I must admit to being, somewhat, reluctant to post anything today because it is April Fools Day. My thinking was that if I posted something today….and, I do like to post on Mondays…..that you would all be reading along in breathless anticipation, waiting for the moment when this post turned into one, big joke. The problem that I have with that is that I am not an epic prankster. I am not good at pulling the legs of those closest to me. When I have tried to do so in the past, my efforts have ended up being more cruel than humour-filled. So, over time, I adapted by not playing April Fools jokes but, instead, by willingly playing the fool.
In classrooms all across Canada, children are entering their school armed with plastic vomit or poop props, rubber spiders or sticky notes that they will try to place on their teacher’s back by giving an exaggerated hug. None of their jokes are ever any good but, to them, they are hilarious. In most cases, plans have been hatched in the schoolyard so these jokes are never played out in private but, instead, in front of an eager audience, ready put one over on the person who carries authority in their world. There was a time, early in my career, when I would challenge the kids to try and fool me but because they never could, they never seemed to get the pleasure out of the experience that they should have. So, as I matured as a teacher, I relaxed when it came to April 1st. In later years, I would actually peer over my shoulder when someone cried out, “Look! There’s a spider about to land on you, Mr. MacInnes!” As I turned to look, the kids would smile and laugh and think that they were incredibly clever and funny.
As my career progressed, I came to view April Fools Day with affection. I knew that the months that I had spent building up a trusting relationship with these children would bear fruit on days such as this. Their simple jokes were only played because the kids felt safe enough to do so. They trusted me not to over-react in a negative or violent way. They cared enough to stray from the regular academic routine in the hopes of creating a personal memory for themselves, with me as the star of their show. In the end, I took these pranks for the compliment that they were. In turn, I never did anything sillier than switching desks around on them or hiding their chairs and saying they’d been taken for repairs by the custodian so everyone was going to have to work standing up that day and so on. Nothing cruel or hurtful in the name of comedy; especially when it comes to the trusting nature of a child.
I truly believe in the therapeutic nature of a good belly laugh. I, especially, enjoy the sound of children laughing freely and honestly from the bottom of their bellies. Life is good when you can see the humour in it. So, my wish for everyone today is that you find your jokes funny and that, if your jokes come from the mind of someone you love, that you shed tears of joy borne from shared laughter. As that noted comedic mind from days of yore, Thomas Aquinas, is quoted as saying, “It is requisite for the relaxation of the mind that we make use, from time to time, of playful deeds and jokes.”
Have a happy April Fools Day, my friends.
PS: just for your information, our kitchen is almost finished. I am just waiting for our window treatments to come in and be installed and then we are done. I have been promised that they will be ready today or tomorrow. So, hopefully, by the end of the week, I will be ready to share with you all, our kitchen transformation, from beginning to end.
After that, I will be creating a post about the family who sent me those beautiful sleigh bells at Christmas time. I promised the man who runs MagicalBells.com that I would “repay” him for the bell by sharing his family’s story with my friends via this blog.
Beyond that, my writing slate is wide open. If there is anything you wish for me to write about, don’t hesitate to make a suggestion in the comment section of this post or, any other post, for that matter. Until then, have a super day and thanks for being readers of this blog. I appreciate your support.
I am alone in the living room. It is evening. It is Friday but, it could just as easily be Tuesday. I don’t know what time it is but, then again, it doesn’t really matter because I have stopped looking at clocks. I know that it is evening because it is getting dark outside.
I am alone in my own home for the first time since March 12th. That was the last day my daughters went to school and the last day my wife taught at her school. March 13th was to be the start of Spring Break for Keri and for the girls. In past years, we had spent the weeks prior to Spring Break compiling lists of places to go, jobs needing to be done and people we wanted to visit. In 2020, we compiled a list that was 15-items long. Everyone was excited about having the week off from the normal routine. All we needed was for Keri to come home and then, Spring Break could officially start.
At 4:00pm, the announcement came. Corona Virus wasn’t just a problem for China or Italy anymore. It was now starting to wash up on Canada’s shores, too. Leah, who was on-line, got the breaking bulletin first: she and Sophie and all of their friends were not going back to school after Spring Break. With that announcement, new words entered our vocabulary: social-distancing, quarantine, self-isolation, lockdown. New words that signalled the start of a new way of having to live our lives.
March 12th at 3:45pm was the last time Keri was truly alone, too. She left her school with sunny thoughts in her mind. Like most teachers, she was tired from all that goes into being a teacher and was looking forward to some time off for fun and relaxation with her family and her friends. As she drove home, she did so with the radio blaring. Her protective bubble of innocence lasted until she arrived home. As she climbed out of her car, she was met by Sophie, our version of the town crier, informing her that schools were closed for three weeks. Keri had no idea at that moment what Sophie was talking about.
Spring Break 2020 ended for us before it even began. As the enormous scale of the pandemic started becoming apparent to everyone, our Spring Break to-do list fell to pieces. One by one, Leah’s speaking engagements were cancelled, as Long Term Care facilities sealed off their residents from the outside world. Leah lost all ten speaking engagements and, with it, $400.00 that she would have made. That’s a lot of money for a thirteen year old girl to lose. But, that was just the beginning.
Much to her delight, Sophie’s dental appointment was cancelled. Much to her chagrin, Keri’s hair appointment was cancelled. The Royal Ontario Museum closed its doors thus, cancelling our outing to see the Winnie the Pooh exhibit. All of the libraries in our area shut down before Leah could get there to stock up on books. My hair appointment was cancelled before I could get in. Several medical appointments I had all fell by the wayside, one by one by one. The biggest blow came when we had to postpone the trip to the battlefields of Europe, scheduled for the first week of June, for Leah, my father-in-law and me. One ironic thing that did actually happen was that Leah found a dress to wear for her Grade 8 Graduation ceremony, slated for the end of June.
During that last week of school, I had a sense that something may be heading Canada’s way, based on the news coming out of China and out of Italy. The talk of lockdowns was widespread on social media. Consequently, I spent my last week alone, trying to be pro-active while I could. I bought extra pasta and sauce. I bought two packages of toilet paper. I bought chicken noodle soup for Sophie. I bought a lot of things that, as it turned out, were not what I should have been buying. That is one of the real lessons of this pandemic: life is very different now and much of what we valued before has next to no value during a lockdown. For instance, I made a point to fill the gas tank on my car and then, to withdraw several hundred dollars from the bank so I would have cash on hand in case of an emergency. I never thought that I would hardly be driving my car because there was nowhere to really go. I never thought that stores would ban cash. But, they did. The cash I withdrew is just so much Monopoly money right now. Btw, for what it is worth, the price of gas has dropped almost 40% in a month. Too bad most of us can’t really take advantage.
If I could live that last week before Spring Break over again, knowing what I know now, I would have stocked up on those latex gloves I saw at Home Depot…..24 gloves for $12.00 at the time. We have one(!) latex glove to our name, as I type these words. I ordered some from Walmart.ca for $50.00 the other day. The same can be said for facial masks. I never knew the abbreviation “PPE” before but, now we all do. Personal Protective Equipment is the difference between life and death for our front-line medical workers and, with each passing day, it is becoming the same for us, as regular citizens, trying to go about our business in the new reality of our lives. A dear friend recently offered to sew masks for anyone who wanted them. I asked for one for each of my family members. I pick them up this Monday. We will join the growing chorus of public mask wearers when we go for our daily family walks or I go to the grocery store for our milk and fruit.
On March the 12th, our lives were filled with possibilities and the world was at our beck and call. Now, our world has been limited to the physical boundaries of our property. We cannot do what we want. We cannot go where we want. We are now living lives of small measures and careful movements. There are no hugs, except those we give to each other. People cross the street to avoid being near us. We have to line up for food at the grocery store…all of us, six feet apart…in lines that stretch down the block. Each day, there are new restrictions on our movement. Public places, like parks and beaches, have been closed. Very soon, there will be no place to go except your own home. Our world shrinks as the pandemic grows.
I was not surprised when the announcement came on the 12th that schools were to be closed. But, I am surprised to my core, at how quickly the humanity has been wrenched from our lives. My girls can no longer hold their beloved Gramma’s hand when they see her. In fact, our visits are now conducted at arm’s length, from two ends of a phone line or from the top of the steps to the bottom. Sophie created this message in her bedroom after we told her that she could no longer cuddle with Gramma.
As for my mother, like all of seniors in retirement residences, she is confined to her room almost every minute of every day. As small as my world has become, hers is infinitely smaller. Aside from what she sees on TV, she has no contact with the outside world. She relies completely on the hard-working staff where she lives. As I write these words, she is healthy. If that changes, I am not sure if I could even make it down to Nova Scotia because all flights into Sydney, where she lives, are cancelled. Even if I made it down, I would probably not be able to see her. Depending on how long this pandemic-inspired lockdown lasts, there is a reasonable chance that I will never see my mother alive again.
So, like everyone else in the world, our social contact has been reduced to what we can manage via technology. In Ma’s case, technology takes the form of a telephone. Because neither of us are doing grand things, our calls basically amount to me telling her that the four of us are all healthy and doing well. She tells me, in reply, that she is fine and that I shouldn’t worry. We always end our calls by saying “I love you” to each other.
My wife, who is not a fan of technology, has been learning to video-conference with her staff at her school. She is working harder than I have ever seen her, trying to help her colleagues prepare to begin distance-learning and helping families of kids on her Special Education caseload, prepare as well. Leah has gone old-school and has decided to write letters and send them in the mail (which is still up and running). She has been thoughtful about this and has started writing, first, to people who find themselves alone so that they might have a little socializing to brighten their day. Sophie has Face-timed with a few of her classmates but, other than that, she just pines for the physical comfort that used to be brought into her life by Gramma. None of us want to live in a world without hugs.
Almost a month has passed since that momentous announcement at 4:00pm on March the 12th that changed all of our lives. In that time, we have sought to bring as much normalcy to our days as we can. The girls asked to have school at home. So, “Mr. MacInnes” has come out of retirement. I had the girls go through the Ontario curriculum for their grades and highlight some skills/topics they had not covered yet. From there, I have started teaching two of the best students I have ever had! Sophie started by learning about the organ systems of the human body. Leah has started with History of Canada and, specifically, with First Contact scenarios as seen from the differing perspectives of those involved. Both girls have been contacted by their classroom teachers and are getting set to begin Distance-Learning next week. Both are curious to see how that goes and both are hopeful that they will be able to re-connect with their classmates, even if it is limited to thumbnails on a computer screen. Both have, also, asked me to be on stand-by should Distance-Learning prove too easy.
Breakfast. School. Lunch. A family walk. House/yard work that may or may not get done. Supper. Phone call to Gramma and Poppa. Social media/reading/TV time. Bedtime. Wake up in the morning and repeat. That is the extent of our lives now, one month removed from the lives we used to live.
The girls have gone to bed now. Keri is downstairs watching a comedy on TV. I hear her laughing. Her laughter has always been one of my favourite sounds. She says she sleeps better having laughed before retiring for the night.
And so, I find myself alone.
I don’t really like the life I am living now but, I do recognize how fortunate I am, as well as, so many of my family and friends are, too. As small as life has become, our lives continue to be rich simply because we remain healthy. An unlabored breath has replaced cash as the currency of value in our world. Although I tremble inside with every small cough I have or every throat tickle I experience, the truth is, I am fine. Those I love are fine. We are lucky to be able to say that in a world where so many can no longer pause their coughing fits nor draw a deep breath.
As March stretched out to an eternity, surprising people emerged as our leaders and heroes. I bow down in gratitude to those medical workers who are working to the point of exhaustion and, even death, to help those in the grip of the Corona Virus. I am so incredibly grateful to every grocery store cashier, stock person, trucker and cleaner who helps to keep food available for my family. I love my girl’s teachers. Sophie’s school staff drove by our house in their cars the other day to remind everyone of the personal relationships that so strongly existed mere weeks ago. Leah’s staff just posted a montage-style video of each of them saying hello to their students, including my daughter who, even though she is in Grade 8, smiled when she saw her teacher appear on screen. I would love to shake the hand of our postal carrier and our garbage guys. Thanks, as well, to all of the independent business owners who have completely re-oriented their stores and made online shopping possible. Whenever we can, we have sought to order from local stores and restaurants as a way of expressing our thanks to them for continuing to be there for us.
Beyond our town, I have watched housebound Italians serenading each other from their balconies. I have watched movie stars, authors and poets reading aloud from children’s books and from Shakespeare. Singers have put on live concerts. Some landlords have begun forgiving the rent of their out-of-work tenants. In Canada, our Prime Minster, Justin Trudeau, has spoken to the country every day, even while his own wife was stricken with the Corona Virus and he was forced into self-isolation in his home. Canada has been lucky in that we have had steady leadership when it has mattered most and that, for much of the time, that leadership has crossed partisan lines.
Keri just laughed at something she has seen on television. It made me smile.
In her bedroom, Sophie remains awake. She is working on a special project for her Gramma that involves the crafting of miniature hats made out of toilet paper tubes and coloured yarn. Each hat will end up forming the letters in a sign she is making that will say, “Happy Birthday, Gramma”. She has made over 100 little, tiny hats so far. Each hat is filled with Sophie’s love for her Gramma. Gramma’s birthday is at the end of June.
In the morning, we will awaken to the sounds of birds singing. The sun will be shining. The day will begin anew.
But, for now, I am alone.
I will luxuriate in these precious moments because since March 12th, I, like all of you, have become a citizen of the world. Prior to that, my world was comprised of my hopes and dreams and opinions. Now, as this pandemic is making so abundantly clear, my dreams never really existed in a realm of their own. No, what Covid-19 has shown in such a powerful way is how borders don’t matter and wealth doesn’t really matter because this virus will find you anywhere, no matter how simple a life you have lead or how powerful you may believe yourself to be. In every nation where the Corona Virus has hit, doctors and nurses have given their lives fighting it. In every country in the world, elderly family members have died alone. In every country, people have sang and danced and engaged in an endless parade of acts of selflessness and kindness toward those they love and strangers they have encountered. The hashtags are all true…..#weareinthistogether.
I may be alone in my home but, I now know that I have never really been alone. I am part of something far grander. And, so are you. We are in this fight together. And, when this is all over, I can guarantee you that there will be hugs.
Today is Wednesday, February 19, 2020. It is “I Read Canadian” Day. For the first time ever, Canada is honouring all of the authors and illustrators who have published books in Canada over the years. The effort to promote the Canadian Book Publishing Industry has been organized by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, children’s author, Eric Walters, CANSCAIP (the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers), as well as, The Ontario Library Association.
There is much to be proud of, as Canadians, when it comes to our nation’s literary canon. Our stories paint a vivid picture of who we are as Canadians and help to share the physical beauty of our country with the world. As citizens, we owe a debt of gratitude to all of the men and women who have put pen to paper on our behalf. My post today is meant to act as one, small payment that has come due.
The focus of today’s post is going to be a listing of Canadian Picture books and Chapter books that have played an important part in my classrooms over the years. I have been retired for almost two years now but, many of my most cherished memories that I have as a teacher came as a result of the books I read aloud to my students. I was so fortunate to have such rich resources to draw upon in the promotion of literacy and in helping children discover the magic of a story well told. So, here, in no particular order, are some of the best of the best Canadian books that I had the very great privilege of reading aloud.
15- The Secret Life of Owen Skye/Dear Sylvia/After Sylvia
The Secret Life of Owen Skye was the first book in a trilogy that included Dear Sylvia and After Sylvia, too. These wonderful chapter books were written by Alan Cumyn. The series revolved around the Skye Family who, like most families, have their share of secrets, rivalries, shared traditions and various ups and downs that Life tended to throw their way. I liked how Mr. Cumyn allowed life to unfold for this family in an unhurried, very natural manner. There are no zombies, time portals or machine guns in this series. I, especially, like the tenderness with which he allowed Owen and Sylvia to explore the nature of the affection they feel for each other. Overall, a wonderful, wholesome, funny look at family life.
14- The Name of the Tree
The Name of the Tree by Celia Barker Lottridge is one of the single, most important books in my collection. I devoted an entire post to it last year which detailed the magic of this book and highlighted the important role it played in helping my students develop a love of books and of stories, as well as, helping them to grow as little humans and believe in their hearts that they were capable of great things. You can read that post here. There isn’t much that any of us can say with absolute certainty in life but, one thing that I can say for sure is that this book is extremely special and that if I live to be 100, I will still have this book on a bookshelf near to where I am. It is that good. The illustrations are by the incomparable, Ian Wallace and add so much meaning to the text.
13- A Salmon For Simon.
A Salmon For Simon is written by Betty Waterton. Aside from the fact that this book has a super title, the tale told is one that lots of children over the years have been able to relate to. Simon longs to catch his own fish, like the big boys do. But, salmon are strong fish and Simon is still a small boy so, he is unable to catch one on his own. That is, until one day when a salmon actually falls from the sky, released from the talons of an eagle. The fish falls into a small pool at Simon’s feet. It is his for the taking but, as he studies the salmon, he notices the fear on its face. So, instead of taking the fish as a prize, Simon decides to work to save its life and set it free. Many a class of mine engaged in rich discussions when it came to whether Simon should keep the fish or release the fish. Even small children are capable of acts of great compassion and kindness, as Simon showed. Lovely book. The illustrations, by Ann Blades, are soft and warm, in keeping with the feel of the book.
12- The White Stone in the Castle Wall.
The White Stone in the Castle Wall is by Sheldon Oberman. It details how a single, white stone came to find its way into the wall surrounding the historic Case Loma in Toronto. I took many classes on field trips to explore Casa Loma and, before leaving on the bus for home at the end of the day, we always walked the perimeter of the property until we found the legendary white stone. Then, we would all pose beside it as a group and the memory of our trip would be preserved. The story, itself, introduces children to Sir Henry M. Pellatt, who made his fortune bringing electric street lights to Toronto. The White Stone in the Castle Wall also makes the important point that there is value in hard work, as the young boy learns when he meets Mr. Pellatt and tells him the story of how hard it was to get his stone from across the city, all the way to Casa Loma. In addition to the historical bent of the story, the illustrations are gorgeous! The illustrator was Les Tait and each picture is actually a painting. Fabulous work, all around and a wonderful companion piece to many a memorable class trip to the big city from our small town.
11- Barbara Reid Art.
OMG! Barbara Reid is a megastar when it comes to children’s literature in Canada. She is well known as an author and as an illustrator. But, she is most famous for creating exquisite illustrations using the medium of plasticine. I first came to know of Barbara Reid when I discovered her book, The New Baby Calf. I would be willing to place a very large wager that you would have difficulty going into any elementary school in Canada and trying to find any educator who has not read her books or has not had a Barbara Reid art lesson or three with their students. I always enjoyed making Barbara Reid Art with my students because, in order to replicate what she did, students had to be aware of art-related concepts such as foreground, middle ground and back ground in a picture. They, also, were able to incorporate a fair amount of detail in their work because their work surfaces were usually small. I, often used stiff cardboard as the backing for their plasticine art and placed the finished work inside a clear cd jewel case….when cds were still a thing.
10- A Poppy Is to Remember.
A Poppy Is to Remember was written by Heather Patterson. It isn’t easy to explain concepts like War and Remembrance to small children but this book, A Poppy Is To Remember is among the best at doing so that I have come across. In sparse, simple text, children come to learn that soldiers could be in the air, on the water or marching on land and that many were scared and that some did not make it back home to their families in Canada. The famous poem, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae is included in context with the story being told. I credit this book with helping many, many children truly understand this important Canadian poem. When it came time to conduct Remembrance Day services at school, my students often were tasked with reciting this book in front of their peers. They always took that responsibility seriously and made me and their parents and themselves, proud. The illustrations in this book are by Ron Lightburn and are actual paintings, too, as was the case with The White Stone in the Castle Wall. Mr. Lightburn is from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario.
9- A Northern Alphabet.
A Northern Alphabet is written and illustrated by Ted Harrison. Mr. Harrison has written and illustrated many children’s books but, what sets him apart are two things: (a) many of his stories are set in the northern regions of Canada and highlight the life experiences of the Inuit people, (b) his illustrations tend to use swirling, wavy lines and vibrant hues of purple and pink and shades of blue. As was the case with Barbara Reid earlier, Ted Harrison is an author whose stories lend themselves to further exploration though Art. One of my fondest teaching memories was working at a school where we cooked with the kids quite often (for a variety of reasons). But, specifically, with regard to Ted Harrison, I remember creating homemade soup and then, as we ate it, we painted Ted Harrison-style pictures, while Canadian music played in the classroom. I can never look with passivity at any work of Ted Harrison’s. His work evokes a sensory experience for me every time.
8- Kathy Stinson.
Kathy Stinson wrote two books; Those Green Things and Red is Best waaaay back at the beginning of my teaching career. They were two of the very first books I ever owned as a professional educator. She had a wonderful way of capturing the many moods of small children; especially when it came to eating suspicious green veggies or wearing your favourite red clothes. But, like many people, Kathy Stinson matured as her own career went along and, lo and behold, she came out with an enormously important book called the Highway of Heroes; which talks about the importance of a stretch of highway that runs past my town. The Highway of Heroes is a book about honouring those Canadian soldiers at work today in hotspots all over the world. Many children only think of Remembrance Day as being for soldiers from WWI and WWII. But, Ms. Stinson reminds us that today’s soldiers are helping to keep the peace in many war-torn countries around the world and that, sometimes, that work is dangerous and, even, deadly. When a Canadian soldier dies in active duty, their body is flown to the air force base at Trenton, Ontario. It proceeds down the main 401 highway until it reaches Toronto, where an autopsy is performed. All along the route, people line the overpasses and salute the fallen hero. It is an amazing experience to stand on a bridge overlooking the Highway of Heroes. Kathy Stinson captures that feeling ever so well. What a special book.
8- Waiting for the Whales.
Waiting for the Whales was written by Sheryl McFarlane. This is a beautiful, slow moving story that luxuriates in the warmth of the family bonds it is describing. One of the beautiful parts of being a parent or grandparent is having the chance to share those things that we find special with our beloved children. The memories of such sharing live on, even after death takes the elders away. Waiting for the Whales is a wonderful story for introducing children to the concept of death and to the circle of life. The illustrations are completely lovely and were created by my fellow Cobourg citizen, Ron Lightburn.
7- Have You Seen Josephine?
Have You Seen Josephine? was written and illustrated by Stephane Poulin. Josephine is a cat who is running loose through the streets of Montreal. The thing that every single class loved about this book was how, in each picture, Josephine was hiding somewhere, trying to elude detection. So, part of the joy of reading this book for each child was trying to find Josephine, too. Each page of the book took the reader to a different part of Montreal so, students were given a good glimpse of how the city was organized, what went on in the various places they were taken to and so on. There are a couple of “Josephine” books out there and all were well-loved in my classroom.
6- Town Is By The Sea.
Town Is By The Sea was written by Joanne Schwartz. This book is an exception to my list because it is a book I never got to share with my students. It was published just as I retired. But, I am including it on my list of special Canadian books because it is set where I grew up, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Joanne Schwartz grew upon a community called New Waterford, which is about a twenty minute drive from where I grew up in Glace Bay. When I look at Sydney Smith‘s beautifully-illustrated front cover, I see my home as I remember it; the many-coloured houses, the telephone poles, clothes hanging on the line and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. ***Funny personal note, I’m pretty sure that my mother and Joanne Schwartz’s father knew each other. I believe her father was a man named Irving Schwartz and, if I am correct then, Mr. Schwartz ran a chain of furniture stores from which my mother furnished our homes. I don’t know Joanne Schwartz at all but, that having been said, neither of us has lived in a Town by the Sea for a long time, either. But, regardless, Town Is By The Sea is, yet, another one of those special books that I will keep forever. Home has never been captured so well. Many thanks to Joanne and Sydney.
5- Phoebe Gilman.
Phoebe Gilman wrote some of the most beloved books in my collection, including Jillian Jiggs, Something From Nothing and The Balloon Tree. She was an extremely talented illustrator and used her illustrations to add layers of meaning to her text. All of her stories were whimsical and highlighted creativity and fun and family life, too. The Balloon Tree was her first published book. Phoebe Gilman passed away recently but, her legacy as one of the most popular and important members of the Children’s Literary scene in Canada is firmly entrenched.
4- The Breadwinner Trilogy.
The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey and Mud City make up The Breadwinner Trilogy. All were written by Deborah Ellis. All three books take place in Afghanistan, with Mud City, also, spilling over into Pakistan. In each case, the lives of girls and women are scrutinized in ways that are relentless and unflinching. I read these books with my own daughter, Leah, as well as, with a Grade 5 class I taught one year. Many, many important conversations were held regarding the role of women in oppressed societies such as the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are no warm fuzzies with these books but, this trilogy remains an important work of courage and conviction by Deborah Ellis. Not everyone has the luxury of a “happily-ever-after” life story but, for those who don’t, it is crucial to tell their stories anyway so that the world can know the dignity of lives lived differently and, hopefully, make those lives better through knowledge and empathy.
3- Anne of Green Gables.
This story has become the image of Canada that is held by many people from around the world. Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote the story of the orphan girl named Anne who talked so much her tongue must have been hung in the middle, it flapped so! Through Anne, we learned about the importance of kindred spirits and her Lake of Shining Waters. This story takes place in Prince Edward Island and has been made into a multi-book series, a movie series, an animated series, a musical and has recently been given new life in a modern-influenced adaptation called Anne With an E. Anne of Green Gables is a story about family and loyal friends and imagination and uses beautiful, beautiful language in the telling. If Canada is to be imagined from abroad then, having images of Avonlea dance in the heads of those imagining must be a wondrous thing indeed!
2- Hana’s Suitcase.
Hana’s Suitcase was written by Karen Levine. Simply put, this book is the most special book to me of them all! I wrote a post about why it is such an important book to me, earlier in the year, which you can read here. Sometimes a book can change your life. This book changed mine…for the better, too. For a book about the Holocaust, it turned out to be such a warm story about family and the bonds of love that exist between family members. An important portion of this book takes place during wartime but, make no mistake, Hana’s Suitcase is a book about Peace and about Hope but, most of all, it is book about Love.
1- Love You Forever.
Love You Forever was written by the highest-selling Canadian author of all time, Robert Munsch. I read Love You Forever for the very first time in the University of Western Ontario book store while I was attending Teacher’s College. I read it amid the hubbub of a regular business day in that book shop. By the time I finished the book, I was in tears. No one else in the store seemed to notice but, I felt as though the orientation of my life had changed a little at that moment. While I had grown up reading stories such as Hop on Pop and Cat in the Hat, this story was different. It told a generational tale of family love in a way that I had never read before. It was told in simple language and contained a repetitive verse that came to be a trademark of Robert Munsch’s. It was the very first book I ever bought as a professional educator. This is the book that began a thirty-year quest to build a personal library of the best of children’s literature because our children, my students, deserved nothing less than the very best.
This list of mine is the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to quality literature for children in Canada. Farley Mowat, Dennis Lee, Mordiceau Richler, Melanie Watt, Sheree Fitch and so many others all come easily to mind when I think of the books that have made a difference to my own children and to those who were entrusted to my care. How lucky we are to live in a country so rich in talent!
Please feel free, as always, to comment in the box below if you have any thoughts you wish to share about the books I have listed or some others that you feel are deserving of praise, too. Happy “I Read Canadian” Day, folks. Thanks for allowing me to play a small part in the festivities.
This past Monday, a blogger friend of mine from Belfast decided to offer his thoughts on this year’s Academy Awards. He began with a simple statement: he had not seen this year’s winner for Best Picture, Parasite. He went on to say that none of his friends had seen it, either. So, he was asking for input from his acquaintances in the blogging world. Had any of us watched this movie or was this another case of Hollywood opting to honour an artsy movie that no one, outside of their own circle, really cared about? He concluded his remarks by stating that he had just seen 1917 and thought it was pretty good.
Like my friend, I had not seen Parasite nor, had anyone that I was aware of. I had seen 1917 so I wanted to comment on the post but, before I did, I felt compelled to research Parasite a little first so that I could speak with a modicum of knowledge in my comment. So, I went to Twitter and typed in #Parasite. Scores of tweets poured forth. The bulk of the initial comments were reactions to some of the racially-insensitive comments being made by those offended by the fact that a foreign film had won Best Picture and that the director, Bong Joon Ho, made his acceptance speech in a combination of broken english and his own, native Korean. Normally, I follow the rule of thumb that advises us all to not go down the rabbit hole when it comes to most on-line comment threads. But, because I was thirsting for facts about this movie, I ignored my own advice and plunged in. For once, I was glad that I did.
About one third of the way into the comment thread, someone decided to take the conversation in a different direction. They tweeted their hope that now that Bong Joon Ho had been brought into the public eye in North America that, perhaps, some of his earlier films would gain renewed interest and recognition. In particular, this person recommended Bong Joon Ho’s very first big budget movie, Snowpiercer. As soon as Snowpiercer was mentioned, the thread took off in a whole different, excitable direction, with dozens of fans chiming in to say what an amazing movie Snowpiercer was. But what really caught my attention…..and what went on to inspire this post…..was a tweet by someone who claimed that Snowpiercer was actually a dystopian sequel to the beloved childhood classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! What!? A violent, futuristic tale of class warfare is the sequel to the tale of the world’s finest chocolate maker? This I had to see for myself!
First of all, let’s review the basic premise of the Roald Dahl classic first. In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a mysterious genius has created a perfect world in the artificial setting of a chocolate factory. There is no end to the innovation and imagination on display by Mr. Wonka. Into this world of wonder comes a group of children and adults. Within this group, their are different personality types, reflective of various segments of society at the time. As this group attempts to co-exist with Wonka’s factory, the true characteristics of each child come to the fore and, as they explore one magical room after another, they find themselves facing a reckoning that slowly but, surely, whittles the group down to one. That one child, Charlie Bucket, is declared the “winner” by Mr. Wonka who reveals that, in fact, he is tired of running the factory and is seeking someone to take over the reins and that, in fact, that person is Charlie Bucket. I have read the Roald Dahl book to many students over the years and we have watched the original movie, staring Gene Wilder as Wonka, many times as well. It is a classic tale told very well and is deserving of every accolade it has received over the years.
Snowpiercer is set in the not-too-distant future. In an effort to alleviate the effects of Climate Change, scientists have released a refrigerant into the atmosphere to cool rising global temperatures. However, the effect of this is that Earth freezes and all life goes extinct, except for those lucky enough to find refuge on this train that endlessly circles the Earth. The train is a modern-day version of Noah’s Ark and has been created with enough resources to maintain a complete, bio-diverse eco-system designed to allow those on-board the chance to survive while awaiting the possible return to the outside world should temperature warm enough to allow for regeneration. Like Wonka’s chocolate factory, this train was created by a mythical genius known as Willard, played by Ed Harris. Those who subscribe to the theory that Snowpiercer is, in fact, the sequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory say that Willard is really Charlie Bucket. If you can allow yourself to believe this single fact then, the structure of the remainder of the movie falls neatly into place, despite the fact that Snowpiercer is told more as mash-up between Blade Runner and The Hunger Games.
In Snowpiercer, the Ark-like train is divided up into a series of connected cars; each car containing something different and important when it comes to maintaining the integrity of the eco-system on board. The premise that drives the action forward is that the train has been divided along class lines, too, with the rich at the head of the train and the very poor at the tail of the train. The poor live in squalor and are oppressed at every turn. Eventually, they revolt. The leader of the insurgency is Chris Evans, who played Captain America in the Marvel movies. Like Willy Wonka, the rebels (who are a rag-tag collection of characters) move through the cars on the train, one at a time, like the children moved through Wonka’s magical rooms. At each car, there is action, often violent action, that causes the group to reduce in numbers over time. Eventually, without giving away too many secrets, there is a “winner” in this movie who is asked to take over the running of things on this magical train. As in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the ending of Snowpiercer hints at the possibility of an entirely different way of living; a world devoid of class stratification, wanton violence and discrimination and poverty, too.
One of the sub-texts to the story of Snowpiercer is why this movie is only becoming known now, eight years after it was released. The story of that is one of abusive power. Snowpiercer was Bong Joon Ho’s first big budget movie. In order to arrange financing, Joon Ho entered into a partnership with producer Harvey Weinstein. As the recent history of the #MeToo movement has documented, Weinstein was not the nicest human on the planet, putting it mildly. He wielded the power of his position like a ruthless dictator. For many actresses, it meant sexual abuse. For Bong Joon Ho, it meant a battle for control of his artistic vision for the movie against a man, Weinstein, who was known for expecting the final say on all edits. Because Bong Joon Ho fought back throughout the making of the movie, Weinstein used his clout to severely limit the release of Snowpiercer, to the point where it almost disappeared completely from view.
One of the big “lessons” from this movie is resistance to oppression. In the photo above, Tilda Swinton is a representative from Willard who has been sent to the back of the train to quiet some murmurs of dissent. At the end of her not-well-received speech, one of the poor folk throws his shoe at her and manages a glancing blow. The scene pivots at that point. The man is taken into immediate custody and Swinton, holding his shoe, launches into a speech about how she is a hat and he is a shoe and how hats belong where hats go…on a head….and shoes belong where shoes go….on feet. To mix the roles of hats and shoes is absurd and upsets the carefully-crafted balance of society. In other words, know your place and stay in it! The punishment the man receives is to have the arm he used to throw the shoe placed through a hole in the side of the train so that it is exposed to the freezing outside air. Those in charge do careful calculations as to how long it will take for his arm to freeze solid based upon current weather conditions, the speed of the train, etc. and Swinton speaks for that length of time, accordingly. At the end of her speech, the man’s arm is pulled back in, revealed to be frozen solid like a statue and then, it is chopped off in front of the rest of the poor passengers as a warning to remain obedient. Throughout the rest of the movie, the presence or absence of limbs becomes an underlying layer of added meaning and significance.
Despite the graphic violence (which is on a par with what was shown during the Hunger Games), I thought this movie was amazing! It is very much like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in how imaginative it is, at times, and how mesmerizing some of the scenes are. Social commentary flows through both movies; sometimes, it is blatant and said aloud, sometimes, it is woven into the consequences of the action in a particular scene and remains unspoken. But, through it all, both movies speak to the value and goodness inherent in ordinary humans. Resistance to oppression is healthy and valuable and difficult and dangerous. But, most of all, it is important when forces within a society get too far out of whack. It happened to President Snow in The Hunger Games. It happened to Adolf Hitler in real life. It happened to the likes of Veruca Salt in the Wonka movie. It happened to the inhabitants of Earth prior to the Great Flood in The Bible. It happens in Snowpiercer, too.
Resistance is not futile.
Snowpiercer is playing right now, for free, on Netflix in Canada. I would highly recommend this movie. It is terrific and leaves you with much to think about. But, if I could offer any advice at all prior to watching it would be this; don’t go into this movie expecting The Hunger Games or a Marvel action-type movie. There are enough plot holes in Snowpiercer to drive a truck through. But, if you allow yourself to view this movie through the absurdist lens of Mr. Wonka then, Snowpiercer will blow your mind. The trailer for the movie can be viewed here.
Sometimes it actually pays to read the on-line comments. Without the guidance of others, I would never have even known that such a movie as Snowpiercer existed. Bong Joon Ho is a talented director and is deserving of the praise he is earning for Parasite. Perhaps it is time to give that movie a chance, too. I am betting I won’t be disappointed.
This is one post in a series. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.
One of the most influential books ever written in history is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It is a book of military strategies for use by generals in times of war. Not surprisingly, over the centuries, The Art of War has, also, become a favoured resource for high-rolling business executives, as well as, politicians. The cut-throat corporate world that initiates battles for market share, marshals and organizes resources for a cause, mobilizes large numbers of people to carry out a plan of attack, all draw inspiration from The Art of War.
To win any battle during war time, any election, any race for ratings or profits, there needs to be a complete and maximized level of personal commitment. In The Art of War, one strategy used to entice full commitment from soldiers/workers is called “Burn the Boats”. The “Burn the Boats” strategy has been employed many times throughout History and, essentially, it occurs when an invading army purposely cuts off its own means of escape thus, forcing everyone involved to focus on advancing forward. One of the most famous examples of this military strategy being used was in the early 1500s, when Spanish conquistador/colonizer, Hernan Cortes invaded Mexico. His first order upon landing was to burn his fleet. This galvanized the commitment level of his soldiers who, now finding themselves stranded in a new and unfamiliar land, had no choice but to band together and move inland as a united force. They were fully committed to their cause and conquered and plundered the Aztec Empire in short order, as a result.
This brings us to Pigeon Camera by The Tragically Hip.
Pigeon Camera is not one of The Hip’s most famous songs but, it is a favourite of those who are fans of the band. The song was featured on the album, Fully, Completely and more than holds its own against such standard bearer songs as Courage, At The Hundredth Meridian, Fifty Mission Cap,The Wherewithal, Looking for a Place to Happen and, of course, Fully Completely, itself. All throughout this album, The Hip explore themes of commitment (such as what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, staying true to their artistic roots as Canadians, maintaining the highly literate level of their songwriting in the face of those fans who just want to dance and drink their beer while listening to the band), as well as, themes of the breaking down of boundaries (personal, sexual and cultural).
The song, Pigeon Camera, touches on various themes such as war and incest but, regardless of who views the song and how they view it, the over-arching idea at play is that, if boundaries are to be broken then, one has to be fully-committed for whatever follows. For those unaware, a pigeon camera was a real thing and served, at one time, as a way for armies to spy on one another. They were, in a sense, the precursor to drones. Carrier pigeons were trained to carry mounted cameras that clicked automatically at regular intervals and fly over enemy territory. They were used as recently as in the Vietnam War by the U.S. But, like anything, when you spy on an enemy or spy on your neighbours, you gain new information and are forced to deal with what you have just learned. This often causes you to change the personal dynamic of how you interact with the world around you. To start down the road to personal growth requires commitment on your part to follow wherever that journey may take you, which is kinda/sorta what this song is about.
“Where’s our pigeon camera? By now, he could be anywhere. And, after all that training. And, after all that training, with something we could no longer contain.”
Gord Downie must have been thinking of Cortes and his colonization of the Aztecs during the making of this album because he mentions “They don’t know how old I am, they found armour in my belly, a sixteenth century conquistador, I think.” in Locked in the Trunk of a Car and then, he closes Pigeon Camera, with his own take on the Cortes/Art of War-inspired line, “Its like we burned our boots with no contingency plan.”
But, even if exploring sexual boundaries or spying on other nations isn’t your thing, please give Pigeon Camera a listen here. It is a gorgeous sounding song. Each note by Rob Baker is lush, like painting a picture in warm colours. It sounds like a Hip song, if such a claim can be staked. If nothing else, listening to a song that you may not have heard before could be the catalyst for personal growth and changes that, like the song says, “we can no longer contain.” It could lead to something wonderful.
Thanks, as always, for reading this post. I appreciate the past few minutes of your life that you so willingly gave to read my words. If you have any comments about this song or the themes of privacy, expanding boundaries, personal growth or the commitment it takes to be fully-actualized, please leave your words in the comment box below. Thanks to The Hip for creating such a musical gem in Pigeon Camera. It is, easily, one of my favourite Hip songs. I hope that you like it, too.
This is one post in a series. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.
What comes of being together with another? To share our space in this world with another takes a special kind of commitment. It isn’t for everyone. But, it is for some. At a distance, we tend to view those couples or groups with envy or admiration. We enjoy hearing their story. But, sometimes, the story we tell ourselves about others isn’t the real story. Sometimes, the real story is different. What is real and what is a facade? Sometimes, only the couple knows the truth.
Long Time Running by The Tragically Hip is, ostensibly, a song about a relationship that has run its course. There is bitterness in the lyrics. Yet, this song has been the chosen “first dance” song at many a wedding in Canada, too. It is a song that hints at divorce and infidelity but one that people admire for its commitment to longevity. There are no Hallmark moments here unless you count lyrical gems like, “We don’t go anywhere, just on trips” as being your version of romance. Long Time Running ends with a line that has sparked a variety of interpretations. “It’s well worth the wait” has been described as meaning the relief one feels when the pretending is finally over and a relationship that has gone on too long can finally be declared dead. Some prefer the line to mean the satisfaction one feels from a relationship that has stood the test of time, survived the ups and downs of life and has emerged intact. The Hip have never definitively said, one way or the other, what the line means. We are left to draw our own conclusions; each of us viewing the song through the lens of our own experiences.
One of the reasons Long Time Running is such a well-received song is because of the way the structure of the song mirrors its meaning. A song that ruminates over the validity of marrying our lives together over time should be told at a relaxed, leisurely pace. From the opening guitar notes that seem to hover in mid-air and then, slowly move forward like steps on a stairway, Long Time Running meanders its way along, unfolding its layers in a measured, deliberate way. The bluesy, country-esque nature of the music gives the song the feeling of hearing a tale told on a hot summer day, when everything and everyone moves slowly. There are no unnecessary movements on such days yet, you can feel each rivulet of sweat trickling from the nape of your neck, down your spine to the small of your back. Even when Gord belts out the closing line, he focuses on the word, well,….stretching it out as far and for as long as his voice will allow. Everything about the structure of this song is built upon a foundation of length and endurance and the shimmering heat rising from a path that heads out into the distance.
Long Time Running was popular when it was first released and had remained popular throughout the course of their career. In a way, the song came to represent how many people felt about The Hip. The Hip were a group of people who seemed well-suited for each other and were thriving over time. One of reasons for this feeling was the intensely private way all five guys went about living their lives. There were never any scandals. There were never any public spats or disagreements. The band seemed to be like the brothers that they claimed they were. They were school-aged friends who had each other’s back. Egos were parked outside. The Hip were quietly professional in all of their endeavours. Which is why, when it was announced that Gord Downie had cancer, it came as such a shock. For a band that had kept their lives so close to the vest for so many years, Gord’s announcement was not the sneak peak anyone was expecting nor, wanting.
So, when it was announced that the band would do one last tour and that a documentary movie was going to be shot during it, many people were pleased that Long Time Running was chosen as the soundtrack anthem. It seemed a very appropriate choice; being as it touched on relationships and longevity. As fans, we had enjoyed a loving relationship with The Hip for over three decades by the time 2016 rolled around. It was an emotional time for all. It felt like family. It felt like loss. It felt like a celebration of life, too. In the end, the documentary gave us a look behind the curtain, as it were, and revealed a band that were, for the most part, as we expected them to be. They proved to be a brotherhood, in the truest sense of the world. As saddened as we all were by Gord’s demise, we were filled with admiration for the strength of his courage. When the tour ended in real-time, as well as when the documentary ended, the feeling we were left with was one of, dare I say it, satisfaction. It was very re-affirming to see the love that existed between them and to note the pride each felt for having made the shared journey from childhood to adulthood on their own terms.
In my own lifetime, the only legitimate comparison I can offer for the outpouring of affection for Gord and The Hip during that final tour was how Canadians reacted when Terry Fox was forced to halt his run across our country because of cancer. It was big, big news and we all felt it. Between writing letters, creating poetry, promising to work toward Reconciliation and much, much more, people from all walks of life reacted to Gord’s passing with hearts full. So, naturally, when it was announced that Canada’s sweethearts, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, were going to dedicate a performance to Gord at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, a nation waited with bated breath.
Much like members of The Tragically Hip, Scott and Tessa had known each other since childhood. From the very earliest of their days skating together, Scott and Tessa possessed a chemistry that was noticeable to everyone who watched them perform. As the pair grew into teenagers and then, young adults, we grew with them. Their journey became our journey, too. We followed their successes through the ranks and, as a nation, we were extremely proud of them, both.
But, more than just having pride in their athletic accomplishments, we, as fans, were heavily invested in the relationship they portrayed. The smouldering looks they gave to each other. The gentle caresses. The loving embraces that, inevitably, gave way to broad smiles and hugs and her head resting on his shoulder. It was a fairy tale romance being played out before our very eyes. They were the most popular couple in Canada. Everyone was convinced that their love was a love for the ages. Wedding fever consumed us all. A Tessa and Scott engagement announcement following the Olympics was what many Canadians were expecting and/or hoping for. So, in this context, when the duo announced that they would skate to Long Time Running and that there would be a denim jacket present (Gord Downie often wore a denim jacket. It became one of his trademarks), it was almost too much to imagine. Canada’s sweethearts honouring Canada’s band and its poetic heart, Gord Downie. The video can be seen here. I will admit to crying freely while Tessa and Scott performed.
Relationships are funny things, sometimes. When The Hip revealed themselves in their documentary, we found what we had hoped to find and we were pleased. After the Olympics, when Scott and Tessa came back to Canada, they revealed a secret, too. It came to light that Scott Moir had had a girlfriend, not named Tessa, for quite some time. The relationship portrayed onscreen and on ice by Tessa and Scott was, simply that, a portrayal. It was a staged play. It wasn’t real. Our collective hearts cratered. Through no fault of her own, Scott’s girlfriend, who Tessa was intimately familiar with, instantly became the most hated woman in Canada. Since that time, she and Scott have kept a very low profile. Meanwhile, Tessa has been attempting to establish a career for herself in broadcasting. She has appeared as host on talk shows and is the product spokesperson in several advertising campaigns. But, each time we see her alone, it reinforces the feeling of heartbreak that resides within us. There is no wrong in this situation. There was no infidelity on Scott’s part. It is simply that the reality for us was not what we were expecting and we can’t help feeling somewhat disappointed.
As it turns out, what comes of being with another is unique to those involved. That was the essence of the song, Long Time Running. Sometimes it actually is well worth the wait and, sometimes, it isn’t.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you have any comments to make regarding the song, Long Time Running or the documentary or how you feel about how The Hip ended it all as a band and/or how Scott and Tessa ended up as a team and as real people, please feel free to leave them in the comment box below. As always, I appreciate the time you spent reading my words. Take care and bye for now.
When I signed my first full-time teaching contract with the Toronto Board of Education in 1989, my salary was $26,000. Even using the filter of “waaaay back in those days”, $26,000 did not go very far in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto. Needless to say, I did not have an extravagant lifestyle. In fact, the loose change that rattled around in my pocket was often all that I had for necessities like milk and bread. My entertainment often consisted of things that were free. One such example was that I often spent many a sunny summer afternoon watching the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team playing at a local ballpark called Christie Pits. The good thing about going to Christie Pits was that the ball field was surrounded by a short hill, giving it a bowl-like feel. So, many folks, like me, chose to sit on the grassy knoll and watch the action from there. The grass was free to sit on. The sun felt nice on my skin. Sometimes pretty girls sunned themselves on the grass, too. It was all good. To top it all off, I could buy a hot dog for a buck and pop, too. So, at a time when five dollars was a king’s ransom for me, I could have lunch and see a ball game, all beneath the sunny skies at Christie Pits.
It is funny for me to look back on those times and realize that I was sitting in the very spot that one of Canada’s most notorious events took place, aptly named, The Christie Pit Riot of 1933. In 1933, Christie Pits was still in use as a sports facility. But, that is where the similarity ends between my experience and that of those who were in attendance back then. In 1933, the world was a different place. The seeds of what was to become WWII were being sown in Germany, as Adolf Hitler was elected as Chancellor. The laws he quickly enacted help shape what was to become known as The Holocaust; which resulted in the systematic killing of over 6 million Jewish men, women and children. While the history of WWII tends to focus on the battlefields of Europe and later, in the Pacific, when Japan entered the fray, many of us are woefully ignorant of how life was in Canada at the time for Jewish people. This brings me back to Christie Pits.
In the early 1930s, anti-semitism evolved from being the whispered utterings shared at family gatherings and in community halls to, becoming formal policies in countries all over the world. As news of restrictions placed on Jewish citizens in Europe began to spread across the Ocean to Canada, many Jews in Canada mobilized to help family members immigrate here so as to escape persecution. Unfortunately, their efforts were often met with resistance from government officials who feared an influx of Jews would alter the make up of our citizenry. Compassion was trumped by intolerance.
At the same time, those who distrusted and/or disapproved of Jewish people as a race, were emboldened by what was happening in Europe. Nationalistic sentiment was strong and was not restricted to fringe elements but, was also, to be found in the ranks of the cabinet of then, Prime Minister MacKenzie King. The Christie Pit Riot took place in 1933 and what happened was simple: a group of Nationalists in attendance unfurled a large flag that had a swastika on it……a flag that would soon fly over many European countries. One of the teams playing that evening, The Harbord Playground team, was comprised primarily of Jewish men. They were the target of the taunts from the Nationalist group. Armed with baseball bats, the ball players fought with the Nationalists, who had knives and clubs of their own. According to reports issued the following day, over 10,000 people were eventually involved in the riot. There were many injuries but, luckily, no fatalities. But, from that moment on, Canada was not a safe place for Jewish people.
As mentioned above, it wasn’t just fringe elements, like the gang who started the riot at Christie Pits who made life tough for Jewish people. The Canadian Government did, too. Two famous examples of this can be found in the formal policies of creating internment camps for citizens of “enemy combatants of Canada”. This saw Japanese citizens placed in prisoner of war-style camps. It, also, saw Jewish immigrants, fleeing Nazi oppression placed in “holding” camps, too. The Government of MacKenzie King actively sought to limit immigration at a time when European Jews were, literally, running for their lives. The most notorious example of this was the case of the ship, the M.S. St. Louis. This ship was a German liner filled with Jewish refugees seeking asylum anywhere, besides Europe. They sailed to Cuba and were denied permission to leave the ship. Eventually, the set sail for America and were denied entry there, too. We Canadians like to think of ourselves as a compassionate lot but, when the M.S. St. Louis came to our shores, those Jewish refugees were denied entry here, too. Our refusal to allow the passengers to disembark resulted in the M.S. St. Louis being forced to return to Europe. Hundreds of those passengers ended up dying in concentration camps such as Auschwitz.
As I sat on the green grass at Christie Pits, under the warm summer sun, I never thought about any of that. I had the luxury of living in a country that was not at war, In fact, the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia had ended in peace agreements, the Berlin Wall was coming down, The Soviet Union was breaking up and NATO was a strong, stable military and economic presence in Europe and North America, too. It was as close to world peace as I have experienced in my lifetime. My days at Christie Pits bring with them, warm memories. I am lucky to be able to say so.
This brings me back to today. Did you know that on this day, 75 years ago, the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, freeing those remaining, skeleton-like prisoners? The Holocaust officially ended, with the liberation of those European Jews. Those who entered the camps were haunted by what they bore witness to. Emaciated bodies piled in mounds. Emaciated bodies still alive but barely able to stand or walk. Human beings reduced to sub-human versions of themselves which, after all, is how they were viewed by the Nazis all along. The horror and revulsion of what was found in those concentration camps helped create a saying, “Never Again”. This saying was a promise that, never again, would we lose our sense of humanity to the extent that formal government policies would see the systematic killing of entire races, religious members or sects. Never again should have meant, forever but, as history has gone on, those lessons of the Holocaust seem to have been forgotten. From The Killing Fields of Cambodia, to the Rwandan Genocide, to the ethnic cleanings in the former Yugoslavia, governments continue to slaughter their enemies with reckless abandon and ruthless precision.
Some times we, as Canadians, feel smug in what we believe is our highly compassionate reputation in the eyes of the world. But, you don’t have to search very hard to find people on the right wing side of our political spectrum openly discussing the “problem” of allowing immigrants to come to Canada. One can talk to any indigenous person in this country and find out how difficult it is to be “native” in many towns and cities across this land. And, being a person of colour has been difficult, to say the least, seemingly, forever and a day. Just ask any “black” kid trying to play minor league hockey these days without the racial slurs raining on down every time they step on to the ice.
It is not a warm enough day to be sitting on the grassy knolls of Christie Pits in Toronto today but, it is warm and comfortable sitting on my couch in my home. I am safe and so are my family and my friends and neighbours. We don’t think of injustice much. But, sometimes, we should. Perhaps on days like today, the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, we should think about children in cages in the US, the sub-human living conditions in many indigenous communities, as well as, in cities like Flint. Michigan, with its predominantly black citizenry and its legacy of unsafe drinking water. Perhaps, on days like today, we should think about how women are treated by men and how we can all do better, as a gender, moving forward. And finally, perhaps on a day such as this, it would be good time to think about those we entrust to power. Are the Putins and the Trumps and the others of their ilk really any different from the Hitlers and Mussolinis of the past? Are their policies making life better for their citizens or, like Hitler, are they starting to lay the groundwork for systemic oppression of those who are different from them and/or a threat? If you think I am exaggerating, it was just this past week that an armed militia descended on Richmond, Virginia in the States; many of whose members openly advocate for race wars to purify the country. Much the same mindset as the Nationalists who descended on Christie Pits in 1933. Just like MacKenzie King denied entry to the Jews on the M.S. St. Louis, Donald Trump is building his wall to deny immigrants entry, too. The separating of people into groups is becoming less of a cultural thing and is now moving into the politics of our societies. Is it really such a stretch to predict how this will all turn out if left unchecked?
Holocaust-like scenarios don’t happen all at once. They happen incrementally and purposefully, over time. It is hard, at times, to see the bigger picture because of the constant onslaught of slights and outrages that seem to be happening, everywhere, all of the time. But, it is important to make time, even if it is just once and awhile, to step back and see if the events of the past days and months add up to something bigger and more insidious than we may have noticed. The 75th Anniversary of the end of the Holocaust seems like a good day to try to be a better person. I wish that peace and love and compassion applied equally to everyone and that, never again, would we allow our souls to become so lost or confused or overwhelmed that the suffering of others became our creed.
Never again. The promise of “Never Again” melted away those summer days, a few decades ago; sold for a couple of hot dogs and an ice cold pop. Who knew that the site of the largest and ugliest riot in Canadian history could be such a lovely spot to forget about my worries and my woes and, instead, simply enjoy the sights and sounds of baseball, amid a bevy of pretty girls? Who knew, indeed.
This is my daughter, Leah. She will be turning 14 in a few months. She is a reader, a blogger, a history lover, a babysitter, a straight-“A” student, a feminist and, to the delight of her parents, she is learning to properly use “hospital corners” when she puts new sheets on her bed on laundry day. She is quite a kid. Her mother and I are proud of her. As things stand now, 2020 is going to be Leah’s year. Let me tell you why.
Leah has many big things on her agenda in 2020 but, arguably, the biggest is a trip she is taking at the end of May to Europe. Leah has always had a love of history. One day, a few years ago, while on a family outing with her grandparents, her Poppa and I happened to walk past a Travel Agency. In the window of this store was a poster for a guided trip to Canadian military sites in Europe to celebrate the centenary of the end of WWI. I looked at my Father-in-Law (Leah calls him, Poppa) and Poppa looked at me and we made a silent pledge to each other to make this trip happen for Leah. So, after a year or so of saving our coins, Poppa and I booked the trip. Leah found out on New Years Eve. Needless to say, she is excited. Poppa, Leah and I leave for Amsterdam on May 31st and will spend two days there. We hope to visit Anne Frank’s house while in that city. We will, also, get to go to see the Vimy Ridge Memorial (pictured above), Passchendaele, Juno Beach and Paris, too, during our ten-day excursion.
One place we want to visit during our trip is the Bayeaux War Cemetery. Bayeaux is approximately one half-hour south of Juno Beach. The reason for going there came about because on research Leah conducted into her own family tree. While researching relatives on her mother’s side of the family, she discovered a Great-Uncle named George Albert Eagle who was a soldier in WWII. He was a member of the Elgin regiment and was involved in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Unfortunately, Mr. Eagle was killed in a tank battle three days later. His body was never formally buried as he and his crew mates were burned beyond recognition in the fire that consumed their tank. However, his name is on a memorial plaque at the Bayeaux War Cemetery. We feel compelled to touch his name.
This brings me to a second, related but, different aspect of this trip. We will be visiting several cemeteries operated by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission during our trip. Leah has already researched the names of all of the soldiers from our hometown of Cobourg, who fought and died in the WWI and WWII and, who are buried in European cemeteries. In the photo above, there are plaques in our town hall that list the names of all soldiers from Cobourg who fought in both wars. The names with small crosses in front of them are men who died in battle. Our hope is that if we are scheduled to visit a cemetery where some of these Cobourg soldiers are buried, we will stop and pay our respects by placing a Canadian flag on the grave site (or a flower or a poppy or whatever we manage to have access to) and then, take a photo. If that soldier still has relatives in our area, we hope to contact them upon our return and let them know what we did and give them a copy of the photo as a keepsake for them. Leah and I and Poppa all feel that it is important to be respectful of the sacrifices these soldiers made on our behalf. Hopefully, this act will demonstrate that.
While our trip to the battlefields and cemeteries of Europe is a trip of a lifetime for Leah, Poppa and me, there are still plenty of big events left in Leah’s life that will have a profound affect on her as she moves forward. One of the biggest is that, in June, she will be graduating from Grade 8, which signifies the end of her elementary school experience. In the Fall, she will start High School!!!! As you read these words, Leah and her classmates are being visited in their Grade 8 classrooms by teachers from the various high schools in our area to discuss course selections for the upcoming school year. Her mother and I have already accompanied Leah to an Open House hosted by the high school closest to our home. At this high school, they offer a special academic opportunity called the International Baccalaureate Programme. This programme is an internationally-recognized programme of instruction that is quite rigorous and should prepare Leah well should she decide to pursue a university education in a few years time. She has had to apply to be accepted into the I.B. Programme. She will find out if she has qualified, a little later in the Spring. Hopefully, Leah will be accepted and will start off into the next phase of her life in a situation that pleases and excites her. Stay tuned for further updates as they become available.
As many of you know from your own experiences, one of the hallmarks of being a teenager is starting to earn your own money by getting a part-time job. Leah has already started down this path by babysitting children in our neighbourhood. But, she has loftier ambitions than that. Leah has her own blog called Nose In A Book. In her blog, Leah writes about books and history and life and the inter-connectedness of all three. In the short time she has had the blog, her posts have been featured on the Facebook pages of Scholastic Books, as well as, The Forest of Reading programme sponsored by the Ontario School Library Association. To give you a taste of how Leah writes, I am including a link to a post that she wrote about the TV programme, Anne With an E, which was based upon the Anne of Green Gables stories written by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Leah wrote this post because the Anne With An E tv show was being cancelled and she was trying to rally support to save it. Her efforts resulted in several people agreeing to sign an online petition she had linked to but, more than that, her post was read by Lucy Maud Montgomery’s grand-daughter who graciously messaged Leah privately to offer her thanks for Leah’s impassioned post. You can read the post here.
For Christmas, Leah was given a gift card to have business cards designed for her and printed off. The idea is that, perhaps, she can start using her love of reading and blogging as a way to make money in her teenage years. In the blogging world, there are posts that bloggers publish called sponsored posts. A sponsored post happens when a company wishes to pay a blogger to promote their product or to offer a product review. In Leah’s case, perhaps local authors seeking publicity would like to have Leah review their books in exchange for a small sum. Who knows how well this will work but, hopefully, it will help to put coins in Leah’s pocket. In any case, making money because of her brain and creativity is, in my opinion, a better option than burning her hands on french fry grease at a fast food restaurant.
In keeping with the theme of making money by using her brain, Leah and I hope to boost the number of History Talks we give at area Senior Citizens Homes. We are sending out new promotional letters this month to a dozen or so Assisted Living Centres within an hour’s drive from our home (We are enclosing one of her business cards with each letter, too). Leah and I do these Talks together for now, with the hope that, eventually, Leah will take them over herself. But, for now, we do them together. We have two Talks already created (Titanic and The Halifax Explosion) and a third under way (The Mystery of Oak Island). We charge $40.00 per talk, with all of the money going to Leah. If we are successful with the promotional letters we are sending out, Leah stands to make over $1,000.00, simply because of her love for History. In this photo, Leah is discussing the wreck site of the Titanic with seniors from the Rosewood Retirement Home in Cobourg.
Being a big sister is also a major part of Leah’s world. Sophie is growing up, too and, together they make quite a team. Sometimes they argue and storm off to their separate bedrooms! But, in the end, they are always sisters first and when they head out into the world; especially, if the situation is a new one, the sisters will often greet that new challenge by holding hands and facing it together. Those are the moments that make Keri and I the proudest.
Leah stands to have a wonderful year to come, if all goes well. She is fully deserving of the good things that happen to her because she is a terrific young lady. I am thrilled that she is as immersed into books and history as she is. But, as parents, her mother and I never forget that she is an individual in her own right. She is charting her own course in ways that feel comfortable to her. We support Leah and strive to help her have as happy a life as we can. So, bring on 2020, I say! I can’t wait to see how it all turns out for my girls. Hopefully, it will be our best year yet.
It is nearing report card time in schools across Ontario. When I was charged with the task of creating report card comments, obviously I talked about what skills each of my students had mastered. For example, could little Susie accurately add two numbers together. But, not only did I address skill acquisition, I spent quite a bit of time discussing what kind of learner each child was. Were they well-organized in how they approached a task? Did they work well in groups? Did they work better independently? Was their work neatly and coherently presented?
One of the major learning skills I always talked about was each child’s level of self-confidence. Confidence is, not only one of the major predictors of how successful a student will be, academically speaking but, it is, also, one of the most easily observable traits a child can display. For example, on the positive side, when a child has a high level of self-confidence, they will eagerly tackle new challenges, they will employ a variety of strategies in order to arrive at the correct answer, they won’t give up if the task proves challenging and, as a result, more often than not, they will be successful in completing their task. Because they are successful, their level of self-confidence will strengthen and grow which will allow them to approach the next task positively, too. A cycle of positive growth will ensue and that child will be off to the races in terms of his/her academic development.
On the negative side, a child who suffers from lack of self-confidence will approach new tasks with trepidation. They will feel that they have no strategies that are worthwhile so they will not try as hard and will give up more quickly than their confident peers. Because they will have failed to have competed the task, that child will lose even more self-confidence, they will fear new tasks even more and will question their own self-worth to a greater degree than ever. In this case, a cycle of negativity will occur and, if left unchecked, will cause that child to enter a downward academic and emotional spiral that can be very difficult to correct.
This brings us to the fires in Australia…….which is not as big a leap as one may think.
Climate Change, like the internal workings of a child’s heart and mind, is something that has easily observable positive and negative cycles. Long before the youth of the world began their school strikes to draw attention to the science behind climate change, indigenous cultures around the world had been putting sound climate practices into place as a routine element of their societies. Simple things like crop rotation, controlled burns, planting plants in ways that they complemented each other (like “The Three Sisters“), all helped keep the Earth healthy. The old maxim of “take care of the earth and the earth will take care of you” has been a hallmark of these cultures for a millennia or more.
Those who acted as stewards of our planet did so by doing simple things such as realizing the importance of trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and exchange it for oxygen. Not only that, because trees absorb carbon dioxide, our atmosphere is better able to help regulate the temperature of the planet. Because Earth’s temperature was moderate, green plants were able to grow, soil stayed relatively moist, seeds germinated well and so on. This is a very simplistic example of the positive cycle of climate sustainability. It was what had been the hallmark of, what Carl Sagan described, as our pale blue dot of a planet for centuries.
But, like a child who lacks confidence, poor stewardship of our planet has easily observable consequences, too. This is what we are seeing in Australia. This is, also, what Greta Thunberg and others, have been trying to warn us all about. In the same way that there is an inter-connectedness to the elements that make up an eco-system, there is an inter-connectedness to the consequences of having an eco-system collapse upon itself. Not only is there an inter-connectedness but, as an eco-system collapses, there is a magnification or amplification of the consequences as each domino begins to fall.
For an easy example, we, non-indigenous humans, have not valued trees as much as we should have. We have spent centuries placing value upon trees as measured in what trees can give us in the form of product. We value their capacity to produce wood, medicine, etc., but, we have never truly thought much about their most important role, as absorbers of carbon dioxide. We have been chopping down trees with a manic zeal all over the world. We chop them down to clear land for farming. We chop them down to clear land for homes. We chop trees down to heat our homes in the winter. We chop and we chop and we chop. Dr. Seuss wrote about this in The Lorax waaaaaay back in 1971!!!! Our chopping has continued unabated in the half-century since.
While we, as a species, worked with determination to reduce the Earth’s capacity to absorb CO2 by eliminating so many trees, we have expanded our willingness to produce CO2 a thousand-fold by the nature of our consumeristic society. Our cars! Our manufacturing factories belching smoke! Our endless thirst for packaged products! All of these lifestyle choices have contributed to an imbalance in the amount of carbon dioxide that is making its way into our atmosphere. This imbalance has been growing, unchecked, for decades now. That growth is not without consequences.
When too much carbon dioxide enters our atmosphere, it acts as a blanket or a shield that keeps the heat generated from the sun from escaping. It traps heat closer to the surface of the planet in what has been coined The Greenhouse Effect. When heat is unable to escape into the atmosphere, it raises temperatures. What happens to water when exposed to heat? It dries up. So, one of the consequences of The Greenhouse Effect is a drying out of the land. Because of drought, green plants do not grow as well. Because green plants do not grow as well, our planet’s ability to absorb CO2 is reduced even further. The imbalance in our atmosphere grows deeper and broader. The Green house Effect is amplified. Temperatures rise even further. The earth and plant life dry out to an even greater degree and a cycle of collapse begins to ensue.
In Australia, this cycle has been magnified because of that country’s connection to coal. Coal has long been associated with helping to create greenhouse gas and, as such, many countries around the world have diversified their economies and have moved away from coal production as a means of employment and wealth creation. But, not Australia. It is the world’s leading exporter of coal. Because coal is so integral to the economy of Australia, there has been little will, on a political level, to move on to greener forms of energy. As a consequence, a perfect storm of environmental forces have gathered in the Land Down Under and we are seeing the results in the form of fire.
I have never been to Australia and I have no friends nor family there but, what is happening there at the moment concerns me immensely. Scientists have been saying that we have little time left to correct how we interact with our planet before it is too late. They speak of a tipping point being right around the corner for us all. They speak of the conditions being right for the setting off of a chain reaction of climate-related events that, once set into motion, will be almost impossible for us to stop. Australia is an example of what they are talking about and it is all happening before our eyes, in real time.
That Australia is burning is not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The ingredients to a climate collapse have been evident there for some time. Carbon Dioxide levels have been allowed to climb beyond Earth’s ability to deal with it effectively. Temperatures have been soaring for years, resulting in Australia being the hottest place on Earth right now. Because it has been so hot for so many years, the land has dried out and the trees have become tinder dry. As the fires began, temperatures have increased even more, things have become even drier and the fire finds fuel everywhere.
I do not smell the smoke of their fires. I do not feel the heat from their flames. But, as Australia burns, I see my own future and yours, as well. I sit in a province (Ontario) that is led by people willing to spend millions of dollars to fight a sin tax on fossil fuel consumption. I live in a province where green energy projects have been cancelled. I live in a province that continues to sell off farmlands and wetlands to housing developers. At a time when environmental tipping points are beginning to be reached in some parts of our world, here in Ontario and in Alberta and Saskatchewan, those in charge are still arguing that their isn’t really a problem at all. They are seeking even more development of the fossil fuel industry.
It is a discouraging time to be on the side of being a steward of our planet. We recycle and compost and use energy efficient light bulbs. We have virtually eliminated single-use plastics from our daily lives in our house. We are trying our best to make a difference, to pay our debt to the planet and, no doubt, you are, too. But, as Australia burns, it does not seem like enough. As a society, we need more systemic changes. We need our leaders to change how they prioritize their spending. For example, some municipalities have started making public transit free of charge. The thinking is that if, as a society, we are to reduce our dependence on cars then, an affordable and effective alternative must be in place. In those municipalities that have made transit free of charge, decisions were made at a leadership level to invest tax dollars to help subsidize the cost of running buses and trains. Those types of paradigm decisions aren’t for the faint of heart but, in light of what is happening in Australia, people are beginning to find courage a necessity and are slowly beginning to act.
A future without fossil fuels is possible and would be helpful. Sales of electric cars are soaring in Europe and are starting to grow in North America. The big benefit of electric cars is that they produce no exhaust and thus, no CO2 emissions. But, the infrastructure necessary to sustain electric vehicles on a mass scale remains in its infancy. In Ontario, our premier has made things more difficult by removing electric car charging stations from all government properties. Do we have the time and the will to invest in having electric charging stations in every home? How about our tax dollars going toward solar panels on every roof? How about every new home being built having a zero carbon footprint?
The way forward, environmentally-speaking, is known. We have to stop using fossil fuels. We need more trees and wetlands. We need to invest, on a societal level, in making green energy part of the fabric of our societies, much like the early indigenous peoples did way back when our planet was healthy and green. The alternative is to wait for our country to have its own Australia-esque tipping point. For me, there is no debate about the science of climate change. It is very observable and easy to see. What is not easy is changing the way in which we live. We like our things. We like the self-determination that comes from getting in our own cars and driving where we want, when we want. I am sure that the Aussies liked their lifestyle, too. But now, maybe not so much.
I truly hope that the lessons Australia is teaching the world cause the necessary action to be taken by our leaders. I would like to say that I am optimistic that this will be so. But, the simple fact that we, as citizens, are being rebuffed, again and again, by leaders who are aligned with the fossil fuel oligarchs of the world, leads me to think that this will not be the case. For love of money, our planet will be sold out and we will all have our Australia reckoning, sooner or later. Whether it be fires (as in Australia, California, Fort McMurray) or floods from rising seas (as in Indonesia, Venice or, as I read about just yesterday, Liverpool, NS) or from the winds from increasingly strong hurricanes and tornadoes, Climate Change is coming to a town or a city near us all. When it does, all that money and all those possessions that we strive so earnestly for, won’t mean much.
I love fiddle music but, even I know when it is time to put the fiddle away. That time is now.
The jig is up. The cat is out of the bag. This year, for the first time in the past forty years of my life, Christmas in my house is not revolving around Jolly Old St. Nick. Our youngest daughter, Sophie, whisked away a lifetime of Santa Magic with the snap of her fingers as she declared a few weeks ago that she knew that Mommy and Daddy are the ones who buy all of the presents. She announced this at supper. She said it as easily and nonchalantly as if she was talking about a game she had played at recess at school. And, with those words, everything changed in an instant.
As a child, I was raised by parents who went out of their way to protect my innocence. So, my own personal belief in the story of Santa Claus lasted until I was 10 or 12 years old. Even after that, my sister, Mary Ellen, who was six years younger than me, still believed with every fibre of her being so, Christmas and Santa’s visit remained at the epi-centre of our family Christmas for another five or six years after I first learned the truth.
By the time Mary Ellen learned the truth, I was ready to head off to university. Santa should not have been a factor anymore but, he was because Christmas now revolved around me coming home for the holidays. With me home, my mother viewed her family as being intact again and so, she went to great lengths to keep our old traditions alive. So, we went to church on Christmas Eve. We visited friends and neighbours on the way home and dropped off gifts. We had a big turkey dinner with all of the trimmings the next day with all of our relatives who could come. Through it all, stockings which were empty when we went to bed, magically were stuffed when we woke up. There were more presents under the tree than there had been the night before, too. Must be the magic of Santa!
Upon my graduation from university, I began my teaching career. I spent thirty years straight, surrounded by children whose innocence I strove to protect. They believed in Santa with all of their might and I was tasked with nurturing that belief. So, we read a ton of Christmas books (their favourites can be viewed here). We wrote letters to Santa. We drew pictures of Santa. We sang songs about Santa, too. I Ho-Ho-Ho-ed my way through a lifetime of Christmas seasons at school and all the while, the magic of it was very real. There is a beauty in the innocent belief of a child. I got to see that and get paid to have it wash over me everyday. I am lucky to have been a teacher.
Then, of course, in addition to those students I taught, for the last thirteen years, I have lived in a house with my own children and have helped them put Santa Claus at the centre of all our traditions as a family. The girls both wrote letters to Santa. We sprinkled reindeer food on our lawn. We left milk and cookies and carrots for Santa. We left a shiny, silver key outside our front door (because we have no fireplace) so that Santa could safely get in when he arrived. And, he always arrived.
But now, with Sophie’s matter-of-fact pronouncement, Santa is gone. We are a family in transition this holiday season. As you can appreciate, when Santa was real, his arrival was a very big deal. His presence loomed larger than life. But now, his absence has left a void that we are seeking to fill. We aren’t religious people so the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus is as much a fable to us as flying reindeer and elves at the North Pole. So, we can’t look to the Church to fill the void left by Santa’s banishment in History. The buying of gifts for each other isn’t really doing it, either. We all love each other and do kind and considerate things for each other all year long. We don’t need a special holiday to force us into doting on each other. So, it almost seems odd and unnecessary to have presents piling up under a tree in our living room.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. What does Christmas mean to us anymore? I never realized how much of a lynch pin the myth of Santa was to the feeling of Christmas for us. But, sometimes loss gives birth to new and better experiences. In that light, we have made a dedicated effort to create new feelings by channeling our energy in acts of kindness for others. After all, the whole mantra of the Santa-infused Christmas traditions of the past was that it was better to give than to receive. So, with that in mind, let me share with you some of the things we have been up to as a family as we attempt to re-invent the spirit of Christmas in our home.
First of all, even though things feel a bit different at home this Christmas, at least, I am home. There are many people who are not with their loved ones this Christmas. One such group are soldiers who are serving in the Canadian Armed Forces and who are engaged in peacekeeping missions throughout the world. A month or so ago, my daughter Leah and I decided to each write a card to our Canadian soldiers so that they would know that they were in our thoughts during the Holidays and to thank them for their service. If you look at the photo on the right, you will see my card at the bottom of this stack of three cards. My card made it to a Canadian soldier serving in Latvia. As it turned out, this soldier is from the same town as we live in. So, once he told his parents that he had received a Christmas card from someone named “T. MacInnes” in Cobourg, they rushed over to our house and knocked on our door! They wanted to share their son’s news and to thank us for thinking of him at such a lonely time for so many people. A small chat ensued. Smiles and hugs were exchanged. We have since visited their home and dropped off a Christmas card for them, too. A small act of kindness has resulted in a new connection with a family in our town and, at the same time, we helped perk up someone’s day far across the world. *My daughter, Leah, has not yet heard back from anyone regarding her card but, if we do, I will let you know via an update at the end of this post.
You may recall that last year, Sophie and I made Christmas cards for everybody on our street. There are 34 other homes in our neighbourhood besides ours. We heard back from approximately one-third of our neighbours. *I wrote about that experience in a post that you can read here. So this year, we hoped to build upon our success and get to know even more of our neighbours. We decorated another set of envelops. We wrote messages of good cheer inside the cards that we stuffed into our artful envelops. Finally, Sophie spent a couple of hours making her famous star-shaped Christmas tree ornaments out of coloured glitter glue sticks and a hot glue gun. They all sparkle when exposed to the light of a Christmas tree. She made 34 in all. We placed one in each of the 34 cards and then, we set out to deliver them one day after school.
The response to our efforts has been overwhelmingly positive. In all of the cards, I made note of the fact that each star-shaped ornament had been hand-made by Sophie so, in the replies we have received to date, every single card from every single neighbour has included a special Thank You for Sophie. A few folks have included photos of her ornament on their trees. We have even visited in a couple of homes and have been shown where her ornament is hanging. The best part of all of this is that, from one home, we received, not only a card in reply to ours but, a notice saying that there is to be a Christmas-themed Open House this coming Saturday and that the whole neighbourhood is invited. Not only that but, if the weather co-operates, this family wants us all to go for a candle-light walk together. Now, that’s Christmas spirit! This is what I was hoping would happen when Sophie and I first starting drawing on envelopes last year. Our neighbourhood is becoming more of a community. Our lives, more closely intertwined. Actual conversations are accompanying what, in the past, were merely smiles and waves from afar. Our neighbourhood family is growing and becoming real. This makes me happy.
The final aspect of our Christmas in transition involves my mother. She is 88 and a half years old this Christmas. For the past four or five years, she has lived in an assisted-living complex in Sydney, Nova Scotia. She is well cared for there. During her time there, my mother has waged a valiant battle against aging. She became a prolific colourer of adult colouring books. She was an avid jigsaw puzzle maker. Finally, she enjoyed word search puzzles and tried to complete, at least, one each day. All of these things were intended to help keep her mind sharp and focussed. As well, my mum has always been a friendly person and her heart has always been large. As a result, she has devoted much time and energy to charitable causes, out in the real world, as well as, within the building she now resides. It was around this time, last Christmas, that my mother’s outgoing nature got the better of her. She became involved in too many activities and attended too many events and, eventually, her body rebelled and she ended up in the local hospital with chest pains.
That episode took a lot out of her. Her appetite has decreased. She does not attend to her puzzles or colouring the way she used to. She now naps every afternoon, too. So, this Christmas, my sister and I decided that we did not feel comfortable letting Ma attempt to shop for presents for us, go to the post office to mail them, go to the bank to pay for it all and so on. The days of our mother going out on her own are coming to a close. It is just not safe for her to do so anymore. So, I went down to visit her a week ago. The intention was that I would help set her decorations up and that I would drive her to the Mall and help her get our presents. I would do the wrapping of gifts and the mailing of them at the post office. I could do all of the running around that she was no longer able to safely do on her own. My sister is scheduled to come down after Christmas and help her put everything away and do whatever else she may need doing at the time. Hopefully, between the two of us, we can help guide our mother successfully through this holiday season.
Well, that mother of ours is a stubborn lady. Just like when I was coming home from university, Ma wanted everything perfect for her boy for Christmas. She managed to lift and display most of her decorations before I had ever set foot back home. However, because the weather was bad while I was down, she was not able to go shopping with me. I did the shopping on my own and brought back the presents to show her. But, she felt like those weren’t her presents because I had bought them. She asked me several times during the visit if she had already mailed our gifts up to Ontario from Nova Scotia. I replied each time by reminding her that the gifts I had shown her were her gifts to us this year and that I was taking them back in my suitcase. She was never entirely convinced that this was so.
To combat this, I asked Ma if she wanted to wrap these gifts herself. She was delighted to do so. She addressed the name tags, too but, forgot to put down her own name. That is where things stand with Nanna….my mother…this Christmas. Her mind is no longer alert. She is slowly being enveloped by a cognitive fog. It was sad to watch happen. But, having said that, while she may not be able to tell you what she gave the girls for Christmas this year, she did know that I was coming home for the Holidays and, just like in days gone by, she decorated her home for me for Christmas. In doing so, Ma gave me a pathway forward toward understanding the transition process we are all undergoing. It may be the best gift I will receive this year.
So, this Christmas, we are all transitioning. Gone is Santa. Going slowly is my mother. New arrivals include two-thirds of my neighbours who I can now call by name. But, on Christmas morning, as we open those gifts that sit under our tree, many of which the contents are already known, we will stop before we open those from my Mum. Those gifts remind me what Christmas is really all about. Those gifts were wrapped with love and with longing and may end up being the last gifts of their kind from my mother. But, while gifts may come and go over the years, the heartfelt sentiment behind them remains forever vibrant. Our lives are a tapestry; each connection we have with another human heart is a thread that connects us and helps our lives to have meaning. Perhaps that is the key, right there…..understanding that Christmas is a way of being, not just a single day on the calendar. It is more than the myths presented in the stories of babies in mangers and in reindeer that can fly. The real meaning of Christmas is found in the stories we create with those we allow into our hearts. It is believing that we matter to others and allowing others to matter to us. Love makes us all rich. So, while the pageantry of our Christmas traditions may be in transition, the Love and caring and kindness toward others remains the same. Thanks, Ma.
Merry Christmas to you, all. Thank you for being a part of my world of words. I value your presence here and wish you all the best in the year to come. May your hearts be filled with Love….always.
In Canada, and in many countries around the world, Earth Day occurs in April, at or near the beginning of Spring. Earth Day is especially relevant these days because of the nature of Climate Change on our planet. One of the most symbolic aspects of Earth Day is something called Earth Hour. During Earth Hour, people are encouraged to eliminate electrical use from their lives for one hour. This means leaving lights off and using candles, for instance, just for that one hour. It is a visible gesture that lets other people know that you are supportive of good practices when it comes to the environment.
I can remember when Earth Hour first started, fifteen or twenty years ago. It was a fairly big deal. On the late newscasts that night, you would be able to watch notable structures like The Eiffel Tower, The Empire State Building, The C.N. Tower, etc., all go dark. In school, we would practice going non-electrical by turning off our computers, our overhead lights and working quietly with only the daylight to illuminate our work space. Those were heady times when it came to raising environmental awareness and empowering citizens to take action. However, as the years have gone by, fewer and fewer people pay attention to Earth Day and to Earth Hour. Those who no longer participate will tell you that turning your TV off for an hour really makes no discernible difference to one’s carbon footprint so, why bother. Those who don’t participate but have a more positive outlook will reply that caring about the Earth is not a one-day event. Every day should be Earth Day. It should be a lifestyle of positive choices, not just one single day of showy displays.
I will admit that in my house, we no longer light candles and power down our devices during Earth Hour. Instead, we have opted for a full year of positive environmental choices including virtually eliminating the use of plastic bags and straws, planting pollinator gardens for bees and butterflies, using rain barrels to capture rain water and reduce our water consumption and so on. We are not environmentally perfect but, we are making good choices and are on the right track 365 days of the year. To our way of thinking, living an environmentally friendly lifestyle trumps the showy symbolism of participating in Earth Hour. Most of our friends and family members agree. Most of our neighbours do, too. Lifestyle choices and systemic national choices are what will save our planet in the end and since I believe that we have ourselves a nice, little old planet, I advocate for living an environmentally friendly life all year long.
There are many other days on our calendar, like Earth Day, that are really not that important. For example, I love my wife all year long, not just on Valentine’s Day. I love my children all year long, not just on their birthdays. I love my mother all year long, not just on Mothers Day. I am a proud Canadian all year long, not just on Canada Day.
For each of those “days”, I have opted to take the longer term view and incorporate the message that each day brings, into a lifestyle that spans the year. I’m a loving, generous person to everyone I care about. No one has to tell me to treat my family nicely. I care about each one of them and do as much as I can to make their lives better, each and every day of the year. Doing so is an attitude that permeates everything that I do each day. For example, I am retired but, my wife isn’t yet. So, everyday, I do simple things like running errands and doing housework so my wife doesn’t have to worry about that sort of thing when she makes it home from work. This isn’t the showy, red roses kind of gesture that happens on Valentine’s Day but, it does make a difference in the life of someone I care about and it happens every day of her working life. It is a way of living one’s life for the benefit of others and doing so all year long. Because of that, those special days such as Valentines Day, seem forced to us. We almost feel obligated to make some sort of public gesture toward each other so that other people will be ok with it. For us, our love is deep and true and we feel it all 365 days of the year. We don’t need a special day in February to know that we love each other, despite what advertisers may wish us to feel. We live a love-filled life and that trumps the showy symbolism of Valentines Day. I can say the same about birthdays, Mother’s Day and Canada Day, too.
My reason for writing this post today is because of certain events that have transpired in Canada this past week. On Monday, we marked a special day known here as Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day is a day set aside to honour all people who have worn a military uniform for Canada and have fought, in some capacity, in wars around the world. Like caring for the Earth or loving those members of your family, showing respect to those who gave their lives so that we can all live a rather free and democratic life, is something worth doing. Like shutting off your lights for an hour on Earth Day or giving your loved one a box of Belgian chocolates on Valentines Day, there has come to be a socially-acceptable way of symbolically showing respect on Remembrance Day in Canada and that is, by wearing a poppy on the lapel of your coat, over top of your heart.
Remembrance Day is rooted in our History. For example, we observe Remembrance Day on November 11th at 11:00am because that is the date and time that the Armistice agreement was signed, ending World War 1. We wear poppies because of a famous poem written by medical doctor, Lt. John McCrae called In Flanders Field, about poppies growing on the battlefields near where he was tending the wounded. As a country, Canada came of age, in part, because of our participation as our own nation in the Allied Forces that battled on the Western Front in Europe. All through my life, until this year, Remembrance Day has always been a respectful and solemn observance that has always helped to remind everyone of the incredible price paid by some so we can live as we do.
This year in Canada, Remembrance Day didn’t feel like that. It felt divisive.
Increasingly, we seem to be living in a culture of “us vs them”. If you aren’t with us then, you’re against us. There is no common ground anymore. These days, we dig ourselves into our respective social media trenches on either side of our partisan demarcation points and we launch barrage after barrage of verbal grenades at those who aren’t like us. It is all so very ugly and it is a stain on the memories of those we used to seek to honour with our solemnity and decorum. This Remembrance Day was an ugly affair that ended up having very little to do with honouring anyone’s memory and everything to do with creating a patriotic litmus test over the showier aspects of the day. It was very much an “us vs them” yelling match over that ubiquitous notion of what constitutes “Canadian values”. The powder keg that ignited this blast? The little plastic poppies sold by The Royal Canadian Legion.
Apparently, fewer and fewer people have taken to wearing a plastic poppy. Like attendance in Church, poppy use has been on the decline in Canada for several years now. There are various theories on why this is; all of them containing some measure of validity. But, for many Canadians, a decrease in poppy use struck them as just one more attack on the history of Canadian culture. That our country is changing and evolving over time was cloaked in rhetoric that described that change as being a threat from “them” to “us”. In the process, TV personalities and media pundits all got involved in demonizing those bringing change….immigrants…….and the ugliness of it all erupted in volcanic proportions. Somewhere, lost in the muck and the mire, the dead bodies of those soldiers left behind in Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, rotated on a slow burn.
This is the danger when we, as a society, invest all of our energies into symbols instead of practices. The real-life litmus test about how to honour our fallen soldiers is no more about wearing a little plastic Belgian flower in November than buying my wife flowers in February is about how deeply my love runs for her. It is all about lifestyle choices and the attitudes that colour our lives all throughout the year. If we really want to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, here is a list of things we should do:
1- Vote: If the crux of why Canada went to war twice this past century was to preserve democratic values for those of us left behind then, it is our responsibility to help maintain democracy by voting in the elections that are held. Voting is one of the main ways we can all ensure that our country is run for the benefit of a majority of its citizens. So, if you want to honour a fallen soldier, whisper their name as you mark that “X” on whatever ballot you happen to have. Participatory Democracy is a wonderful thing and something that thousands of soldiers felt was worth fighting for. So, vote!
2- Listen/Read as a Critical Thinker: Somehow, in the poppy debate that sprang to life this week, a lack of critical thinking skills was on display for all to see. Somehow, all Canadian soldiers who fought in wars were white men and we can’t say Merry Christmas anymore and our Prime Minister wore black face at a party in his younger days and so, what ya going to do about that, eh?! Logic disappeared down the rabbit hole and it quickly became very difficult to have a sensible conversation with anyone about Remembrance Day at all. The talk all became about TV personalities and immigrants who, if you follow the Alice-in-Wonderlandesque logic displayed in most online comment threads, aren’t real Canadians and they are the cause of change and we don’t like change now, do we?!
Sometimes a news story is what it is about and, sometimes, it is about something bigger. There was, obviously, a political aspect to the debate about poppies and immigrants and Canadian values. Anti-immigration views are held by right-wing political parties around the world. Seeing as we get so much of our news online these days, it is important to know the spin behind the post or tweet you read. It is equally important to understand how media ownership in Canada shapes the way stories are reported and/or not reported at all. Being a critical thinker and understanding how information makes its way to your screen is a very important skill to have. Sometimes, a simple sound bite is easier to digest than to actually take the time to examine an issue but, if you really want to honour the memory of a fallen soldier then, take the extra time to read critically so you completely understand what you are debating and what is at stake. Because, let’s be honest, the poppy controversy this week was never really about poppies.
3- Be a Decent Human Being: If you are ever read a survey of citizens of foreign countries being asked about Canada and Canadians, you always get the same results: Canadians are nice and friendly and kind and caring and have good education system and healthcare and lots of beautiful land. Our image in the world remains very positive. We can honour the memory of our veterans by helping to keep Canada that country that is a such a role-model throughout the world. One of the best ways to do that is by being all of the things that we are known for. Be kind to those you come into contact with. It costs nothing to smile and be pleasant and polite. Live an environmentally friendly lifestyle because it helps preserve the wonderful countryside, of which there is so much in Canada. Be thankful and grateful to those who work on your behalf. If you want to thank a veteran or honour a memory, do so but, as well, thank your waiter/waitress, thank the cook who made your meal. Thank your child’s teacher. Thank a police officer or fire fighter or nurse for all they do. Be thankful and positive as your go-to option in life. People appreciate being treated nicely. Raising the tenor of our social conduct is a wonderful way to maintain a Canada that the world loves and that millions died to protect.
4- Be Receptive To Change: Change is a part of life. I know that I certainly live differently now that I did half a lifetime ago. Some of those changes have come at my discretion but, others have come because of age or finances or external factors such as the environment. Regardless of how I arrived at each new point in my life, each new point appeared and I was tasked with accepting said change or fighting it. When it comes to the poppy debate, this is one of the fundamental underlying aspects: change and how people react toward it.
Those who stoke division as a political tool will tell you that change is to be avoided at all cost. Change is a threat to a way of life that deserves protection and continuation. For example, green energy is portrayed as a threat to those who favour fossil fuels. Immigration is portrayed as a threat to those who believe that a white, Christian culture is the foundation of our History. There is never room for blending options; one is good and one is always bad. One is to be treasured, one is to be feared. In the poppy debate this week, immigrants were used as a political tool to reinforce the notion that change is bad and is to be resisted. I have had several conversations this week with people about this and each of them said, at one point or another, “I wish things didn’t have to change.” It was said with a sigh and a sense of resignation that “others, who are different from us” will be defining how we live our lives going forward. That is too bad because that is not how it needs to be. Change can be wonderful.
Meeting my wife changed my life in a significant way, as did, having children. But, in both instances, that change bettered my life. When I grew up, I did so in a house that served a meat-and-potatoes meal almost every night. I loved those foods and still enjoy ham and steak and roast beef, etc. today. But, moving away from home brought me into contact with people who came from different cultural backgrounds and who introduced me to things like pirogies, curry, homemade tortillas and so much more. My diet is richer and more varied because I accepted change into my life. The biggest recent change for me has been retirement and the greatest positive consequence of retiring has been a complete revamping of how I spend my time during a day. I am more relaxed/less stressed, I do more of what I am interested in doing, I still get to be helpful to others and because I can get things done around the house during the day, it changes how family time is used because that time is no longer having to be spent on errands or chores as much as it once did. Change has given me a family and good food and time to use as I see fit. Change has been good and I am thankful to all of the various kinds souls who have come into my life and helped me grow as a person.
As we move onward with our lives, it is my belief that we need to do so with a greater resolve to move away from placing too much importance on symbolic gestures such as wearing a poppy or turning off your lights on Earth day and move toward developing a year-long set of lifestyle choices that demonstrate our commitment to a healthier environment, a more loving and positive social life, a more involved and aware sense of civic responsibilities and a broader, deeper appreciation for the changes that life throws our way.
I will end with the following: at the beginning of the movie Patton, actor George C. Scott, in the title role, famously said, “No one ever won a war by dying for their country. They won the war by making some other dumb, son of a bitch die for his country.” Our soldiers fought their wars with the belief that they were the good guys. They believed that they were representing a nation that was good, as well. They fought against oppression and cruelty. They fought for freedom and democracy. If we want to honour their memory, wear a little plastic flower on your lapel if that so moves you but, more than that, honour their memory by living a life of honour and charity and faithfulness. Be a good person. Last time I checked, good people came in all shapes, sizes, colours, religions, genders, and cultures, too.