Home, Sweet Home!

My mother is turning 88 years old in June. Just prior to this past Christmas, she had an episode with her heart that caused her to be in hospital for three weeks. She received wonderful care from the doctors and nurses and has now returned to her home in an assisted-living residence for senior citizens. Now comes then hard part for her, finding the physical and emotional strength to remain being able to live independently.

Home, wherever that may be, is a special place. This is so for a myriad of reasons but, foremost among them is that Home equates with personal freedom. Your home, be it a condo, a starter home, a mobile home, a mansion or something else altogether, is your space. You can live the life you wish to live within the confines of your personal safe haven. Unlike living with your parents, for example, or being a renter, having your own home affords you the opportunity to explore your world as you see fit. Don’t like wearing pants?! Don’t wear them then when you are home! Want to rise with the sun every morning?! Go ahead and start your every day with the golden rays of the sun on your skin. It’s your choice because it is your home. Having personal freedom to make your own choices is one of life’s most enticing elixirs. It is something that, once tasted, is incredibly difficult to stop savouring and desiring as life unfolds.

So, as my mother lay in her hospital bed, our conversation was never just about her getting better. It was always about whether or not she would recover enough to stay in her current home. Or, more to the point, would she be able to recover sufficiently to continue living life on her terms once she left the hospital. The short answer, for now, is yes. My mother is back in her apartment in her assisted-living residence. But, the depth and scope of her choices has lessened as a result of her illness. Instead of leaving the residence to go shopping, as she was able to do in December, she now considers it an accomplishment to walk (with a walker) to the dining room and have her lunch in public. This tires her out and forces her to rest more than before. Not being able to walk very far limits her life choices to those available within her residence. Luckily, her residence…….the place she calls home…is very nice and she is surrounded by people who care for her and who are helping her as she recovers.

But Life is a cruel Master. It gives you the greater part of a lifetime to enjoy the freedom of living how you choose and then, as the end draws near, Life claws back that freedom, incremental block by incremental block. My mother and father married in the 1950s. Before I was born, they travelled to Europe, the U.S and across Canada. My mother was a Registered Nurse, working full-time during a time in the evolution of our society when women were only just starting to have careers outside of the home. After my father’s death when I was just 11 years old, my mother raised my sister and me on her own. Up until the last five years of her life, my mother always lived on her own in a house or apartment and enjoyed a life of great independence. And then, Life presented my mother with a bill that she was unable to pay. The winters grew colder and longer, the storms more intense and her gait less steady on icy walkways and roads. Suddenly, my independent mother began to become fearful when it came time to leave her home; fearful that she would fall and be unable to get up, fearful that she would break a hip, as cliched as that sounds, fearful that she would lose control of her life and the power to make her own decisions.

So, she made a decision. A decision to give up living on her own in her own home and apply for admission into the assisted-living residence where she currently resides. The independence and freedom of having the world as her oyster ceased to exist when she moved. Life collected a portion of its debt and, as a result, my mother’s world shrunk. She still has an apartment but, like all the other residents, she is not the only one with a key to her door. Staff check on her and work to make sure she is safe. If they detect anything that they feel may be unsafe, they can report it to the head supervisor and meetings will be held. For example, my mother has a kitchenette. She was always a great cook in her younger days, but now, she sometimes forgets to turn off a burner or that she has even put a teapot or some eggs on to boil. Meetings were held. My mother has now been asked to not use her oven and to stay in the kitchen if she ever wishes to boil an egg again or else they will have to remove her stove….for safety reasons. To help, we bought her an electric kettle that has an automatic shutoff. A stove is very important to my mother so, she works very hard to remember to turn everything off and to watch her pots when they are boiling but, it is hard for her to always remember. Meanwhile, Life chuckles and readies another bill.

I am not sure how it is in the rest of the world but, in Canada, there are systems in place to help people, like my mother, to transition through the various stages that occur near the end of life. For now, while my mother has been discharged from hospital, she has been provided with in-home support from a personal service worker (P.S.W.) who stops in each day to provide physical therapy, help with food preparation, etc. This is very helpful because neither my sister nor I are geographically close to our mother. This is a public service and was arranged by a social worker who works in the hospital specifically to deal with the elderly and with families who are unsure of how best to help. There are, also, private agencies that, for a fee, will provide workers to assist my mother should she need to leave her residence for an appointment, for example. All of this brings a measure of comfort to those of us far from home.

My mother, also, has her name on a list to move into a nursing home. Regardless of the state of her recovery from her heart illness, the call that a bed has opened up should come within the calendar year, or so we have been told. A nursing home is the next stage available for the elderly. In doing so, she will trade her assisted-living apartment for a room with a bed and a dresser and a chair by the window and round-the-clock care. Her world will shrink again, as will, her ability to make decisions for herself. Following a nursing home, my mother will end up like all do near the end, in a palliative care ward in the hospital. At that point, her world will have shrunk down to the confines of her own skin and bones. And then, she will die. She will. It happens to everyone eventually. Life will collect its debt in full and that debt, once paid, earns the payee the reward of eternal freedom.

My mother has never been one for spontaneous gestures so, I doubt she will opt to jump into a volcano or throw herself off of a mountain peak, all to avoid progressing through the life stages that await and which are beckoning with increasing urgency. I have watched aunts and uncles and my wife’s grandfather, all recently pass away so I am familiar with the stages of decline that occur and, to the person involved, the incremental loss of freedom that happens. For now, I am trying to put on a brave face and be very matter-of-fact about it all but, when each stage comes, my heart will crack a little more and it will be tougher than I expect, I am sure.

But, we are not at the end yet.

When I spoke with my mother yesterday on the phone, she said she was feeling more like herself. I told her that I was happy for her. She is glad to be home. I know she welcomes making her own choices again, after being in the hospital for three weeks. The intoxication of independence is not something given up without a fight. I am lucky that her mind is clear and that she is lucid, to a point. I intend to treasure every moment we all have left with her because, as many of you can attest, moms are everything. And, Moms and Home kind of go, hand-in-hand, don’t they? Just goes to show that when I speak of “going home”, I am not always just talking about Cape Breton.

A Foundation of Love

Recently, I was asked to contribute a short piece of writing to a website called Inspire Your Marriage. This is a website that offers profiles of married couples. These couples provide stories of what helped make their marriage work, what some of the ups and downs may have been and how did they resolve any difficulties they may have encountered. Here is the story of Keri and Tom.

Keri and I have a very good marriage because our marriage is built upon a foundation of Love. All good marriages are. It may seem like an obvious starting point but it bears examination. This is what I mean by Love.

When you love someone….I mean, truly love someone….the focus of your life changes. It is no longer just about you and your wants and needs. When you truly love someone, their happiness and well-being, their hopes and dreams, all become as important to you as they are to your partner. And the best part about it is that you welcome this responsibility willingly into your life. Falling in love with my wife didn’t cramp my style in the least. In fact, it elevated my life to a higher plane and brought a sense of joy and contentment that I never knew was possible. We completed each other, right from the very beginning of our relationship and are partners in the truest sense of the word.

One of the most important secrets to our success is that we love each other for who we are. Neither of us tries to change the other into someone they aren’t. We are happy with the person we each found when we met. Make no mistake, Keri and I are different people. We bring different skills and experiences and personality types to the table. But, instead of fighting against each other when our personalities clash, we have, instead, always found ways to complement each other. I will give you a quick example. I am more of an introvert while Keri is more of an extrovert. I have always recognized that having many friends is important to Keri and brings her much happiness. Therefore, even though I don’t desire to always be going out and about, I have always encouraged Keri to maintain social relationships outside of our home; with her work colleagues, university classmates, family members and so on. Keri, for her part, recognizes that I am comfortable living within the space between my ears and, as such, she never forces social engagements on me. She gets her social time. I get my quiet time. We both are happy.

A final element to the success of our marriages resides in the fact that, as partners in Life, we understand the importance of helping each other out; especially, with the day-to-day grind of running a house and raising a family. We each have our jobs; Keri washes the clothes. I iron them when they are done. Keri dusts the furniture and then, I vacuum. I cook most of the meals and Keri washes the dishes most days and so on, it goes. Because we care about each other, we derive no pleasure from watching the other person being unduly burdened by chores. Being helpful in equal measure helps lessen the burden of running a home on both of us. This, in turn, gives us more time to share together doing things we enjoy, even it is something as simple as sharing some hot tea and chatting about our day.

I consider myself to be blessed. My life, as a husband and father, has unfolded better than I could have dared to dream. My heart is full. My wife and my children have helped to make it that way. I am rich beyond measure as a result. And, all because we have built our marriage on a foundation of Love.

The Power of Success

I had an unexpectedly interesting day while using social media today. I am not usually someone who fawns over celebrities when it comes to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram but, every now and again, because of technology, a connection is made with someone that people would consider to be “famous”. In my case, while on Twitter this morning, I found myself chatting, via tweets, with Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk.

Chantal Kreviazuk has been a star in the Canadian music scene for a couple of decades now and has several number one hits. For over twenty years, she has been married to another Canadian music star, Raine Maida, lead singer of rock group, Our Lady Peace. I have long been a fan of both performers because they have always been about way more than just their music and record sales. In fact, a few years ago, I wrote a post about them. I will insert that post in now and, after it is done, I will tell you what it was that caught my attention this morning and helped reaffirm the strong level of respect I hold for both performers. Here we go……

     Success means different things to different people.  To many of us, the measure of success is purely quantitative; those who have the most are the most successful because, well, they have the most.  The Education System is groaning under the weight of using standardized testing to measure success. In Music, record sales and concert ticket sales are often the standard by which the success of a singer or band is measured.  But, is this fair? 

     In order for data-driven criteria to be the most valid indicator of success in Music, an artist or band has to play that game as well.  While record sales are always important, in so much as they generate income and help pay the bills that allow artists to produce albums and to hold concerts, for some artists, record sales are just a means to an end and are not the single most important measure of success for them.  Sometimes, an artist is in it for something grander. Sometimes, an artist aspires to use their fame and notoriety to promote a cause that they champion that, is important to them and that, in their eyes, is more more than ticket sales and album units moved.  Such a band was Our Lady Peace.

     Our Lady Peace is a fairly successful Canadian pop-rock band. Over the course of their career, they have been awarded four Juno Awards and nine Much Music Video awards (the most ever by a single band.) They’ve had numerous Top Ten radio hits such as, Is Anybody HomeStarseed, LifeInnocentSuperman’s DeadSomewhere Out There and Clumsy.   While never quite ascending to the lofty heights of stadium rock maintained by bands such as Rush or Bryan Adams in his day, Our Lady Peace still managed to be that band that would come to your hometown and sell out the local theatre or hockey rink.  They were a made-in-Canada and maintained-in-Canada success story, as far as record sales are concerned.  But, record sales do not tell the whole story.

    Lead singer, Raine Maida, has always been noted for having one of the most powerful and unique voices in Canadian rock.  He is handsome and personable, too.  In the early days of Our Lady Peace, Maida was certainly being groomed to be a “rock star”, in the mode of a Corey Hart, perhaps.  But Maida, to his credit, had a higher purpose to his life and refused to be lured into the false trappings of stardom.  Raine Maida is married to fellow singer Chantal Kreviazuk.  Lovely and talented as they both are, the potential to be a musical “power couple” was certainly there. However, both performers are Christians.  Because of their personal beliefs, both singers have dedicated much of their adult lives to helping others in need.  They perform at benefit concerts, they do mission work in third world countries and, at home, they have both dedicated sales of their hit songs to charity.  In the case of Our Lady Peace, sales of one of their biggest hits, Clumsy, have all been directed to helping support an anti-bullying venture in Canada known as Kids Help Phone, where children who feel lost or scared and alone can call and talk to a supportive adult.

     In my eyes, Our Lady Peace has to be considered a great Canadian success story. They have used their music to make a positive difference in the lives of others. At the end of the day, knowing that what you did mattered is among the most important measures of success there is.  Ask any kid who was contemplating suicide but didn’t follow through because of that voice on the phone. Ask any refugee who was given shelter and a warm meal. Ask any church whose coffers were bolstered because Our Lady Peace and Chantal Krevizuk appeared, without fanfare, at their church hall for a benefit concert…..ask any of them and they will tell you that fame, itself, is not the measure of success but, instead, it is using fame as a tool to make a difference that can make one a success.  Our Lady Peace and Chantal Kreviazuk had that figured out all along and, as a result, have enjoyed a most successful career as there has been.

I wrote that three years ago. This morning, I discovered that Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida are still using their fame, their platform, to help others. They have completed a documentary about the struggles and heartbreaks and love and successes they have encountered as a married couple. The documentary is set to air at the end of January and is called I’m Going To Break Your Heart. The link to the trailer is here. It can’t be easy to lay your soul bare for all to see but, that’s what Chantal and Raine have done. In the information I read about this documentary, they said that they have often been asked how their marriage has survived so long in the spotlight, as it were. They replied that no marriage is perfect and every relationship has its ups and downs and that it was important for people to see the human side to their world. They ended by saying that they believed love is worth believing in and fighting for. Their hope was that this documentary would inspire couples who were, perhaps, questioning the strength of their commitment, to, in fact, renew their will to fight for their own relationship instead of giving up.

So, I spent a few minutes this morning tweeting back and forth with Chantal Kreviazuk about Love, marriage and the power of success to help make a positive difference in the lives of others. Like I said off of the top, I don’t normally go on about celebrity encounters but, in this case, I am willing to make an exception. Do you have any advice for how to maintain a good marriage? Have you had any interesting celebrity encounters? If so, feel free to add your thoughts in the comment box below. Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read my words.

Will You Be My Neighbour: the Survey Says….

Faithful readers of this blog will know that, just prior to the “Christmas of 2018” holiday season, my daughter Sophie and I delivered 34 handmade Christmas cards to our neighbours. The hope was that, by reaching out via a Christmas greeting, that some of the walls of isolation that currently exist on our street would come crumbling down. This post will provide you with the reaction our cards received. Do I have to keep my nose firmly in my own business, gazing downward as I stroll down the street or will I be swapping stories about the weather and calling my neighbours by name as our paths cross? Let’s find out, shall we?

Of the 34 cards we sent out, the MacInnes Family received one email reply, two visits at our door and a total of ten cards left in our mailbox. That works out to be a return rate of almost one-third. Not perfect but, not bad, either. Of the replies that we did receive, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Here are a few of the replies:

“What a lovely surprise to get your card. The colouring was beautiful, as were the nice holly drawings.” from Bonnie at #2.

“Thank you for your Christmas card. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.” from Marie and Amy (her black lab) at #19.

“Thank you very much for your Christmas wishes.” from Maureen and Gerry.

“Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a year filled with happiness in 2019.” from Faith and Mike at #4.

“Thank you for your cheerful Christmas card and wonderfully hand-decorated envelop. You touched us with your Christmas spirit. Much appreciated.” from Tom, Judi, Kyle and Dex the dog.

“We were so touched to receive your lovely card and to meet one of our neighbours in such a way. Thank you. (And, we loved the beautiful artwork on the envelop!) Wishing you all a very happy holiday season, a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.” from Todd, Lea, Sophie and Luke at #8.

“Thank you for thinking of us. Merry Christmas to you all.” from Brenda and Ed at #20.

“We hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and, of course, Go, Blue Jays, Go!” from Jen, Brian, Abby and Emma. *This family are all big Toronto Blue Jay baseball fans and are known for having Blue Jay pennants and flags in the front of their house.

“Thank you for your card! I love the envelop! I hope we get to meet each other in person. Have a peaceful and safe holiday and a year filled with laughter.” from Starr. Starr’s card came in a personally-decorated envelop too, as you can see, she has some talent.

We received a card from Bernice and Eric at #16, too. While their greeting inside the card simply wished us a Merry Christmas, what was noteworthy is that Bernice actually knocked at our door and delivered, not just a card but, also, Christmas sweetbread and a tray of maple fudge that her husband had made that day. Both were delicious! You can see them in the photo at the top of this post.

So, as first steps go, this journey toward knowing my neighbours has gotten off to a good start. We reached out and many reached back. To those who have welcomed our gesture, the next step is, obviously, to reinforce the positive response we received, with a follow-up reply in kind…..even if it is simply waving to them the next time we are out at the same time and calling them by name. As walls go up, one stone at a time, walls come down, one kind act at a time, too. That is what this experiment was all about. Does kindness and friendliness still matter in today’s world? I believe it does and our Christmas cards were an attempt to prove it true. To those who reached back toward me and my family, I am very appreciative and grateful. I am not expecting to become best friends with anyone but, one never knows what the future may hold. For now, I am happy to live in a neighbourhood where we treat each other kindly, where we watch out for each other’s well-being and where we can greet each other with a smile and a wave and say hello by name.


I Hope You Can Hear the Bell

If you ask most children to tell you what Christmas is all about, the vast majority will talk about Santa Claus and elves and the North Pole and, most importantly to them, getting lots of presents. Not too many children realize that Christmas is actually a religious holiday unless they go to Church. And, not too many children go to Church these days. I would say, the total number of children who knew the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus was never more than a quarter of the class, in any given year.

Christmas is just one example of how young children view the world around them. Most kids have an very ego-centric view of life and move through their days blissfully unaware of why things are the way they are. Why is the weather the way it is? Why do we eat certain foods and avoid other types of food? Why do we put a tree in the middle our living rooms in December and stick a star or angel on top? Who knows? Who cares? May I go and play now, Teacher?

Well, one of the philosophical pillars of my teaching career was to help children make sense of their world. So, we talked about why it is cold in the Winter, even on sunny days. We talked about the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and veggies, as opposed to the empty calories found in junk food and how that affects our bodies and minds. And, at Christmas time, we talked about why we have the traditions we do because, when you stop to think about it, we do a lot of weird things during the holidays.

So, this post is going to talk a little about how I did that in the classrooms I taught in and, more specifically, some of the books that helped me explain the traditions of Christmas to children; especially those who don’t go to Church.

In my day, I had several hundred holiday-themed books in my collection. Over time, some came to become more useful to me as a teaching tool than others and some came to become favourites with the kids. Sometimes, the two merged together and the books became essential parts of every Holiday Unit I taught. The Christmas Pageant by Jacqueline Rogers is one such book.

I usually set aside three weeks to go through my Holiday Unit. This book was always one of the first books I shared with the children. The book is very simple in its structure: it tells the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus by showing a school class rehearse for their Christmas pageant. What is really good about this book is that as the rehearsal moves through the various stages of the Christmas story, the words and music to the old classic Christmas carols are presented. So, for example, when Mary and Joseph first start out on their journey, the words and music to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are given. When the angels first appear in the fields to the shepherds, the words and music to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” This happens all throughout the book.

The beauty of this is several fold. If you have ever seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and can remember the scene, close to the end, when Charlie Brown throws his hands up in frustration and cries, “Does anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?” and then, Linus goes to centre stage and says, “I do, Charlie Brown” and he proceeds to tell the story and Christmas suddenly becomes about something more than the greed and the glitz of commercialism well, The Christmas Pageant did the same for me with my students.

This book introduces the classic carols to kids. All of the kids know Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. But, this book allowed me to take the carols, one per day, and write out beautiful lyrics such as,

“Angels we have heard on high,

Sweetly singing o’er the plains

And the mountains in reply

Echoing their joyous strains

Glooooooooooooooria, In excelsis deo (X2)”

That is lovely language but, the story of the lyrics is told in context because of this book so, the language doesn’t end up being too lofty or intimidating, even for small children. In addition, it allowed me the chance to play these carols during craft times, as well as, Jingle Bells et al., and the songs would make sense to the kids and have a deeper meaning because they understood the story being told.

Furthermore, introducing the story of Jesus being born, along wth the carols that accompany the story helped my students in the same way that Linus helped the other Peanuts characters realize that there is more to this Christmas thing that they originally thought. Thus, because of this one book, I was able to open the door to exploring some of our Christmas traditions such as the importance of a star, of angels, of nativity scenes and so on.

I used to do this by using the Advent calendar format. Each day, we “opened” a new box or panel and revealed a new topic. For example, one day might be about candy canes and why they are shaped the way they are. The next day, might be why we bring trees inside our homes and the original German tradition of putting candles on the branches and how, for safety reasons, this has given way to electric lights. By the way, whenever I did the “lights on the trees” lesson, I always read The Nutcracker to the kids. It is the perfect story for illustrating how homes were decorated back then. It, also, introduces the concept of candy, including sugar plums. Once I have read this book to the kids, I can then read The Night Before Christmas and it will make more sense; especially the part when “the children all nestled snug in their beds, visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Getting back to the Nutcracker, for a second, reading that book, also, allowed me to go to YouTube and show the kids a clip of The Dance of The SugarPlum Fairy by The Bolshoi Ballet from Russia. *This comes up later in the list in another book, as well, called Olivia Saves Christmas.

I could talk all day about the Art and Science of teaching a Unit like the Holiday Unit to small children. But, for now, let me switch gears a little and tell you about some of our favourite books that always made an appearance during the course of the Unit. Some acted to help impart new knowledge of holiday traditions but, some others, were just fun read-alouds and some had other lessons incorporated into their storylines that appealed to the kids, as well. So, book talk time….here we go!!

James Herriot was a Veteranarian in Scotland. His stories of life as a Scottish vet became a TV series on PBS called All Creatures Great and Small. I really like this book, The Christmas Day Kitten because it allowed me to talk about two things that don’t normally get thought of at Christmas time. First of all, I got to say my piece about animals being given as gifts for Christmas and how pets aren’t gifts, like a doll or a toy truck. Pets are living creatures and for many kittens and puppies, the stimulation of Christmas can be frightening, as well as, the shock of being in new surroundings and, finally, knowing how much kids want to just go and play with all the new toys they just received, is it really the best time for them to learn to take care of a new pet? Secondly, there is a death in this story. The cat, in question, in this story dies giving birth to kittens. It is the only story that I had in my regular rotation of books that had a real death as part of the storyline. When the cat dies, the line in the book goes something like this…..the vet is talking……..”I placed my hand over her heart. Her heart beat no more.” The scene is an emotional gut punch and every single class always grew silent when I was done. With many classes, I would get asked if the cat was really dead. I would reply that it was and we would talk briefly about the Circle of Life. With other groups, the discussion would come up about pets who had died and, maybe, even family members who had passed away. When this came up, it allowed me to talk to the kids about how some people are sad at Christmas time and how we must truly think of others and show empathy. All in all, this book is important and was always handled in a sensitive manner. In the end, class after class, always thought it was special and, you know what? They were right. There are many James Herriot books and I recommend them all.

The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett is awesome because Jan Brett is a wonderful author and illustrator. This book was always popular and helpful because, while the story of Tekka training Santa’s reindeer played out, one day at a time, there was always a separate story playing out in the border of the book that showed what was going on in the workshop as December rolled along. So, for example, on December 1st, the elves were busy making wooden blocks, Russian Stacking dolls and stuffing stuffed animals. The fact that each page was a calendar date, dove-tailed nicely with the Advent Calendar-style format I was using to introduce each day’s Christmas tradition.

The Little Drummer Mouse is written by Mercer Meyer who, if you are familiar with children’s literature, wrote the Little Critter series and is much beloved, as a result. This story is based on the carol, The Little Drummer Boy. The illustrations are gorgeous in this book and I would like it enough for that alone. But, the lessons in this book are noteworthy, as well. For example, the forest animals learn that “the Royal Family” will be passing by. They plan an elaborate feast, all the while showing little patience for the little drummer mouse who, they feel, has nothing to contribute and is in the way. Unbeknownst to the animals, as they flit about, madly preparing for royalty, quietly, in the background, a young couple silently pass by (Mary and Joseph). No one pays any attention to these poor folk. Eventually, while everyone is asleep, the mouse goes to an empty field to play his drum. Once there, he notices the bright star and feels compelled to follow it. He is in awe of what he sees in the stable and is asked to play the drums for the baby because the drumming is the only thing that calms the newborn. Suddenly, the mouse is very important. I like this story because it helps to drive home the point of how we judge others based upon their appearance and, as well, it allowed me to reinforce the notion that the smallest ones….just like my young students…..still have worth and still have value and can make a significant difference in the lives of others. It is a message than young children can never hear often enough.

Some stories are just fun reads and are super clever in their concept. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup is one such book. This book is about a boy who is making Christmas cookies with his Mom and decides he wants to turn his gingerbread men into a pirate crew, instead. Needless to say, the pirate cookies come to life during the night and end up fighting for their cookie lives as they attempt to avoid being eaten by the nasty giant all dressed in red. Lots of comedic turns throughout the story but, the best part of all is that, if you are so inclined….and why wouldn’t you be….you can read Captain Cookie’s character in a pirate voice all the way through. Every book is better when you can read it in a pirate voice! Arrrrrr, matey!

OMG!!! If there is any better character the world of Children’s literature than Olivia then, I don’t know who it is! Olivia Saves Christmas by Ian Falconer is the perfect melding of words and illustrations. There are fold out pages. There are cartoon illustrations plus, real photographs, too. Olivia, herself, is a diva. she loves fashion and art and, while having a heart of gold, always ends up exhausting her parents with her antics. Like every book in the Olivia series, there is a high degree of interactivity with this book. I highly recommend them all. If you are in a book store and see any of the Olivia books, pick it up and have a quick read. I guarantee that you will love what you see. Just as a teaser, when Christmas day is over, Olivia falls asleep. She dreams she is dancing the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy with Rudolph Nureyev in The Nutcracker; Nureyev and the stage in photograph form, Olivia is cartoon form, the perfect expression of happiness and contentment on her face.

Prolific adult author, James Patterson, wrote this book called Santa Kid. This book reads like a Hallmark Christmas movie. The illustrations are gorgeous but, the overall theme of a child saving Christmas is a message I always wanted to drive home to my kids. I never wanted them to feel helpless or as mere passengers in their own journey. I always sought ways to empower children and books like Santa Kid allowed me to give that message out. In short, this story is about a businessman who takes over Christmas and the North Pole because he claims that Santa isn’t as efficient as he should be when it comes to production and delivery and profit margins. Santa becomes too depressed to act, once things begin to go awry at the North Pole so, his daughter steps in a saves the day. I always like books that have female heroines, too and, this one does. Like I said, it reads like a movie so, kids always get caught up in the adventure of it all and they enjoy this book thoroughly. More of a book you would read to your child, as opposed to one they would read on their own but, just the same, a recommended Christmas choice.

Like Santa Kid, Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera, is a little more like a movie than most stories. It involves the spoiled Kringle children who live in a penthouse apartment in New York. They have a mysterious aunt who always goes away on “business trips” at this time of year. This is another story with a female lead. Sophie, the eldest sibling, decides to hide away in her aunt’s luggage as she prepares for her big trip. Not surprisingly, she ends up at The North Pole. Because she is small, she is mistaken for an elf and gets assigned various duties. Eventually, she goes down in the coal mines to get the list of naughty boys and girls and discovers that her brother’s name is on that list. Sophie has an epiphany and comes to realize the error of the way she and her brother have been acting and attempts to redeem her brother so that he will get gifts for Christmas, too. Eventually lessons are learned and identities revealed and secrets are shared. Over the years, the children I have shared this story with have enjoyed the detail and creativity given to the traditional Santa Claus tale that they are familiar with.

Berkley Breathed won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1987 for his comic strip, Bloom County. Much of the same high-calibre ability to combine illustrations with a strong storyline is evident in this book, A Wish For Wings That Work. This story is centred on one of his famous comic strip characters, Opus, who is a penguin who wishes to be able to fly. Obviously, as you know, penguins can’t do that in real life. Thus, Breathed tells a tale of a character who feels inadequate and defeated, “Imagine a bird whose wings sputter at those times when they should flutter”. Opus tries many different ways to fly such as ordering a Flap-o-matic from Ronco but, in the end, his dream never seems to be realized. But, as in all stories of this sort, redemption comes in the form of an emergency when his penguin swimming skills help to save Santa and, by extension, help to save Christmas. Earlier in the story, while sitting under a framed photo of Amelia Earhart, Opus had written to Santa, asking to be able to fly and, in a heart-warming way, Santa delivers the gift that Opus wanted in a way that makes Opus feel proud of himself in the process. Lots of depth and detail to the story and to the drawings in this book. One of my all-time favourite Christmas stories.

Sometimes, a book becomes a classic because of marketing and hype. But, sometimes, a book becomes a classic just because it is so good. There are two Christmas books that everyone should have and How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is one of them. The second book is The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.

I doubt that summaries are needed for either of these book so, I will spare you that. But, let me tell you why I have found these two books to be so very special.

First of all, short of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch is, arguably, the most iconic character in Christmas literature. Dr. Seuss has done a masterful job of creating a character so repugnant and evil that you have to root against him. But, his redemption is so profound and complete that, you can’t help cheering for him in the end. The rhyming nature of Seuss’ prose makes this story a delight to read aloud or to listen to. And, just like reading a story in a pirate voice is fun, I cannot…..I mean, absolutely cannot read this story in any other voice than that of Boris Karloff, from the original cartoon movie. If I was tasked with having to read aloud one story over and over again, for all of eternity, it would be How The Grinch Stole Christmas in a Boris Karloff voice. Man, I love it so much!!! And, so do the kids.

As for The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, this is my #1 book, and is the favourite choice, year after year, of the kids in my classrooms. The reason for this is simple….this story is all about the power of believing in something bigger and more profound than yourself. Believing in something is a powerful tonic for what ails all of our souls and what better thing to believe in with all your heart than the magic of Christmas. The way this book ends, with the ability of those who believe to hear the ringing of the bell, is as powerful a closing scene as almost any book ever written. I had the pleasure of working with children for thirty years and, believe me, the innocence of childhood hearts is as precious a gift as there is in this world; something that The Polar Express captures completely.

As I said waaaaaaay off of the top of this post, at one time, I owned hundreds and hundreds of Christmas books. The list I just gave to you is, by no means, exhaustive nor complete. There are countless other good books out there that help children understand the traditions, emotions and reasons for all that we do during the Holiday season. I hope that you enjoyed my list and that you all have a wonderful Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, etc., wherever you happen to be.

***The photo I am using as my cover photo is from a company called MagicalBells.com 

For all of your “bell” needs and more, give them a looksee.



Will You Be My Neighbour: Part-II

I have always believed in the power of stories.

The handing down of traditions and the shaping of identities through the stories we tell is as universal a practise as there is on our planet. It helps others to know us better and it is a starting point for us to know ourselves.

For the sake of this post, I am not interested so much in the cultural stories of nations, clans or tribes. I am more interested in talking today about the autobiographies that we add to each day as we rise from our beds in the morning and begin interacting with our world.  We are the authors of our own life stories. Stories that are shaped by factors unique to each of us; such as finances, careers, romance, health, family and much more. We are the central characters in the drama that is our life and, as characters, we all have a name. My name is Tom. Pleased to meet you.

Just as there is power in stories, there is also power in knowing someone’s name. It is not without reason that one of the challenges that classroom teachers set for themselves on the first day of school is to learn to properly put names to the faces of all their students. “Sit down, Billy!” carries a lot more authoritative weight in those initial moments of a school year than does, “Sit down….you there!”   But, much more than that, for me, knowing someone’s name is the gateway to knowing their story. Knowing someone’s story is the gateway to understanding who a person is and how best to interact with them. When we understand the people around us, it is often easier to avoid unintentional insults such as the other day when two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked at our door and my wife cheerfully wished them a Merry Christmas.

When I was still working as a classroom teacher, the names I knew and the stories I came to understand belonged to those I worked along side and to those students I taught and, by extension, their families. Now that I am retired, the people I am physically closest to are my neighbours. There are 32 houses on my street. I know the names of the folks in five of those houses. That’s it. Five out of thirty-two is a woefully inadequate number for someone, like me, who lives for stories. 

For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, you will note that knowing the names of my neighbours does not, automatically, allow me to know their stories, as was described in greater detail in the post about my next door neighbour, Chris, being a famous musician and me not having a clue. *(You can read that post here.)  It has been a month since I have learned about Chris’ true identity. My shock at not knowing he was famous has given way to greater state of embarrassment that I wasn’t a better neighbour. If I had taken a bit more time away from the isolating presence of my computer screen and invested a bit more time in having a conversation that extended beyond the superficial pleasantries of a wave and a smile as we mowed our lawns then, perhaps, I would have known how heavily the responsibilities of performing on a national stage weighed upon him. Perhaps, I could have found a kindred creative spirit. But, all of the maybes in the world can’t change the fact that I was probably playing Candy Crush or scrolling through my Twitter feed when Chris drove away from my neighbourhood for the final time. I know that we did not smile and wave, as he left, taking his stories with him. 

One of the reasons this incident bothers me so much is that being an inattentive neighbour is not how I was raised. I grew up on Cape Breton Island. As a child, our door was always open and neighbours would regularly “pay a call” and drop by unannounced. You never knew, from one day to the next, when someone would show up at your door and would end up sitting around our kitchen table. A hot cup of tea and a tray of sweets were always at the ready. People came to our house all the time and we went to theirs as well. That’s just how the times were then. Life seemed less structured and scheduled in many ways. But, it seems different now. 

Nowadays, instead of inviting others in, we often view our homes as being safe havens from the noisy world around us. We value our refuge. We retreat, willingly, into the welcoming worlds of our on-line relationships, basking in the warm glow of the red hearts and thumbs-up that grace our every utterance.

I am as guilty of this as the next person. So, as a result, I have begun what I can only term as a “social experiment” in my neighbourhood. As you may have read earlier this week, my daughter, Sophie and I, made Christmas cards for everyone in our neighbourhood.  I delivered them, half on Monday and the rest on Wednesday. I walked up 31 different driveways, most of which I was doing so for the first time, and placed the cards into each mailbox. 

I opted to deliver Christmas cards as my choice of interaction with my neighbours because it was Christmas, obviously but, as well, because the exchanging of cards at Christmas is something that I remember well from my youth. When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to receive over one hundred cards during the holidays. I can remember my mother hanging up string across our living room and using clothes pins to hold the cards on the line. Since many of my neighbours are older, my thinking was that they might be more receptive to a Christmas card than they would a knock on their door. So, I delivered our cards and now I am waiting.  I have had one response.

Not long after I delivered my final card on Wednesday, I found myself sitting in my living room, not surprisingly, scrolling through my social media feed. Suddenly, I heard footsteps crunching slowly up my driveway. I cannot see the driveway from where I was sitting so, I stopped and listened instead. The footsteps came up my walkway and then, slowly, up each step, one step at a time. This is great, I thought. I listened for the tell-tale groaning of the metal lid on our mailbox, expecting this visitor to be responding to our card with a card in reply. This is one of the hoped for outcomes of my experiment but, instead, there came a knock on my door. This is good, too, I thought. Maybe this person wants to say Thanks and to introduce themselves. This would be a welcomed outcome, too. As I approached the door, I could see his silhouette and I could tell he was holding a card in his hands. Oh, good! He is hand-delivering his card to us. This is awesome! So, I opened the door.

An elderly gentleman was standing there…….with our card to him in his hand!!!!  He looked down at the card and then up at me and said, “I think there has been some sort of mistake.” And he waved the card toward me. “I think this is yours,” he said.

I replied that it was no mistake and that this was a Christmas card for him and his family from me and my family. 

He seemed confused by it all. After a moment, he quietly said, “But, we don’t know you.”

I smiled and stepped forward, offering my hand for him to shake. I told him that getting to know each other was the whole point and told him that my name was Tom. Somewhat uncertainly, he shook my hand and told me his name was Dick.  I told Dick that it was nice to meet him and I wished him and his family a Merry Christmas. Hesitantly, he replied in kind and then said good-bye and turned and walked away, taking our card back with him.

I have not seen Dick since that day but, I am on the look-out for him each time I go outside now. Hopefully, the next time we do cross paths, he will recognize my face and I will his and we can exchange a greeting and we can say each other’s name. There is power in that. It is a first, small step toward creating a neighbourhood culture that is built upon an understanding of the autobiographies we are each writing.  

It remains to be seen how this will all play out. I am still hopeful of receiving a few cards. but, if nothing else, I have made an opening gesture. From now on, I have a social card to play. I can always say, “Hey, neighbour! I’m Tom. We are the ones who gave you the homemade Christmas card this year.” Hopefully, that will spark some recognition and open the door to an exchange of pleasantries. Pleasantries, being the building blocks of a foundation of friendship and all. It is a good thing. I will keep you all informed as to how it plays out. But, whatever happens, I want to move forward with my goal of being a better neighbour. I never want to return to a time when I didn’t know Dick. 😉


My Best Teacher Gift Ever!!!

At the core of teaching lies humanity.   

Teachers don’t manufacture widgets or track currency fluctuations on overseas markets as they go about their daily business.  Teachers spend their day interacting with some of society’s most interesting, creative, adaptive, vulnerable, courageous citizens.  Children are capable of doing almost anything at any time. That’s one of the reasons that teaching is such a fascinating profession.  You can have the same teacher in the same classroom with the same group of children and never experience the same school day twice!   

To the teacher who views his/her students as human beings, rather than names on a class list, the complexity of the young hearts and minds that assemble in their classroom each day is what makes the job so attractive and interesting. Sometimes, an “interesting” day can be a tiring day if one of the students is angry or emotionally upset. Sometimes, an “interesting” day can be hilarious and memorable.  The story of My Best Teacher Gift Ever is one of those moments that come completely out of left field and, once you regain your wits, makes you smile for the rest of your life. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when it happened.

I was teaching in a Grade 2 classroom in Courtice, Ontario.  I had no gifted students in this class but, no hardcore, troubled behavioural children, either.  On the whole, the class was comprised of nice, friendly, average kids.  They were a good group. I liked coming to school each day and so did they. I got along well with all of their parents. In short, it was a good year in the wonderful world of Grade 2.

This story takes place on the last week before our Christmas holidays.  If you have ever been in a primary-aged classroom the week before Christmas, you know that there is a higher than normal buzzing of energy to be found (and, I don’t mean from the overhead lights, either). If teachers were being honest, they would admit that that last week of school is not the most academically-intensive week to be had during the school year. But, just the same, maintaining some semblance of routine is important so, in between concert rehearsals and craft making, we still did some simple bits of regular work.  One of the things that helped make up my “Holiday” unit was, of course, a set of spelling/vocabulary activities.  We brainstormed chart paper filled lists of words that had to do with Hanukkah, Kwanza and Christmas.  The kids searched for words in word search puzzles, they unscrambled mixed up spellings, they filled in the blanks, they typed stories on the computer and on and on it went.  Well, since it was the last week of school and I had a group of kids that could go along with a joke,  I created a worksheet of questions and answers that had, as the final question, the following: “If you were a millionaire and could buy Mr. MacInnes any three gifts in the world, what would your three gifts be?”    I was hoping for answers like, “A rocket ship to go to the moon in”, or “A fancy sports car” or, “A trip around the world” but, instead, what I got back from this bunch of well-meaning but, average-joes was more along the lines of shirts, sweaters and pants.  I was a bit disappointed by the lack of imagination that they had shown until I got to the worksheet handed in by a little girl named Megan.

Megan was a nice little girl with freckles across her nose that spilled onto her cheeks. She wore her blonde hair in a bob style. Her blue eyes sparkled whenever she smiled, which was fairly often.  All in all, Megan was a good kid so, as I read over her answers, I was not prepared for what I saw when I got to the last question. She wrote, “I would give Mr. MacInnes a new sweater, a new pair of shoes and a g string.”  

I read the first two parts of her answer with my brain in neutral but, her last answer snapped me to attention!  I re-read her answer just to confirm that I had actually read what I had thought I had read.  It turns out that I had!   G-string! Wow!  Where did that come from?  I decided to check to see if she could have meant something else like “guitar” or “gerbil” because kids at that age can still be prone to phonetic and/or inventive spelling but, the spelling was clearly a “g” and a space and “string” spelled correctly.  Needless to say, I felt the need to check into this so, as the rest of the class crafted or did whatever Holiday activity they were engaged in, I called Megan over.

“Megan”, I said. “I was checking over everyone’s worksheet and there are a couple of answers I’d like to read for me, if you would.”    

She said, “Sure, Mr. MacInnes.”

I had her read her answer to Question #1 and #3, just so she wouldn’t realize what I was really wanting to know and have her think that she was in trouble or anything like that. She read her answers and proudly smiled at me as if to say, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Could you read #5, too, please?”

“Ok….. I said that I would give Mr. MacInnes a new sweater……….because you have a hole in your brown one. Did you know that?”   I grunted a smile and motioned for her to continue. “I would give Mr. MacInnes a new pair of shoes…….because you have scuff marks on yours………and a g string.”   She turned to me and smiled the same smile she displayed after reading the answers to Questions #1 and 3.

So I said, “Megan, I understand what a sweater is and the part about the shoes but, I’m not sure what you mean by a g string”.

She smiled and put her hand on my arm and sweetly said, “Oh, Mr. MacInnes, everyone knows that a g string is underwear.”

“Ok”, I said. “Then answer this for me, please. I understand why you would buy a new sweater to replace my holey one and new shoes to replace the scuffed ones but, why do you want to buy me underwear?”

She looked around to be sure that no one could hear and then she leaned in, “In my home, whenever Daddy or Mommy wear their g strings, they run around the house, laughing and tickling each other.  It makes them so happy. I want you to be happy in your home, too.”

Well, what do you say to that?  I smiled and gave her a quick hug and thanked her for thinking of me and my state of personal happiness.  The story would have ended there except for a fluke of timing. During the month of December, report cards are prepared and sent home and parent-teacher interviews are conducted. Depending on everyone’s schedules, it sometimes takes a couple of weeks to get everyone to come in to the school to meet.  As luck would have it, Megan’s parents were one of two interviews I had left to conduct!

So, the very next day, after school, Megan’s mother and father walked into the classroom and sat down.  I had Megan’s work folder out and showed them some of her Math work, a painting she had done, some pictures she had drawn and, lo and behold, her spelling work that included word search puzzles, mixed up spelling words, fill in the blank sheets and, yes, a certain question and answer sheet that she had completed just the day before!   I sat there and let them look at each sheet and then, the final Q & A sheet.  I watched as they scanned down through the answers, finally arriving at the last question.  I saw Megan’s Mom mouth the words, “sweater” and “shoes” and then, her mouth just opened and she began blushing furiously. Dad broke out laughing and looked down at the floor. I just sat there quietly for a few seconds, thoroughly enjoying the moment.

Then I said to them, “Don’t worry. Teachers hear far more about what goes on at home than most parents realize.  The important thing to take from this is that in Megan’s eyes, she feels that she comes from a home that is filled with love and happiness.  She feels that you both love each other and not every child can say that about their parents. You should feel proud that your daughter views you that way and that she feels so happy herself.”   They both smiled and thanked me for my kind words.  

I have gotten many, many gifts from families over the course of my career but, nothing comes close to the imaginary g string I received that year from little Megan.  I wonder if widgets ever give gifts to the people who make them? I doubt it.  Thank goodness I have had the pleasure of spending my career in the daily company of children.  They are the essence of humanity and our society’s most precious gift.