Monday, July 25, 2016

Light Parables

We are on summer vacation, a vacation I was reluctant to take. Life has been busy and I felt too tired to organize meals and household necessities needed for a week-long stay in a "rustic" cabin at a fishing camp. The world seems like such a dark place right now. Bad news stories overwhelm the media and social civility is at a low level. I decided to forego news and social media for a week and to spend time rejuvenating my soul and spirit in nature. My outlook has brightened significantly already!

Solar lights are situated at the edges of the deck of our cabin. The lake breezes keep mosquitoes away even after sunset making it comfortable to sit outside. Darkness is intense away from a city and the light from the small solar cell is surprisingly bright. I think Jesus would have told a parable about a solar light rather than an oil lamp if he was giving sermons on earth today. Energy from the source of light is stored and then reflected in rays that represent all facets of life. Light is always stronger than darkness. In that little solar light I see an image of what I need to be;- a light in the darkness caused by illness, grief, fear, pessimism and hopelessness. 

The full moon was a week ago and the moon rises later each night making it visible in the daytime. I like to see moonlight on the water but that will not happen while we are here this year. The moon also gets its light from the sun and reflects it to the earth. 

 We sat in a cemetery outside the city on September 27, 2015 and watched the full eclipse of the moon. The earth moved between the sun and the moon causing the moon to darken completely. It is not surprising that ancient people feared such an event when they did not have the scientific knowledge to understand what was happening. If negative circumstances and cares of life block us from our light source, we too can become "darkened" in spirit. Losing our power source in today's world can happen subtly and finding it again requires self-reflection and rebalancing of priorities. And that is my goal for this week.

"You are the light of the world.
 A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, 
but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
 "Let your light shine before men in such a way 
that they may see your good works, 
and glorify your Father who is in heaven. 
 Matthew 5:14-16


Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Light, Darkness, Hope and Despair

She sat in the chair with her knees to her chest and her feet on the seat. She was so thin it seemed possible to fold her up and put her in an envelope. Her struggle with anxiety had gone on for decades and she craved medication more than food. Multiple investigations in the hospital revealed no specific pathology but she was too ill to function on her own.

He sat on the ground, his deformed, paralyzed legs folded beneath him. Spina bifida had left him this way from birth. He moved around in the dirt, pushing and lifting his body with his strong arms. He had no wheelchair or mobility aid. I watched as he sat in the shade in the courtyard of his home, singing and playing his guitar to no one in particular. Contented and part of a family and community in a poor Mexican fishing village, he had no complaints. 

All creatures are designed to survive in the best of times and the worst of times. It is normal to store fat in times of plenty to sustain life in times of famine. Animals, birds and other creatures are in a constant struggle with the elements and predators. Humans have always dealt with uncertainty. Natural disasters, wars, economic crashes, plagues and other illnesses have been present throughout recorded history. The human spirit is resilient and heroic human behaviour is usually born in adversity. Challenge and struggle is necessary to attain our full potential and strength;- emotionally, spiritually and physically. 

Canada is a country free of war and famine, a country with free medical care and social assistance. We have a democratic government and a fair judicial system. We have a better standard of living than the majority of people in the world, past and present. Most people I know are generally happy but there is an undercurrent of cynicism, criticism and dissatisfaction in our affluent society that is pervasive and destructive. Too many people struggle with addiction, depression, anxiety, lifestyle related illness, autoimmune diseases and a lack of purpose and hope. It is as if we expect life to be perfect making it difficult to cope with adversity in a healthy way. 

I watched a discussion recently where Bono and Eugene Peterson discuss the Psalms. In it, Bono says: “I would love if this conversation would inspire people who are writing these beautiful voices and writing these beautiful gospel songs — write a song about their bad marriage, write a song about how they’re pissed off at the government, because that’s what God wants from you. That truth — ‘the way, the truth’ — and that truthfulness — know the truth, ‘the truth will set you free’ — will blow things apart.”

Praise is meaningless if we have never experienced pain. We cannot appreciate light without experiencing darkness. It is important to face trouble with honesty and hope, not blame and cynicism. We need to make sure our children learn early that life is not always easy, maturity develops though adversity, and that perseverance is essential. Happiness and fulfillment comes from an attitude of gratitude, cultivating meaningful relationships, proper care of the body and soul, having achievable goals, and developing the ability to handle stress. 

Steve Bell is one of my favourite musicians (as well as being a Canadian) and I find his lyrics very meaningful and honest. Here is part of his adaptation of Psalm 90.

Psalm 90- Steve Bell 

Satisfy us in the morning with Your love
That we may sing for joy
And be glad in all our days
Satisfy us in the morning with Your love

Match the days Lord of our sorrow with Your joy
May Your deeds be always known
To the ones you call your own
Match the days Lord of our sorrow with Your joy

May the favour of the Lord
Rest upon us and our land
And establish for us all
The work of our hands

Yes the work of our hands

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.

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?