Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Reunions and Holding Space

The woman had a rapidly progressing, early onset dementia. She was admitted to hospital for assessment and was deemed incapable to live on her own. Her son had power of attorney but lived far away and his work obligations prevented regular visits.  She never mentioned any other family members. 

I saw a young couple standing nervously outside the locked door of the unit. I offered assistance and asked who they were coming to visit. The young man said he was the youngest son of this same woman. He had not seen her in over ten years even though he lived nearby. He was uncertain of the reception his mother would give him. I offered to tell her that he was there and would gauge her response to his name. She was a cheery person who retained her social graces and had no objections to having visitors. I led him to the room for their reunion and watched with emotion as he said anxiously,  

“Hi Mom, it’s me, Kevin.” 
I could tell she did not know who he was but she was able to cover her memory loss well. 
“How nice to see you!”, she said. 
They visited for a while, the conversation superficial and without much meaning.

I never asked what events caused the estrangement between mother and son in the first place. Every immediate or extended family experiences discord at one time or another but it is sad to see ongoing hostility and lack of forgiveness involving a parent and child.

I read an excellent article recently by Heather Plett on What it Means to Hold Space for People. (It is also worthwhile to read the follow up links at the bottom of the page). She writes,

“What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

What a beautiful concept! But it can be very hard to implement. Reunions would be so different without the judgements of others, real or perceived, causing us to be self-conscious and uneasy. 

How do I look? 
Am I successful? 
I feel stupid compared to _____! 
Why is that person avoiding me? 
I still can’t stand_______ even though I haven’t seen them in 20 years!

The candle holder in the picture above is from Ten Thousand Villages and is made of soapstone by artisans in Kenya. To me, it illustrates the ability to hold space in spite of different experiences, life choices, ideas and values while maintaining a connected relationship with others. Recently, it feels like our society is moving further away from this concept causing people to feel manipulated, judged and controlled. 

All I can do is work on changing my own attitude, thereby increasing my ability to hold space for others.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Québec City by Calèche

My first calèche ride, Québec City 1972

Grandma took me on a bus tour of Québec the summer I was seventeen and she was seventy-seven. My mother had taken the same route with her when she was a teenager. Grandma wanted me to ride a calèche in Québec City and see the birds on Percé Rock, far east of the big cities. Everyone on the bus called her Grandma by the end of the two week trip. There was only one other passenger my age who was travelling with her parents but we all had a great time. 

I took our daughters to Québec in 1998 when they were teenagers and told them Grandma’s stories. I re-read her copies of The Golden Dog by William Kirby and Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon. We went to Halifax and Prince Edward Island instead of Percé but stayed a few days at Ste. Anne de Beaupré as a base for our exploration of the Québec City area. And we toured the city by calèche.

Québec City 1998

Last month my husband and I visited Montreal and Québec City for a few days. Both cities are rich in the history and culture of Europe and the New World. We walked the upper and lower sections of Old Québec City and took the ferry to Lévis on the other side of the St. Lawrence River. We had some extra time on the last day and decided to take a tour of the upper city by calèche for Grandma. The limestone buildings and the Plains of Abraham were warmed by the low sun of a September afternoon and our driver chatted amicably with his lilting French accent. So much has changed and so much has not changed in the past forty-four years since I was seventeen. 

September 2016

The slide show has a short video clip in the middle of our horse-drawn tour through the old walled city. One thing that has changed dramatically over the years is the quality of cameras. I have 12 faded colour snapshots of the two week trip we took in 1972.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Outside or Inside the Cup?

Old Order Mennonites at the St Jacobs, Ontario Horse Auction

The monthly horse auction was held on the grounds of our large farmers’ market yesterday. I drove up in the early afternoon to get some apples and noticed more Old Order Mennonites around than usual before I remembered that it was the last Saturday of the month. In our region we hardly look twice when we pass a horse and buggy on the roadway. General stores in the surrounding towns and villages sell hats, suspenders, and dress materials that identify members of our Old Order communities. Our neighbourhood in the city is home to an increasing number of Moslem and Sikh families. They too are easily identified by their clothing styles. 

Toronto Hipsters
We have a natural tendency to quickly judge people by their outward appearance and gravitate toward those who look most like ourselves.  My high schools did not enjoy much ethnic diversity in the 1960s and 70s, but we knew how to sight a “hoodlum” or a “hippie”. Today’s hipsters are identified by their facial hair, plaid shirts, skinny pants, footwear and lifestyle choices. Tattoos and piercings are trendy right now even though I shudder think what they will look like on crepey 80 year old skin in the future. 

I have learned that you cannot judge a book by its cover. Inner character takes more time to assess. I am reading a book that was a 1913 best seller called “The Inside of the Cup” by American author, Winston Churchill. The title is based on Matthew 23:26 where Jesus says, 

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.” 

It is hard to believe the book is over 100 years old as the themes are so current. The exterior is often a poor representation of the true inner person. 

Recently, I was helping a nurse provide morning care to one of our patients with dementia. We were assailed with an angry torrent of racist, sexist and other crude language as well as attempts to hit, scratch and punch. Frontal lobe function does diminish with age-related brain atrophy and dementias but other patients remain sweet and kind in their confusion. From my non-scientific observations, the inner person will be revealed eventually. Hidden anger, anxiety, fear, racism, greed and hatred is uncovered when social graces diminish. Conversely, an inner character marked with love, patience, generosity and acceptance of others does not diminish with age. In this internet age, the outer appearance is hidden, but words and ideas identify the tribe. It is a challenge to wade through the rhetoric but we must check the source and context before we pass judgement.

A contact of mine posted a picture of the church bulletin where he attended today.  

Tribal markings will always exist but it is worthwhile to assess the inside first, starting with ourselves. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Scars and Tenacity

Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

She is the same age as me and has been a patient at the hospital for over 100 days. We walked outside in the late summer sunshine as she shared her story. Whether all the details were exactly true or not doesn’t matter as past memories are easily distorted by emotion and time. 

“I have gone through life with a pickaxe, pulling myself up a rock face,” she said. 

Above average intelligence, education, and good looks did not smooth the scarring from abusive relationships, years of mental and physical illness, job loss and community disconnection. Life was a struggle but she was still fighting to make it to the summit. She talked about life “outside the village” and her “misfit” faith which was not understood in any church she had attended.   

I marvelled at her insight and her inability to find an easier route on her journey. Surely there was a paved road somewhere on that mountain. In comparison, my life is a peaceful cruise in a small, seaworthy vessel. I have encountered a few storms but the sun quickly appears through the clouds as I follow the beautiful shoreline.

We live in a country that is at peace, with good social services and free medical care. I have no metaphors for the life journeys of people who live where there is war, who are displaced and surviving without their basic needs being met. Every day I see how unexpected illness and injury can change the world of an individual or family. My life could be altered in an instant too. We never know when we might need that pickaxe.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Vice and Virtue

"Ruth is getting over a mild case of whooping cough. 
It has never affected her liveliness or her appetite. 
She eats like a little pig, a whole BIG banana every afternoon 
and then she cries for more. 
She loves her toes now and chews them 
with or without her boots on…"

Grandma T. kept every “aerogram” sent to Canada from my parents in South Africa. They are neatly numbered in an old Ganong's Chocolates box and my aunt graciously gave them to me a couple of years ago. I was born abroad and every little detail of my development was shared by my proud parents. A common theme in all the letters was my voracious appetite and my astounding rate of growth. The quote above was written by my mother in letter #37 when I was nearly six months old. It is obvious that I was born a glutton. I love bananas to this day, and thankfully still have ten toes.

We were challenged this week to write about which of the Seven Deadly Sins we are most guilty of. 
The medieval list;-

lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and hubris, 

seems a little repetitive in my opinion and could be summarized in three words, 

Overindulgence, laziness and malice.

I am guilty of all of them. They may not always be evident in my external behaviour, but if you could read my thoughts sometimes…

In truth, all human conflict is rooted in these vices whether it is a major war or a conflict at home or work. Self-centredness and taking personal offence can ruin our happiness, whether it is getting angry at a perceived inequity or getting in an argument with someone who has a different perspective or opinion than our own.

In spite of my faults, I prefer to focus on the seven virtues;-

chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, 
patience, kindness, and humility. 

Chastity has a deeper meaning than sexual purity and includes caring well for one’s body, knowledge, wisdom, and honesty. It abhors ignorance, hostility, and corruption. 

Virtue abounds in our world but vice gets far more press time. Nurturing virtue--personally, in our homes, careers, communities and nation is more of a challenge than simply calling out the short-comings of others. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Lessons on Staying Young

I see the worst of physical and cognitive aging every day in my work at a hospital. It is easy to feel disheartened and believe that this is the inevitable pathway to death. I seldom see people who age well as they do not enter the doors of our facility as patients.

I will share the stories of two people, born in the same year, who inspire me with their energy, passion and joie de vivre. 

Jim and Margaret Atwood in Mexico

Margaret Atwood is a prolific Canadian writer and poet who has published many successful novels, short stories, poetry collections and more. Her first graphic novel, Angel Catbird, is to be released September 6th after next weekend's Fan Expo Canada in Toronto. I follow her Twitter feed and drink her signature, bird-friendly coffee from Balzak’s.  (Her graphic novel explores the relationship between cats and songbirds.) She is a passionate environmentalist, feminist, and humanitarian. A good friend of mine met her at a writer’s conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico a few years ago. She posed with him in the photo above. She is not slowing down in her mid-70’s and is an inspiration to younger generations of writers and artists. Our youngest daughter Becka, has a table at Fan Expo and is selling her own comic books and art. She hopes to have an encounter with Ms. Atwood and purchase her new book. 

Aunt Ruth, in blue, with co-workers at her birthday party

I have a special aunt who shares my name. She has the busiest social calendar around and is a talented musician. She works for an insurance company in Toronto and commutes downtown four days a week. Her co-workers put on a big party for her 75th birthday. This year, the company sent her to Nashville TN to celebrate her next, or maybe next birthday. Did I mention she is a big NASCAR fan? She has known joy and grief and life has not been without struggles. But she is resilient, with the  gift of laughter and the making and keeping of friends. Her co-workers wrote the following comments on her birthday card.

“Your zest for life in an inspiration to us all” 
 “Happy birthday to a young team member” 
“You are so amazing! I want to be like you when I grow up”  
“You are such a joy to have on the team” 
Keep that young heart beating” 
  “Looking forward to working with you over the next year”.

I have written about ageism and our tendency to segregate people by birthdate. It starts early in preschool, ends in nursing homes and is pervasive in churches. I have the privilege of working with many young millennials and our age differences are insignificant. As a team we complete the tasks and goals of the day. Sometimes I get to be “Work Mom” to younger colleagues when asked for advice or a shoulder to cry on. Every generation has something to offer to those younger and older than themselves.  

I posted the poem Youth by Samuel Ullman earlier today. It deserves its own reading and expresses so many truths about chronological age vs functional age. Even when the body slows down and faculties dim, we can be young at heart.

Doubt, fear, despair, pessimism and cynicism age people who are 20 or 80.
Faith, hope, self-confidence, optimism, and wonder keep us young at any age. 

YOUTH by Samuel Ullman

Youth is not a time of life - it is a state of mind,
it is a temper of the will,
a quality of the imagination,
a vigour of the emotions, 
a predominance of courage over timidity, 
of the appetite for adventure over love of ease. 

Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. 
People grow old only by deserting their ideals. 
Years wrinkle the skin, 
but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. 
Worry, doubt, self-distrust, 
fear and despair - these are the long, 
long years that bow the head 
and turn the growing spirit back to dust. 

Whether they are sixteen or seventy, 
there is in every being's heart 
the love of wonder, 
the sweet amazement at the stars 
and starlike things and thoughts, 
the undaunted challenge of events, 
the unfailing childlike appetite 
for what is to come next, 
and the joy and the game of life. 

You are as young as your faith, 
as old as your doubt; 
as young as your self-confidence, 
as old as your fear, 
as young as your hope, 
as old as your despair. When the wires are all down 
and all the innermost core of your heart 
is covered with the snows of pessimism 
and the ice of cynicism, 
then you are grown old indeed. 

But so long as your heart receives messages 
of beauty, cheer, courage, grandeur 
and power from the earth, 
from man and from the Infinite, 
so long you are young. 

This is posted as background for my next blog post.
I looked to see if the poem is copyrighted but several different versions
 are widely available on the web.  I like this one best.

Saturday, August 20, 2016


Sun and shadow shroud the cliffs of the Grand Canyon as a
   Condor soars on air currents high above the Colorado River.
The San Francisco peaks are on the horizon but you cannot
   hear clanging cable cars, 
      see the Golden Gate Bridge or
         feel the ghosts of Alcatraz in the same-named city.

Pacific waters ripple over my feet in British Columbia, Ventura,
   and remote Mexican beaches with pelicans.
Cold Atlantic waves chill me in Newfoundland, Fundy, Rhode Island, 
   and New York City by the Statue of Liberty.
I stand atop Sulphur Mountain, Mount Washington, and float in the fault that
   holds the Dead Sea.

We cross Canada by land and sea from Victoria to Cape Spear, 
   over mountains, through prairies and forests, 
      and hear a loon laugh, the moon mirrored on a quiet lake. 
I listen to music in concert halls, on streets, in the hum of markets
   in Boston, Vancouver, Jerusalem, Guadalajara,
      and at home.

I ride a camel, travel by air, ocean liner, train, bicycle, bus 
   and drive California State Route 1.
History beckons from castles, cathedrals, communities, 
   and the Alamo.
Our world is large, yet closer, smaller and more
   accessible in modern times.

I watch a bright yellow Goldfinch tentatively
   remove a seed from a dead flower in my garden and
      wash it down with a sip from the bird bath beside me.
The search for beauty, relationship, rest, holiness,
   amidst the clamour of life brings
      a holiday for my soul.