words, they can carry the beat.

We risk losing a shared musical community in our diverse urban world. The best music experiences link us with others. Christmas carols and songs are one of the few genres of music left that are widely familiar across generational groups in Western culture. Give me a kitchen party, a street party, a performance in a park or a singsong in the hospital. Give me a song I can sing and play too. 

Music on the street in old Montreal PQ

Sing, sing a song
Sing out loud
Sing out strong.
Sing of good things not bad
Sing of happy not sad.

Sing, sing a song
Make it simple to last
your whole life long.
Don't worry that it's not
good enough for anyone
else to hear.
Just sing, sing a song.

Joe Raposo

Monday, June 06, 2016

Unsolicited Advice

Fifty years later...impossible!


I received a five year diary for my twelfth birthday and remember thinking that I would be 17 years old when I finished my entries. Seventeen! I could not image being that old. And so I entered my teen years in the late 1960s.

What would I tell my younger self from my vantage point several decades later? Would I listen to advice, sound or otherwise? The voice of the moment is stronger than voices of experience in the past or future. And that present voice is usually our own. I doubt my younger self would have listened to all these words but this is what I would say.

The world will still be here in 50 years. Don’t stay awake at night worrying about the cold war or the rapture. 

You will continue to be part of a growing family you love and who love you.

You cannot even imagine the changes that will happen in the next half century. Embrace change without fear. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions but be wary of people who think they have all the answers.

Everyone has a story. Take care to listen closely without judging. Be gracious and kind to everyone. There will always be one difficult person in your life and they will help you grow and mature if you are willing to learn. 

Don’t gossip or criticize others. And take great care not to become cynical, bitter or sarcastic. Don’t try to have the last word but know when to walk away from conflict. Live joyfully, peacefully and with contentment.

Most of us resist unsolicited advice. But the impact of stories, film, music and other expressions of popular culture can strongly affect the way we see the world. This song was popular in my teen years and I still have a copy of the Desiderata poem above my desk at work. One of my younger co-workers read it recently and remarked at its wisdom and beauty. She had never heard it before! So here is is to enjoy. I couldn't express advice better than this.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Whiff of Memory

He was diagnosed with dementia several years ago. His high intelligence beforehand, supportive family and set routines allowed him to live alone in his house in the country until recently. He came into hospital with an infection and delirium and is now waiting for a long term care bed. His body is strong and he is accustomed to walking outdoors. The locked unit is confining and frustrating so I try to take him outside for a walk a couple of times a day. He picks up sticks on the lawns and checks the downspouts and drains of the outbuildings. We sit at the lookout over the river and watch the Turkey Vultures circling above. Like many people with dementia, he has lost his nouns, including the names of his children and his deceased wife. I talk about our surroundings and he responds politely with normal conversational cadence and tone but the words he strings together make no sense at all. 

As we walk along a ridge at the back of the property we come upon a sweet, strong smell. I ask him if he knows what it is. 

“Lily-of-the-valley,” he responds without hesitation.

I pick one stalk of fragrant white bells and put it in his buttonhole as we walk back to the locked unit.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Logos and Mythos

Trent Evans was a Canadian involved in making the ice for the hockey tournament at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He secretly placed a “loonie”- our dollar coin- under the surface at centre ice. He did tell the players of the Canadian men and women’s hockey teams about the talisman and both teams went on to win gold medals. The “lucky loonie" was retrieved and is now in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Similar coins have been placed beneath the ice at subsequent international hockey tournaments and the Royal Canadian Mint has released a commemorative edition "lucky loonie" for each Olympic Games since 2004. 

Logic would tell us that the teams won gold medals because of skill and hard work. But adding Mythos to the formula added confidence and initiative which may have contributed to the victory. Having a ritual or physical lucky charm can decrease stress and anxiety, give a more positive focus and an illusion of control. Superstitions can provide meaningful psychological benefit, giving a sense of power thus diminishing negative emotions such as helplessness. 

My best friend from childhood is a tenured professor at a Toronto university who has published several books and is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. We had brunch together this past weekend and she shared how the number “5” or better still, “55” had significant meaning for her. Both of us were born in 1955. When applying for her doctorate program her application form had her special number on it. She sets her alarm for x:55 AM and goes to bed and x:55 PM. When she bought her current home, she knew it was the right place because the street address was “55”.  And of course her vanity license plate includes the number 55. I have known her for over 50 years and was not aware of her private idiosyncrasy. 



Medicine is an interesting field where Logos and Mythos go hand in hand. Medical practitioners are well educated scientifically but patients are emotionally vulnerable and need more than facts. When we visit a doctor we expect a diagnosis, adding great pressure to quickly provide a name for our ailment and a prescription for an appropriate remedy. Imagine going to a doctor and coming out without a diagnosis and a concrete treatment plan! Misdiagnosis is a huge problem and the overprescription of antibiotics and pain medication is at crisis levels. Using inert formulas as medication can bring about real physiological cures in what is known as the placebo effect. Placebos were used frequently when I first worked at a hospital but they are now only given with patient consent, which erases their value in my opinion. Brian Goldman is a Canadian doctor who has an interesting show and podcast on CBC Radio One called “White Coat, Black Art”. He explores the “art” of medicine which has not changed all that much over the millennia. 

Most of us have some interest in mystical and supernatural phenomena. I wrote a post a few years ago about the ghost, Francine, who supposedly haunts our hospital. We blame all unexplained events on her, from call bells that go off in empty rooms to consistently similar visions reported by patients at night. I do not have Logos to accept or refute the presence of ghosts so Mythos prevails.

Is faith different than superstition? Many times religion becomes “religistition” - a mix of faith and superstitious belief and ritual. There are people who seek indulgences, works, or a trail of “signs and wonders” rather than focusing on a faith that quietly sustains the soul in good times and bad. I see God at work around me and use prayer as preparation for my day. But it is easy to slip into rote prayers, expectations of blessings, and pronouncements of finding "God's will".

The human mind is very susceptible to suggestion. Superstitions change the way people behave either by increasing fear and anxiety or by boosting confidence, performance and positive outcomes. Knowledge is a combination of logic and intuitive insight which is not always present in balance. Mythos varies culturally and from person to person and helps explain the gaps in Logos which we all experience. How boring would life be with nothing but logic?

Saturday, May 07, 2016

About Birds, Nests and Caretaking

Male Bobolink in the meadow

One of my favourite places to go birding is a large field in the country that contains five large communication towers. The meadow is fenced and no public access is allowed. It is the only regional place I have found that is home to nesting Bobolinks, Horned Larks, Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows as well as more commonly found birds like Bluebirds, Savannah Sparrows, Killdeer and Goldfinches. Bobolinks are very hard to find and their overall numbers have decreased 74% since the 1960s mainly because of loss of meadow land. They build their nests on the ground and raise one or two broods a season. I took this picture of a male last May when they returned from wintering in South America.

I visited the area one evening in June and was horrified to see that the field had been mowed. The land had not been touched in the several years I had been coming here. Large round bales of meadow grasses and flowers were scattered about and the lack of bird song created an eerie silence. I took one picture and left quickly, very upset that bird habitat was destroyed during nesting season, just for cattle feed. 

Bobolink meadow mowed and baled

We have a lot of farmland surrounding our city. The main crops are corn and soybeans and mixed farms are scarce except among the Old Order Mennonite community. Corn and soybean fields line the roadways kilometer after kilometer.  Corn crops are mainly used for animal feed, ethanol, and processed corn products. Soybeans are also used for animal feed and processed foods. With all the soybeans grown in the area, I cannot buy a single fresh pod of  fresh edamame anywhere because the entire crop is sold through a marketing board before it is planted.

Corn, corn and more corn across the road from the Bobolink meadow

More than half of the grain crop in North America is used for livestock feed, in other words, for meat and dairy production. Factory farming methods have contributed to ecological destruction in other ways. Single commodity crops require large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides which in turn contaminate water supplies and likely contribute to recent declines in pollinator insects. Animals raised in factory farms are given antibiotics routinely and this adds in part to increasing antibiotic resistance. Cattle produce significant amounts of green house gases (methane) and factory farmed animals produce huge amounts of untreated fecal waste.

In 2006 the United Nations produced a report called Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. It claimed, among other things, that livestock create 18% of green house gases which is more than all types of motor vehicles combined. The report is available online or you can read the Wikipedia summary at the link above.

Seven years ago I decided to stop eating meat, mainly for health reasons. I also decreased my dairy intake significantly and the benefits to my well-being were significant. Over time, I continued to abstain from animal products for the good of the environment and for the welfare of the animals themselves. My husband is a meat eater and the dog will not eat vegetables so we have animal products on our grocery list. But our meals are mostly plant based and we try to buy meat and cheese locally, using it sparingly. It is unrealistic to think that the whole world will become vegan but even modest reductions in processed foods and animal products can make a big difference to the environment.

Local Old Order Mennonite farmer harvesting corn on his small mixed farm

I realize our household carbon footprint is still too large. We continue to look for ways to contribute to better environmental and social practices that will make a difference to earth and its inhabitants in future generations. The issues are complex and are different in third world nations than in first world nations. Our demand for inexpensive food, clothing, and other "throw-away" possessions is detrimental to the earth and to the workers in developing nations.

This documentary contains much of the information contained in the 2006 United Nations report on livestock. The first ten minutes or so outline the basic concepts that are discussed.



“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species -- man -- 
acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world. ” 
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Monday, May 02, 2016

Spring Horse Auction



We have the most interesting year-round markets in our region, the largest being the St Jacobs Farmers Market which is north of the city. On Friday and Saturday, a large horse auction was held on the grounds of the market. This is a significant event for the region's Old Order Mennonite population and they came in large numbers. The horses I saw auctioned were sold in the three to four thousand dollar range. It is not unusual for a larger buggy to be pulled by two horses making their transportation costs similar to the purchase of a used car. 

I find it interesting to watch the Old Order Mennonite children. They are well behaved and participate in adult activities without complaint or special attention. I also had to smile when I heard the descriptions of the horses before they were led into the ring. Some were featured as "buggy broke" "church broke" and "traffic broke" along with their age, parentage and current owner. 

I didn't have much time to linger on Saturday after we did our market shopping but managed to take enough photos to put this short movie/slide show together.