Believe

I have been a writer since I was a kid. I have always loved telling stories and, more importantly, I have always loved using my words to make other people happy. Believe me when I tell you how humbled I am any time someone contacts me to say that they were moved by something I wrote or that they learned something or else, that they had a laugh or two that brightened their day. Those comments fill me up and inspire me to continue writing words for others to read. It is a large part of the reason why I created this blog.

The thing about having a blog, at least for me, is that I rarely actually meet the people I interact with. Those who comment and share my work do so, most often, on the Internet, from the comfort of their home. I never see them and they never see me but, just the same, a familiarity comes to be and a relationship starts to take shape. While we never meet, my social media “friends” help shape my life. I am enriched by their cyber presence. I am comforted in their binary embrace. Over time, they have become “real” to me. I consider myself the better for having had that happen.

So, I write. I create. I share. And, hopefully, I help make things a tiny bit better….for my friends and, because of my friends.

The story that I wish to share with you today involves a recap of a story I posted just prior to Christmas and a more, in-depth look into the circumstances of something unexpected that spiralled out of that post. That post was entitled, “I Hope Your Can Hear the Bell” and can be found here.

In “I Hope You Can Hear the Bell”, I talked about a dozen or so Christmas books that I had used in my classroom during the course of my thirty-year teaching career. These were books that had become beloved by my students over the years. Books that I wanted to share with my readers so that they, in turn, might share them with their children and grand-children. I have always considered good books to be like treasure and, as such, I have always wanted to share them with as many people as possible so that the magic and beauty they contain can extend ever onward.

As I listed the books, I saved the Chris Van Allsburg book, The Polar Express, for last because it was the most requested and loved Christmas book in my collection. Children in every class I ever taught were drawn to the message of believing in something greater than themselves. They loved that the first gift of Christmas…..Santa’s sleigh bell….only sounded for those who believed and, since they were all young kids and truly believed in the magic of Christmas, to them, the book felt like a special secret that only children knew. It sought to validate their belief system. It reinforced their willingness to trust.

I selected The Polar Express as the most popular of all of my Christmas books because experience had proven that to be true. I found reading the book aloud to be very special. If truth be told, I always considered it an honour to invite a new group of students each year into Van Allsburg’s wonderful world; to share that secret that only a child can know. Whenever I read aloud and got the end of the story, I would grow silent. Then I would reach into my pocket and pull out a cloth bag. Inside that bag would be a tiny sleigh bell. The kids always inched forward as I pulled the little bell out. I always gently shook the bell. The kids always heard it ring. The magic was always, always real. They believed and so did I.

So, when the writing for that blog post was completed, all that was left for me to do was to find a suitable photo to act as my “cover photo”. I try to use my own photos as much as possible, for copyright reasons. But, I no longer had the little bell so, I could not take a picture of it. My next course of action was to go to the public domain photos that are available. But, try as I might, I could not get the photo that seemed worthy of my post and how I felt about The Polar Express. So, as a last resort, I simply Googled “Santa’s Sleigh Bell” and the photo above came on to my screen. THAT was the photo I had been waiting for. So, even though it was not my photo, I copied it, attached it to my post and hit the “PUBLISH” button and sent my story on its way to my loving readers.

Not long after that, the guilt set in.

Some people would have ignored that guilty feeling; rationalizing that the odds were slim that the owner of that photo would ever come in contact with my post. But, what if they did!? What if they were checking out other sleigh bell photos and saw their picture on the link to my post. I knew in my mind that they would have every right to be upset and that I really wouldn’t have any excuse for having done what I did. So, with my conscience suitably guilty, I decided to try and make things right.

That afternoon, I found out that the photo belonged to a company called Magical Bells. On their website, they had a “Contact Us” page. I filled out their form, explaining that I had written a post that included a section on The Polar Express and that I had wanted a beautiful sleigh bell for my cover photo and had used theirs. I offered to pay them a fee in order to keep the photo but, I said that I understood if they were upset and told them I would remove the photo if they directed me to do so. I hit the “SUBMIT” button and then, I waited for a reply.

I must admit that I was expecting the worst. The Internet is a wild and woolly place, at times. There are lots of angry people out there, eager to argue for sport. There are dangerous people, too. Folks who want to gain access to your world in order to steal your information, your money and even your identity. There are lots of competitive folks out there in cyberspace, as well. These folks wouldn’t think twice about denying a favour to someone who might, as a result, take marketshare away from them once the favour had been granted.

So, I sat there by my computer and wondered about the reaction of the person on the other side of the screen, as they were being notified that “You Have Mail”. I waited and I waited. Finally, a day or so later, I had my answer. I had mail ……from the owner of Magical Bells.

As I clicked on the email link, I did so in the same way that The Grinch did on Christmas morning, high atop Mt. Crumpit. He listened for the sound of crying and of sadness but, instead, what he heard was merry….very! He found that sound puzzling. For me, I opened that email and was prepared for a finger-wagging blast but instead, I found gratitude and thankfulness and compliments. Like the Grinch, I was momentarily taken aback, too.

The author of that email, and owner of Magical Bells, was a man named Mike Frueh. He reassured me that he wasn’t upset about the fact that I had used his photo without permission and that, in reality, he felt flattered that I thought it was beautiful enough to use in the first place. He said that he had read my post and thought it was wonderful. He talked about how important The Polar Express was to him and his family and how thankful he was that I was promoting the same view. To top it all off, he offered to send me one of his special Polar Express sleigh bells, free of charge, as thanks for writing the post, using the photo and for including a link to his website within that post.

Wait!? What!? No! I didn’t deserve that. I had broken a rule and wasn’t deserving of a reward. I wrote back to Mike and told him how gracious his offer was but that I did not do what I did in writing the post and using the photo in the hopes of obtaining material reward. I did it because I believe in the magic of a book and I told Mike that he owed me nothing. I was just grateful that he wasn’t upset. But, Mike would not take “No” for an answer and insisted on sending me a bell, free of charge, from the U.S. to Canada.

A few weeks later, as promised by Mike, there sat a pretty little box in my home. A little piece of him and his family to be enjoyed by me and my family, despite the many miles between us. The box was sturdy and clean as a whistle, the green ribbons lined up perfectly from the lid to the bottom of the box. So, before even opening the box to see what was inside, the attention to detail evident in this box spoke volumes for the care that goes into every Magical Bells product. As first impressions go, Mike had made a good one on us.

I had assumed, prior to opening the box, that I would find a lovely bell inside. I did find a lovely bell inside but, I found several other thoughtful things, too. For instance, the first thing I pulled out was a two-sided card; on one side was a picture of the sleigh bell and the words, “The Ultimate Symbol to Believe”. On the other side of the card was a message from Santa Claus, himself! It talked about the importance of believing, too, not just of Santa but, of yourself, as well. What a wonderfully empowering message to receive….and, I still hadn’t opened the bell yet! After reading the card, I next pulled out a golden train ticket needed to board the actual Polar Express train! How cool is that!? Then, I went for the red, cloth bag that lay nestled inside the box. As I began to lift it up, I noticed a smaller red, cloth bag underneath so, I opted to open that first. Inside was a pin or brooch that had one word engraved upon it…that one word was, “Believe”. Finally, it was time for the bell! I opened the larger red, cloth bag and held that glorious silver bell for the first time. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was perfect. Not a mark of any kind on it anywhere. Shiny, clean, well-constructed and, the sound…..oh, the sound that rang out when I shook the bell for the first time. It was phenomenal!

As I spread these gifts out before me, I felt very honoured to have been considered worthy of such kindness and such effort. This is especially so because Mike and I have never met, nor have we spoken on the phone. We only know each other via email, the post I wrote on my blog and through his Magical Bells website. And yet, this man and his family extended a hand of friendship to me and my family across borders and Internet wires. As I held that bell, I felt the positive energy emanating from it.

As I said earlier in this post, the Internet is filled with unsavoury characters and can be a very dangerous place to lay your soul bare for others to see. But, Mike and his family do just that with every bell they make. Each bell is handcrafted and its creation is an act of faith and of trust and of love. The story of how these bells came to be in one worth telling and, in the telling, a story will emerge that attests to the quality of the character of all involved at Magical Bells. It is a story born out of a moment, quite common in scope, that proved to be a turning point in Mike’s family’s life. It all began with the search for the perfect Christmas gift for his son.

Back in 2006, Mike and his wife, Christina, had a son named Evan. Evan loved the story of The Polar Express and had asked for a sleigh bell of his own, just like the one in the book. Christina looked everywhere for such a bell but ended up empty-handed. So, not wanting to disappoint her son, Christina created the very first magical bell herself and gave it to Evan for Christmas. It was a gift created from her heart. Evan could hear its sound when he shook the bell. The magic of a mother’s love was real.

That first bell spawned others and Christina went on to create a company called Magical Bells. Unfortunately, several years later, she passed away. It was a devastating blow to Mike and his son. But, when the foundation of a good life is built upon love, as Mike and Christina’s had, goodness follows pain and beautiful possibilities remain. As things turned out, Evan had two friends who were brothers. Their names were Owen and Gavin. These boys were dealing with their own challenges, as their father, Chad, had cancer and, eventually, succumbed to that disease, leaving the boys alone with their mother, Jenna. The two families understood the grief that each felt and found comfort together in ways that can only be when empathy truly exists. Eventually, over time, empathy turned to love and the two families became one. Mike and Jenna now live with the three boys, together, as a family. But, new beginnings cannot erase old memories completely. Mike and Jenna sought to channel that ache that wouldn’t go away despite their newfound love. They did so by turning to the magic of a mother’s love, as symbolized by a sleigh bell from a children’s book. Mike and Jenna agreed to continue operating Magical Bells in the memory of Christina. Each bell they make themselves is infused with the love they hold for those who still exist in their hearts. That’s why the bell I held in my hand shone so.

I write words and the Frueh’s make bells….both of us trying to make the world a little better, a little more loving and positive. And, while it is easy to find negative people in cyberspace, it is possible, as well, to find wonderful people, too. Thank you, Mike and family, for gifting me with the beauty of your family’s love, in the form of that bell. I am beyond humbled to possess it. I will end with a promise from me to you; for as long as I have that bell, I will ALWAYS be able to hear its sound because I will ALWAYS Believe.

The Best Big Sister

I have a dear friend who is about to give birth in the next week or so. It feels funny to say that so matter-of-factly because, as many of your know, childbirth is one of the great miracles of Life. But, my friend is calm and well-organized. Those around her are excited but, controlled. There is an air of familiarity to the process because this is child #2 for my friend and her husband. The experience of bringing a living, breathing human being into the world is not so mysterious as it was when they had their first child. They feel ready. Soon their baby will be ready to make his or her appearance and then, life for my friend and her family will change. I am confident it will change for the better.

This post, today, is about helping to increase the odds of that change going well. Specifically, this post is not about the new baby….bless its little heart……but, instead, it is about the person who is, potentially, most affected by this new miracle of life and that is, the child who already exists….the first born. In my friend’s case, her first born is a girl, just like it was for my wife and me when we had our second child. So, this post is about how to prepare your first born from being an only child to being a big sister. Let’s check it out.

Not long after we arrived home with Leah, our first born, Gramma and Poppa showed up. They couldn’t have been prouder of their first grand-child.

Before we can look forward, it is instructive to go back a bit and see things from the perspective of the one you loved first. There is an air of mystery to childbirth when you are doing it for the first time. Everything seems intense, you often second-guess what you are doing as parents, you are tired and emotional but, most of all, you are head-over-heels in love with your child. In short order, your world begins to revolve around them. They are doted on by you and everyone else around you. Your focus is entirely upon your new child and they, in turn, drink in your attention and bask in the warm glow of the love they feel beaming their way. It is a mutually-intoxicating relationship.

Leah is “astronauting”

When you are the only child in the house, everything becomes yours and yours alone. All of the snacks are yours. The toys can be played with whenever your child feels like it and in any way your child desires. There are no distractions and no competition. The whole world is theirs. It is an easy situation to get used to. It is, also, a tough situation for the child to lose.

When my wife became pregnant for the second time, we realized how much we would be asking Leah to accept. We anticipated that it would be difficult for her to suddenly have to vie for our affection and attention. We knew that the sharing of possessions would be an issue. We understood that the loss of personal space and privacy would be tough. Most of all, we correctly guessed that Leah would have a hard time simply giving up some semblance of control over how she spent her day. It wouldn’t be all about her anymore. Sometimes things would happen or, not happen, because of someone else being there. We knew we had to prepare Leah for the impending arrival of her younger sibling. So, here are a few of the things we did before Sophie was born and some things we did after she was born that helped Leah transition from being the only child to being the big sister.

Dolls became an important part of imaginary play.

When babies are born, they are often doll-sized humans. So, we made a point of surrounding Leah with dolls than would be about the size of a newborn and we encouraged her to be the Mommy and to “care” for her babies. We did this in conjunction with reading lots of library books about how babies grow in a mother’s tummy, how families change when a second child comes along and so on. We watched lots of tv shows on Treehouse TV (a children’s channel, here in Canada) that dealt with babies and having younger siblings. We talked a lot about what was happening to Mommy’s body as the baby grew inside her. In short, we talked with Leah about the new baby and helped give her as much information as we could to prepare her for Sophie’s arrival. We, also, gave her opportunities to practice being a big sister by using her dolls in imaginative play scenarios that we helped with but that she controlled.

Leah reads to her “baby”, as the swing gently rocks and music softly plays.

But, you can only prepare your firstborn so much for the arrival of their sibling. Eventually, the second child is born and life becomes different. In this photo, Gramma is now beaming all of her love onto Sophie, in the speckled hat. For me, this image captures the moment when Leah began to realize that it wasn’t all about her anymore, as she turns away slightly from Gramma’s display of affection for Sophie. But, to help prepare Leah for this exact moment, we did two things; first, she was given the shirt that she is wearing which says something like “I’m a big sister now” and, secondly, we had a trophy prepared for her that said, “Best Big Sister” and then her name. We had that trophy ready for her in the hospital room so that there would be something special for her that was just for her and her, alone. Leah proudly carried that trophy all throughout the hospital wing adjacent to our room.

Bedtime story time is Leah’s uninterrupted time with Daddy.

Eventually, Sophie came home. Leah’s world now became a shared space. To go from having the run of the joint and the attention of everyone in it, to vying for space and cuddles is a harder transition for small children than most adults realize. Keri and I always try our best to act as a good team in all matters of our home and family. So, one of the deliberate decisions we made when Sophie came home was that Leah still needed and deserved her own special one-on-one times with us. For me, that became our nightly reading time together. When bed time approached, Leah had my full attention for as long as it took us to read our stories. That was our time. Sophie did things with Keri at that time. Leah never had to share me with her sister for that block of time. It became a constant in her life. This is not to say that I never read with Sophie or Keri never spent time with Leah. Of course, we spread ourselves out. But, we knew that Leah was experiencing a great change in her life and we wanted to cushion that blow as best we could so, her bedtime became our reading time, no exceptions, for most of her life. Now that Leah is almost a teenager, our shared reading time has become less consistent but we continue to share our interests in books, history, the mystery of Oak Island and the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team. Leah is as important to me as she was the day she was born. Sophie’s arrival did nothing to diminish my affection. I am lucky because, now, I have two incredible daughters to love and experience life with.

The girls are lucky, too, because they now have each other to share life with. I am not going to pretend that there aren’t moments between them when harsh words are exchanged, doors slammed and hurt caused because that does happen. But, overall, Leah and Sophie are good sisters to each other. They are each their own person, with differing interests, hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses. But, when out in the world, they tend to find comfort in each other’s company; often holding hands as they face new adventures and challenges together.

Strawberry picking. We have lots of photos like this one, with the girls holding hands and heading off together

Keri and I give Leah a lot of credit because she has grown nicely into the role of Big Sister. Being the centre of attention can be addictive. But, Leah has done well in understanding that she is still loved, fully and completely and that Sophie can be, too, without that taking anything away from her. It is a sign of maturity and personal growth and we couldn’t be prouder of our “first loved”.

So, I end this post with a hopeful wish that all goes well for my pal, Cuyler, in the coming days with the birth of her second child. I wish her and her husband luck as they learn about what it takes to care for two children instead of just caring for one. But, most of all, I want to congratulate their “first-loved”, Riley, on becoming a Big Sister for the first time. You are about to begin a very new and special chapter in the story of your life. Hopefully, your new baby brother or sister will become as much a friend as they are a younger sibling. If so then, maybe when you are about to turn thirteen yourself, you will have a moment like my girls had last week when Leah automatically stepped in to help Sophie adjust her angle so that she could get the absolute perfect Toronto skyline selfie. Sisters, eh?!

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Leah turns 13 in April. Her trophy continues to sit proudly on her bedroom shelf. She remains the “Best Big Sister” in our house.

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.

Museum of Memories: a Lifetime of Reading to my Daughter.

You never know what a day is going to bring. Yesterday, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a tweet from an American teacher. She tweeted about her Grade 5 class receiving a “Mystery Box” as part of a literacy programme sponsored by a blog called @BreakoutEDU. She showed photos of her students using clues that came with the box to crack secret codes which, in the end, opened to reveal a book called, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Ballet.  The teacher’s original tweet was aimed at the author, letting her know how excited her students were to begin reading Chasing Vermeer.

Being the supportive fellow that I am, I tweeted back to this teacher and told her that Leah and I had read this book aloud together a few years ago, along with the other two books in this trilogy and enjoyed them immensely. I went on to say that, in fact, Leah enjoyed the books so much that she had a framed print of the Vermeer art work mentioned in the story hanging in her bedroom as I typed.

Within a few minutes, I received a reply from the author, Blue Balliett, herself. Like all authors, she expressed her gratitude to me for informing her that her work had made a difference in some reader’s life. IMG_2720In turn, I sent her a photo Leah’s bedroom so she could see the print for herself. ***You can see the print on the right side of Leah’s bookcase, in the middle of the column of three framed works. The painting is called, Lady Writing.  Blue Balliett replied that Leah’s room was “the bedroom her dreams”.

This got me thinking.

Leah and I have read together from the day she was born.  As a result, we have read thousands of books together. That time we shared was very precious and has helped create many warm memories for us, both, of the books we read, the characters we came to care about, the conversations that occurred, the warmth of our snuggles and much, much more.  Reading with your children is always about more than the words on the page. It is a bonding experience that is quite loving and profound. In time, as you read an author’s words, you start to feel the books in your hearts and minds.

For most of Leah’s early life, the books we shared were simpler in nature because her intellect was not mature enough for weighty concepts. But, with each book or book series read, her mind grew stronger and her inventory of literary experiences swelled. Soon she was ready for longer, more complex stories. The first series we read that made an emotional impact on us was The Little House on the Prairie books. We read all eight books consecutively. When it came time for Pa Ingalls to help Laura into Almanzo’s wagon and then, watch them ride off together, as husband and wife to their new home, I choked up with emotion. Leah and I both knew that scene was as much about us and how we will one day feel in that situation, as it ever was about Laura and her Pa.

IMG_2710We finished the final book in late Fall. Because of the emotional impact of the series, I decided to try and find something that I could give to Leah for Christmas that would serve to remind her of our time reading Little House together. My search took me to the Laura Ingalls Wilder website. There, for sale, was the china shepherdess doll that Pa had given to Ma Ingalls in their early days together. The same doll that had accompanied them across America. This doll was my gift to Leah that Christmas and has sat on a shelf in her bedroom ever since.

The commemoration of a shared experience with a story or series started with the china shepherdess doll and became a tradition that we continued with each subsequent  book series.   The Vermeer print was the piece chosen to remember the Chasing Vermeer trilogy. What follows are snapshots of other memorials to books that Leah and I shared.

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A pencil drawing entitled, Lucy at the Lamp Post, hangs on Leah’s wall by her window. It says, “A Fairy Tale begins…” on it and serves as a reminder of our joy at reading The Chronicles of Narnia and how every epic adventure begins with a fateful decision and a leap of faith.

IMG_2709  We read the entire How To Train Your Dragon series. This framed print was the first time I paired a quote from the series with art work. The quote was uttered by the main character, Hiccup and goes like this:

Because: Love never dies. What is within is more important than what is without. The Best is not always the most obvious. And, once you’ve loved truly, Thor, then you know the way.

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One of my favourite book series was Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books. There are those who claim that this is the series that most influenced J.K. Rowling when she was writing Harry Potter.  In any case, the quest that 11 year old Will is on to collect six “signs” and help the forces of Light in their battle with the forces of Darkness, is summed up in this important poem from the books.

When the DARK comes rising, six shall turn it back;

three from the circle, three from the track.

Wood, bronze, iron, fire, water, stone,

Five will return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday. Bronze carried long.

Wood from the burning. Stone out of song.

Fire from the candle-ring. Water from the thaw.

Six signs the circle and Grail gone before.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold,

played to wake the sleepers; oldest of the old.

Power of the Greenwitch, lost beneath the sea.

All shall find the light at last; silver on the tree.

Leah can quote this from memory.

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Our memory from The Hunger Games trilogy was “Rue’s Lullaby”, as written in the book. If you have read the books or seen the movies then, you will know how poignant this scene was.

Deep in the grass, under the willow,

a bed of grass, a soft green pillow,

lay down your head and close your eyes

When again they open, the sun will rise.

Here it’s safe and here it’s warm,

Here the daisies guard you from every harm.

Here your dreams are sweet,

Tomorrow brings them true,

Here’s the place where I love you.

Deep in the meadow, hidden far away,

A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam’s ray,

Forget your woe and let your troubles lay,

When it’s morning, they’ll wash away.

And here….is the place…where I love you.

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From author Lois Lowry came The Giver trilogy.  From that set of books, we opted for the following quote:

   It is better, I think, to climb out in search of something instead of hating what you are leaving behind.

IMG_2718Finally, Leah and I are big fans of Phillip Pullman and His Dark Materials trilogy. I maintain that the final scene in the final book is one of the best scenes in Children’s Literature. From it, a speech of Love that spans the entirety of Space and Time.

I will love you forever, whatever happens.

Til I die and after I die.

And when I find my way out of the Land of the Dead, I’ll drift about forever, all atoms, til I find you again.

I’ll be looking for you, every moment…every, single moment.

And when we do find each other, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart.

Every atom of me and every atom of you…

We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams.

When they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one

They’ll have to take two; one of me and one of you.

Leah spends a lot of time on her own in her room now that she is becoming a teenager. But, as she does, I am still there; an inseparable part of who she is and who she is becoming. Her room is a museum. A museum of memories from a lifetime of reading wonderful books while surrounded by Love.

If you care to know more about how to read with your child so that they come to love books as Leah has, please pop over to my friend, Jackie Currie’s blog, Happy Hooligans. I guest-posted for her a while back. In that post, I told the story of Leah and I and the whole list of books we read together. The post is called,  75 of the Very Best Chapter Books for Girls between 5 – 13.

Leaving For School

My mother is 87 years old. Her mind is still sharp and she will make you a hot cup of tea should you care to pay a call. Catch her in the right mood and she will tell you stories. Mention that you know me and she will tell you stories of my childhood. One of the stories she will tell you is of the day I left home.

I had graduated from High School and had been accepted at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto in their Radio and Television Arts Programme. On the last Saturday in August, 1982, my mother took me to the train station and watched as I boarded the VIA Train (Canada’s version of Amtrak, for my American friends) taking me to Toronto, the largest city in Canada. I was only 18 years old. This was the first time I had travelled alone.

It was some years later that I got to hear my mother tell her version of the story of this day. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she had watched the train pull out of the station and immediately got in her car and drove to the next station stop down the line, in the hopes that I would have changed my mind about leaving and had gotten off.  I passed through that station never knowing she was even there. I never knew she had been at the third station stop, either. But, she had.  Then, at last, she turned the car around and went home. I understand that there were tears.

As for me, I made it to the heart of downtown Toronto in one piece. Dazzled as I was by the sights and sounds of a city bigger than any I had ever known, struggling as I did to find my academic footing in university, tempted as I was by the alcohol and girls that were made readily available to me at parties that seemed to be everywhere, all the time, I did not call my mother for a full four weeks.  Needless to say, that first phone call was met with a mixture of emotions on both ends of the line.  I have called her every week since, for the rest of my life. I never realized, up until that first phone call, how much I really meant to my mother. Children, sometimes, take their parent’s Love for granted.

The scene that I have described is not unique to me and my family. Every year, parents take their university or college-aged children to far flung locales and bid them teary goodbyes. There is always a mixture of sadness and pride amid the tears that flow. As parents, we want our children to be happy and safe and successful in life so, at some point, we have to say good-bye and trust that they will be ok without us. It hurts. But, at the same time, it fills our hearts with Hope.

Regardless of any family’s specific story, the general truth is that these separations are planned for well in advance. There is a whole process of applying to various schools, gaining acceptance at one or more, discussing the pros and cons of each choice, dealing with finances, accommodations and much, much more. There are timelines to follow and milestones to pass before there is ever the chance of the tearful goodbyes at an apartment building or dormitory steps. That is the way it was for me and my mother. It is the way it is for countless other families, too.

But, at one time in Canadian History, the idea of children leaving home to attend school far away was, in fact, viewed as Government policy; not for all families in the new land of Canada but, specifically, for the children of Indigenous families. Indigenous nations existed in all regions of, what became Canada, long before European settlers crossed the Atlantic. Their cultures and traditions were rich and well-established. However, as European explorers arrived and began claiming tracts of land for foreign masters across the sea, they did so with a mindset that dictated the need to “civilize the Natives”. By this, they meant forcing the existing Indigenous populations across the land to abandon their own customs and beliefs and adopt those held by the European settlers. One way these beliefs were turned into actual policies that were set into motion came in the form of the Residential School System.

The thinking behind the establishment of the Residential School System was relatively simple; if they could “educate” children in the ways of the Europeans then, these children would grow up to be, more and more, European and, less and less, Indigenous. If successful, the Residential School system could completely transform the thinking, attitudes, beliefs and customs of the entire Indigenous population in only a few short generations. Assimilation would be complete. Indigenous life, as was known at the time, would disappear. Canada would be “civilized” from coast to coast to coast.

When these schools began operation, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and families. They were sent to schools which were, in many cases, hundreds of miles from their homes. Once they arrived, their hair was cut, their clothes were taken from them, they were not allowed to speak in their own language and they were treated with harsh discipline.  It was a terrible time for these children and their families.

 

To get a sense of how Indigenous children suffered in the Residential School System, please watch Gord Downie’s cinematic re-telling of the life and, subsequent death, of one such child, Chanie Wenjack. There is no happily ever after in this story.

 

Eventually, the Residential School System came into disrepute and ceased to exist as formal Government of Canada policy. But that was not before lasting harm was caused to  many Indigenous Nations, their families and to the children who were taken from their homes against their wills. The utter failure of the Residential School System can be seen in a renewed call for understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness between Indigenous Peoples and those of us who call ourselves Canadians.  One of the first steps taken on this healing journey was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Many victims of the Residential School System were allowed to appear before the Commission and share their personal stories. Many Indigenous elders were asked to document the toll these policies took on their communities. The pictures painted by their words were not pretty. When all were heard, the members of the TRC issued a number of “Calls to Action” aimed at raising levels of awareness of Indigenous issues across the country, as well as, helping to implement systemic changes in how Indigenous culture is recognized, celebrated and appreciated.  One of those calls to action can be seen in public schools all across Canada in what has become known as “Orange Shirt Day”.

Today, in classrooms all over Canada, students are being encouraged to wear an orange shirt. They will hear the story of how a young girl, Phyllis Webstad, had her orange shirt taken from her on her first day of Residential School. These modern day students will come to learn of the broader story of what happened to so many Indigenous children and that it was an attempt at, what some, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, term “Cultural Genocide”. Hopefully lessons, painful as they sometimes are, will begin to be learned and younger generations of Canadian students will grow up with a greater level of respect for Indigenous culture, customs and beliefs, as well as, those of other countries, too. When we all take time to appreciate the beauty and wisdom found in cultures different than ours, we all grow richer as a result.

So, when my mother tells her story of the pain she felt as I boarded that train, I have no doubt that her pain was real. But, the choice to leave home that day to go to school far away was mine to make. My mother was involved in every bit of planning that led up to our train station goodbyes.  Despite of a few forks in the road, my life has been a happy and successful one since that day.

But, I can’t even begin to imagine how different everything would have been if I had been forced to leave. If soldiers or police officers had dragged me away from all I had known to a life completely unknown. In Life, the freedom to make our own choices is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of how we live. During the time of the Residential School System, freedom to make decisions that affected the most important part of life….Family……was taken away. Powerlessness and anguish followed in its’ wake. Those were terrible times for Indigenous families and stand as a black mark on Humanity.

As my daughters left for school today; Sophie with me to her school and Leah, with my wife, to Leah’s school, all four of us wore our orange shirts. Orange Shirt Day is a somber day but, a hopeful day, as well. Sometimes, going to school brings academic lessons. Today, on Orange Shirt Day, the lessons will be a bit more primal. They will be about the bonds of Love that unite families and how nothing is more important than Love and Family.

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Leaving for school and then, coming home to those you love, should always be the bookends to one of childhood’s most important memories. May it always be so for all children, forever more.