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


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.