The Magic of a Moment

On August 14, 2003, while driving home, I pulled in for gas. It was approximately 4:00pm. Little did I realize that at that same moment, power surges were knocking the entire Northeast electrical grid offline, in what became known as the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003. By the time I arrived home, there was no electricity to be had anywhere in town.

Like many people, my wife and I were caught completely unprepared.

All of our means of communication (telephone, pre-wireless computers, radio), our food supply (stove and refrigerator) and our access to our financial resources (debit and credit cards) were all taken away from us in the blink of an eye. Between my wife and I, we had barely six dollars of actual cash on hand. The only food we had that didn’t require cooking or cooling were boxes of crackers, some cookies and dry cereal. The radio in our car still worked so, we spent time huddled in our garage, straining to hear any detail that might help us to understand what was happening and how we should respond.

But, the funny thing about the whole situation was that, after our initial moments of prancing madly about in panic, we came to realize that we were actually ok. Our world had gotten very quiet but, we were not hurt or in immediate danger. Everything slowed down. Our world shrunk to the parameters of our physical environment.

So, we lit our candles. We dined on our crackers and drank some warm wine we had in the basement. A friend came by so we chatted the evening away. And then, the real magic happened. The stars came out. The same stars that are always there but which lay covered in a blanket of artificial light from below. The stars came out and they were everywhere! What beauty! What majesty!

silhouette of man during nighttime
Photo by brenoanp on Pexels.com

There are many wonderful stories that emerged from that blackout. Stories of citizens who took the initiative to help direct traffic when the traffic lights went out. Folks with generators or barbeques who cooked meals for their neighbours or other passersby. People who called upon seniors and sat with them throughout the night in order to provide security and stability in a time of confusion. The good in our society shone brightly in the darkness of those hours.

But, what most people remember about that night is the stars.

 

 

Often, the most magical of moments are the ones you least prepare for. Those times when destiny arrives unannounced. My wife and I learned a lot about ourselves during that blackout. We are better prepared now for an emergency (in the sense of having a supply of food and water on hand at all times, having a small stash of cash safely tucked away in the house and so on). But, more than that, we have learned to slow down the pace of our lives and make time to enjoy the world around us.

Admittedly, we both still like our “screen time” and the access to information it gives us and the connectivity with the world it provides but, we also, realize the importance of making time for those “star-filled” moments that exist outside of the noise and hoopla, just waiting to be discovered. We make purposeful time, each and every day, just for us…..together and/or with our children….to talk about our day, to share our discoveries and our dreams, to go for walks and allow the beauty of the world around us to soak into every fibre of our being or, let’s be honest, to just be nosey, sometimes, too.

There was a time in our lives when we prided ourselves for our ability to multi-task and get so much done. How productive we both were. And, how little it really mattered when the power went out that August afternoon.

In the wise words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around, once and awhile, you could miss it.” The Great Northeast Blackout of 2003, gave us permission to stop the hustle and bustle of our lives and look around. What we saw in each other and in the world around us, was beautiful. It was the magic of a moment that revealed the joy and wonder of the world in which we live. For that, I am eternally grateful.

P.S. It is not by fluke that this work of art is my family’s favourite.

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We Are With You

There are some events in History that are just so impactful and larger than life that we all know exactly where we were and what we were doing when they happened.

When 9/11 began to unfold in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania, I was just welcoming a class of Primary-aged students into the Library at my school in Bowmanville, Ontario.  My only thoughts at the time were ensuring that everyone was sitting quietly so I could launch into my read aloud story. Just as I was to begin, the school custodian entered and motioned for me to come over. We are both diehard Toronto Maple Leaf fans so, for him to interrupt my class must have meant a big trade had happened or so I thought. But, unfortunately, the news wasn’t hockey-related. Both towers were on fire by the time he spoke with me. Moments later, he returned to say that one tower had fell. My custodian was a big, strong man but, his complexion was ashen by this point.

I’m not sure what any of us taught that day. The whole day was a blur. Parents showed up throughout the day to withdraw their children, keeping them as close as close could be at home. Teachers gathered around computers to watch CNN online.  The whole school seemed silent…..all 700 staff and students, silent. Some unbelievably serious stuff was happening and we didn’t know why. But, in times like that, as is so often the case, we automatically came together as a school community. We answered all student questions as best we could. We stayed calm, at least on the outside, and that helped keep the kids calm. We supported each other; especially, our one staff member who had a daughter who worked for National Geographic and who happened to be at a conference in Washington that day. It was four long hours before the phone call finally came and everyone allowed themselves to breathe again.  And then, we went home and watched TV and watched TV and watched TV.

The enormity of the violence remains surreal.
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This past summer, my family and I travelled to New York City and visited the 9/11 Memorial. The experience of doing so moves me still. It is hard to fathom what exactly happened that day at the tip of Manhattan Island, even standing on the very site of the tower collapses. The scale of the loss is almost overwhelming.

But, what strikes me most about the events of that day are the individual stories that arose as the dust was, quite literally, still settling. The phone calls to loved ones from those trapped within the towers before they fell. The First Responders who, despite lugging heavy gear, climbed up into the towers past those who were fleeing downward and out. The citizens in Gander, Newfoundland, who housed and cared for all those stranded passengers from the jumbo jets that landed there when U.S. airspace was closed.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum does a superb job at putting a human face on an inhuman tragedy. We entered the Museum to the sound of a perpetual roll call of honour for the victims. “My sister, _______”, “My father, _________”, “My friend, _________”, “My Captain, _________” and on and on it went.  Then, we entered a gallery that housed photos of each victim; some had displays of personal items with them that had been donated by their families. You could touch a computer screen to find out more about each person who lost their life that September 11th morn. Then, an exhibit showing a crushed fire truck, where we learned of the heroic deeds of the many police officers and fire fighters who gave their lives to save others. Cantor-Fitzgerald stationary, single shoes, photos in broken frames that once sat upon office desks, dust-covered articles of clothing…..the things that once belonged to people who lived and were real.  There was even a display dedicated to rescue animals who entered the smouldering wreckage. Lives forever changed. Heroes all.

As humans, we all have worth and value that becomes apparent when our stories are told. We are richer for this knowledge having been recorded and passed on. As individuals and as societies, we grow stronger when we honour the stories of those still around us and strive for a more peaceful existence for us all. That was the message my whole family took from our visit to the 9/11 Memorial site. Peace.

For us, the most powerful moment we collectively shared as a family occurred toward the end of our tour. We came upon a map of the world on a wall. Before it, stood a row of computers. Sophie touched the computer screen and was asked to enter the town or city where we were from. She did. Instantly, a point of light appeared on the map where Cobourg would be. Next, we were asked to offer a message of hope. Leah typed in, “We are with you.”  Sophie drew a peace sign. I drew four hearts; each one containing the first letter of each of our names. Then we pressed Enter. With the Cobourg light still flashing, our message of hope appeared on the wall. Along with our message, those written by other Museum guests appeared and disappeared all throughout the moments that followed.  Hope and Peace, rising up out of the ruins of the Twin Towers.  That was the only photo we took from inside the Memorial because, as Leah correctly pointed out, “This just doesn’t seem like the time to be taking pictures.”

There is a lot of ugliness in our world but, there is a lot of beauty, too. So, whenever 9/11 rolls around, I choose to focus on the stories of how humanity redeemed itself in the aftermath of that day. I place my bets on the goodness of people coming to the fore in times of tragedy and loss. I am optimistic about our future.

So, as 9/11 began with both, President Bush and I sitting in front of children while holding a book, it ends today with the affirmation, from my family to yours, America, that we are with you. We were on that day and we are on this day, too. God Bless.

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The Brightness of the Light

The new school year started today for my wife and my two daughters. For me, today is the day my retirement officially started. A new start for them, a new world for me.

For the past few years, my school day would begin by taking my daughters to school and waiting there until the bell rang and they were safely inside. Then, as the other Moms and Dads would make their coffee clutch plans, I would head to my car and drive to school to prepare for my own day.  How I begrudged those other parents their freedom.  It was never the fact that I didn’t want to be with my own students or that I preferred coffee that much. It was the fact that I didn’t have the freedom to control my fate. I had to go to work. No choice. I had to go.

No longer.

Today, I saw my youngest safely inside her school and I……….and I……….well, I went for coffee!!!!!   I did.  I got into my car and drove downtown and met two friends, also retired teachers, and we had coffee together on a sidewalk patio. The sun shone down upon our skin. We waved to friendly passersby. We chatted about weighty matters and feather-light ones, too.  But, best of all, there was a school bell there that I was asked to ring. Not a tentative, self-conscience tinkle of a ring but, instead, a full-throttled, lusty declarative ring of freedom for all to hear. So, I rang that bell, loud and long and clear. Every time someone looked our way in puzzlement, my friends would point to me and announce, “It’s his first Tuesday!”, as if that explained everything.

But, it is my first Tuesday in this new life of mine. School traditionally starts on the first Tuesday after Labour Day in Canada. For the first time in 49 years, I was not in school on the first Tuesday. On this day, I was free.  Freedom is intoxicating and I admit to feeling slightly off balance by it all but, in a good way.  The best way I can describe it all is to point to those near-death experiences you read about. You know, the ones with the bright light that you are drawn toward and the loved ones awaiting you on the other side. Today, I got to experience the bright light that is the freedom to chart my own course. I am thankful to my two friends, Pat and Tracy, for being there to help me transition to the other side, as it were.

This is my first post on my new blog. Thank you for reading. I hope to see many of you following along as I embark on my journey with words.  Thanks for being part of my first Tuesday.  It is awesome to be here……on the other side!!!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton