Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be assholes!

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Needless to say (but I will say it, because I have to say all the things), anyone who’s lived among other humans has encountered, is dealing with or will meet at least one asshole. Because they’re everywhere …. Tailgating, then angrily revving up to pass you whether it’s safe or not, then squeezing in front of you. Just so they can get wherever they’re going a minute faster. Cutting in line at the grocery store, then feigning innocence when you say “excuse me, I was in line already”. They know damn well what they did – they were just hoping you wouldn’t have the cojones to call them on it. Pitching a fit at the DMV because they don’t have the required paperwork with them, while the people in line behind them roll their eyes and sigh. Five minutes on the website would have told them everything they needed to know, but they’d rather spend fifteen minutes berating some poor schmuck who has no control over the rules and cannot escape the asshole’s rage because this is her job. Monopolizing the teacher well past their allotted ten minutes, knowing that the teacher has twenty other sets of parents waiting to talk to him. Because, of course, there’s only one child who matters: theirs. Stealing from the office kitchen. They make the same salary as everyone else, but they somehow feel entitled to a free coffee, or even someone else’s sandwich. Neighbours who clear their driveway by dumping the snow onto yours. People who don’t flush. I. Can’t. Even. with the people who don’t flush.

I always knew of the existence of assholes. What I didn’t know is how early they take their first steps down the path to full-blown assholery …. until I became a mother. Fiona was all of one year old when a kid at least three years older than her snatched her pail and shovel at the playground, declaring that he needed it and she wasn’t old enough to use it anyway. At about the same age, two years later, Bridget was discovered by a sadistic little girl who – though older, taller and heavier – insisted on riding her, horsey-style, while she wailed. No matter how many times I pulled that brat off her, it was inevitable that I would have to do it again before the playgroup session ended. I can’t count how many times both girls have watched longingly while some kid hogged the swings, pretending oblivion to the fact that other kids wanted a turn. Nearly every time we’ve visited a McDonald’s, I’ve cringed while watching small ones jostled and toppled by kids who are old enough to know that they should be more careful – and, in some cases, too old to be using the play area anyway.

The most bountiful source, by far, of assholes has been school …. There was the girl who slammed Fiona’s head against the school bus window, and ripped the tassel off her toque. The boy who took Fiona’s beloved cowboy hat from her and danced around with it high in the air while she cried. This is the same boy who, horrifyingly, stuck another kid’s finger in the pencil sharpener and shaved off a layer of skin. Cue the theme from “Psycho”. The girl who, when asked if Fiona could join her group, let her eyes slide around, counting the kids already involved, then protested that Fiona was one too many because this was a game for seven. The boy who knocked Bridget down from behind, causing her to skin out both palms and both knees. The gang of sixth-graders who plagued the schoolyard last year, teasing younger kids about everything from the toys they were playing with to their hair colour, until the principle blew his stack in front of all the students and ordered the jerks out of his school (he earned my respect that day, and – presumably – the love of every underdog from junior kindergarten to the top). While we’re talking about sixth-graders, the sixth-grade boys who thought it was funny to ask the little girls on the bus if they’d like to have sex. This was confusing and upsetting for kids who, of course, didn’t even know what sex is. Who does that? The girl who just had to tell Fiona that she shouldn’t be wearing her Mario-and-Luigi shirt for her school picture. (I asked Fiona what this girl was wearing that was so special, and she couldn’t remember. But she has never forgotten how this girl made her feel.) The girl who heard Fiona humming and said “um, no offense, but you can’t sing”. Did she wake up that morning with the goal of trampling somebody else’s joy, or was it a random act of cruelty? (And why is it that, whenever someone says “no offense”, they follow it with something that couldn’t be anything but offensive?)

Then, there is what might just be the worst …. A disabled man – we’ll call him Jack – working as a helper at the after-school program the girls attend has been moved on to a different program. Why? Because the kids made fun of him, lied to him about the program rules, and openly defied him because they knew he was powerless to do anything about it. This upset Fiona, as she is fond of Jack. It confused Bridget. I didn’t know what to say. I tried to put a positive spin on it, saying that maybe Jack would be happier in a program where he is respected, treated well and can contribute properly. Neither of them were buying it. Finally, I just said “you know, I’m going to be honest – some kids are just assholes”. Bridget protested that she never disrespected Jack or teased him, and I said “exactly – because you’re not an asshole, and if I ever find out that either of you has become one, I will make your life very difficult indeed”. This wasn’t news to them; they already know that. So what’s wrong with these other kids? What’s wrong with their parents? Being a jerk shines through just like being sweet – I don’t see how they could be ignorant of their children’s atrocious behaviour. How can there be so many little assholes out there, making other people miserable? I don’t know. I’m frustrated, and sad for both my children and the assholes. Their world is supposed to be better than the one I grew up in, but I’m pretty sure it’s worse.

And now, because I teased you with my title – well, if you’ve got good taste in music, I did – here’s Waylon and Willie. The song is accompanied by charming pictures of cowboys, and children who want to be cowboys, and none of them look like assholes. Maybe it’s time to change the song. Go ahead and let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Don’t know what the economic prospects look like for that particular career choice, but if it makes them happy …. Just don’t let them be assholes. There are more-than-enough of them already.

Update: Just today, at the after-school program, a girl told Fiona that she couldn’t play in the snow fort with her and some other kids because her name is “ugly”. None of the other kids stood up for Fiona, who cried. Presumably none of them wanted to have their names called ugly. How timely. Thank you, little asshole, for illustrating my blog post for me, and giving me another reason to post it. 

Thank you.

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Every November, without fail, I buy a poppy and lose it the same day. Sometimes, this happens more than once. One year, it happened four times. The pin is an unreliable method of keeping the poppy attached to me. This year, a friend told me to try sticking a chunk of an eraser on the end. It worked. After buying and losing the first poppy, the second one I bought has been with me for days. This year, too, a little pin fastener was included with some of the poppies for sale. I bought poppies for Fiona and Bridget, and – thanks to the fastener – they’re still wearing them.

The poppy has always been a powerful symbol for me. Years ago, it seemed to me that everyone wore them. I remember when they were green in the middle. Now, they have a black centre – and there are white poppies, too. I see less of them than I used to, but there are still many. Poppies are simultaneously beautiful and sad and hopeful. The sight of them piled on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the Remembrance Day ceremony is deeply moving, and heavy with the collective memories and sacrifice and sorrow of all those whose lives have been affected by war.

When I was a child in rural Newfoundland, Remembrance Day stood out to me because, at 11:00 a.m., for two minutes, everything stopped. This never happened any other time of the year, and those two minutes seemed endless. Sometimes, we were listening to the radio, sometimes we were watching the broadcast from the war memorial in Ottawa. Now I live in Ottawa, and most years I don’t try to jostle my way downtown and back – but I still watch it on TV. The faces of the veterans, struggling for composure in the chilly November wind, broke my heart every year. They still do.

I don’t have anything new to say about poppies, or Remembrance Day, or war. I just want to take this moment to honour our soldiers. Those who have fallen, those who are still standing, and those who are still fighting. You traded your security and peace for ours. Thank you.

In praise of great girlfriends ….

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I discovered the joy of girlfriends relatively late in the game, compared to many women I know. I was a tomboy for most of my childhood, and I still am in some ways. I liked some of the same things other girls liked, and I was as much a victim of eighties eyeshadow and big bangs as any of my female peers – but I couldn’t play their games. The preteen you’re-my-friend-now-you’re-not-and-she-is misery. The evaluation of a girl based on the brand of jeans she wore, and how many pairs she owned. I knew more than one girl whose hoard of jeans topped their age. This confused me, as there are only seven days in a week. Being included in groups when they needed an extra girl, and being dropped if there was one girl too many. Watching intelligent girls act stupid so guys would lean over their math textbook or chemistry notes to explain something, and catch a whiff of their perfume. As much as I wanted a boyfriend, I couldn’t bring myself to hide my brain. And the gossip …. I was fortunate to have learned early my Dad’s philosophy on gossip: if people have nothing better to do than talk about me, imagine how boring their own lives are. I had one or two really good girlfriends until I went to college. There, I found two or three more. Now, at 34, I have several. Why? I don’t think I’ve changed that much. I still like alot of the same things, though I’ve picked up a few new interests along the way. I’ve learned to delay judgement when meeting people, and maybe that gives a few more women a chance to become my friends. However, I suspect that the biggest factor in the upswing of girls in my life is that the games aren’t as popular. While some bitches are bitches-for-life, most of us eventually mellow and mature. Life has a way of knocking you around and forcing you to dig through the bullshit you’ve manufactured to find the essence of yourself – the strength of character you need to keep your head above water.

Just last week, I went out with Kathy, Cara and Blue, three solid girlfriends. We talked our way through several bottles of wine, did some not-too-shabby amateur painting, and laughed. Oh, how we laugh when we get together! What elicits a chuckle when I’m alone turns into a teary-eyed, open-mouthed, gasping-for-breath roar when we’re together. I am grateful for their friendship, and that of a handful of other lovely ladies. I’m even grateful the next morning, when I’m questioning the wisdom of having friends whose …. er …. lust for life equals mine. Also, friends who know that the real food groups are wine, chocolate, and poutine …. I recently found myself wondering what makes a great girlfriend, and I came up with a list (as my esteemed readers know by now, I loves me some lists).

Great girlfriends know your life. They know the names of the players in every drama. They know who to dislike, and who to cheer for, and why. They know where the bodies are buried, and how they came to be that way. You don’t have to set the scene for them, you can just get right to the point.

And even if they’ve heard it before, they’ll listen again. Every disappointing stand-off with your kid starts and ends the same way. Every argument with your sister features a few standard button-pushing lines. You’ve had the same beefs with your job and your co-workers for years. Your pet peeves are familiar territory, too. Every bad day has more-or-less the same list of flaws and fumbles. But a great girlfriend will let you rant, rationalize, forgive and step back from the ledge as if you’ve never done it before. At no point in the conversation will a bored or impatient heard-this-before expression cross her face.

They hear what you don’t say. If someone asks me how I’m doing, and the answer is “shit-tacular” but I don’t feel like getting into it, I’ll say I’m fine. Most people won’t even wait til the word “fine” has fluttered out of my mouth before moving on. I can’t get away with that if the askers are my girlfriends. They will stop what they’re doing, raise their eyebrows and give me the “really” look. They wait patiently for the façade to crumble and fall away, then gaze without judgement on what I’ve been trying to hide – and offer a hug that makes all my problems a little smaller. When I tell them what’s not fine, I don’t have to try to explain why – they can hear that, too, because (like I said) they know my life.

Great girlfriends are not afraid to argue with you. They won’t let you make excuses for assholes, even if the assholes are people you love. They’ll tell you if your mother should mind her own business, or if your boyfriend should be treating you better. They won’t let you martyr yourself – they are not afraid to confront what’s unfair in your life, and make you recognise it, too. A great girlfriend will tell you that you shouldn’t be the only one who attempts to empty the trash cans in your house, and to stop doing laundry for your college-aged kids. If your boss is being a jerk, they won’t just shrug and say “whatcha gonna do”. They’ll remind you you’re worth more than that, and help you come up with ideas to improve your work situation. They don’t shy away from telling you how they would handle your issues. If you’re doing something that won’t help, or not doing something that will, they care about you enough to nudge you in the right direction. They won’t just smile and nod as you grapple with the tough stuff, they shout encouragement and pointers from the front row of the bleachers. The only sacred cow for great girlfriends is your feelings. They treat your heart like it’s made of glass. (Love that song? Me, too – you’re welcome.)

They know you’re juggling lots of balls (or swords or torches, depending on how you feel). They are not demanding or jealous. Sometimes, life takes everything you’ve got, and you can’t be everything to everyone. If you’ve just scored a promotion, landed a man, bought a house or had a baby, you’re going to be preoccupied and busier. Your true girlfriends are not going to whine about you not calling as often, or not being able to come out and play. They know you need time to let the chips fall and the dust settle, and they’ll wait until you come back around. When you do, they’ll buy you a drink to celebrate your return.

Great girlfriends build you up. They know your cake mix and your hair dye came in a box, but they’ll praise your goodies and your ‘do anyway. After you’ve dropped the ball, they’ll tell you they admire how you carried it until the drop and the way you scooped it back up. They don’t dredge up the moments you wish you could bury, they hand you a shovel and then get to work with the one they brought for themselves. They don’t pour scepticism on your big plans, even if they know that these plans coming to life and a snowball in hell share the same chance. You will not walk away from a chat with a great girlfriend feeling worse than you did before.

I guess I took the long way around to the following statement: I have been blessed with great girlfriends, and I am so thankful for them. You know who you are …. This one’s for you.

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And now I give you the seven Lame Spirits of Halloween Present ….

I’ve never been head-over-heels for Halloween. As a child, dressing up and scrambling around town for candy was fun, of course, but it was nowhere near the big deal that Christmas was. Or Easter. Or, come to think of it, St. Paddy’s Day and Valentine’s Day. I would put, at most, three days’ thought into my costume – which was usually cobbled together from bits and pieces I found around our house. I can only remember one store-bought costume, this truly scary (and clammy) plastic ensemble:

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Even now, nearly thirty years later, I remember the smell of that mask …. After choosing a costume, there was a class party in the afternoon, a quick dinner, and trick-or-treating. I’d bring home a bag of tooth-rotting goodness, on which I would nibble steadily until it magically disappeared around the middle of November (coincidentally, this was always about the same time my parents got tired of looking at the bag hanging on my doorknob). Some years, I’d draw a few jack-o-lanterns and stars to tape to our windows, some years I wouldn’t bother. Sometimes, we had a jack-o-lantern. I also dimly remember some store-bought cardboard decorations that came out every October until they fell apart. One year, after watching a horrible documentary about Satanists, my mother put a sign on our door declaring that our family wouldn’t be celebrating Halloween. I got razzed at school for that one, but I didn’t really miss Halloween that year. And razzing at school was nearly non-stop anyway because my father was a teacher there, I was short, I wore the most enormous red-framed glasses (we’re talking half my face behind glass), I got good grades and used big words …. This was just something new for my classmates to talk about, and they probably forgot it after I got a really bad perm that took years to grow out. Ah, highschool ….

As far as I know, the way my family did Halloween is the way everyone did Halloween back then. During the years between leaving home and having children of my own, I more-or-less ignored it. This was easy, because my friends weren’t really into it either, and neither was Ryan. When Fiona and Bridget were very little, we didn’t bother. Fiona went trick-or-treating for the first time when she was three, and her clown wig was the most exciting part for her. She didn’t notice that I tossed out about three-quarters of her candy. Over the past few years, Halloween’s made an impressive come-back in my life. I carve a jack-o-lantern every year, and happily light it on Halloween night. I eagerly help Fiona and Bridget with their costumes. Ryan takes the girls trick-or-treating, and I answer the door – and when they come home, I dole out treats to them, too. Just this morning, I did something I never thought I’d do: I enjoyed listening to “Monster Mash”. Some things, though, really rain on my feeble, low-key Halloween parade.

Why do people spend hundreds of dollars on hideous decorations? Halloween is apparently edging out Christmas when it comes to spending on trappings. But when you buy Christmas decorations, you’re buying beautiful items that your family will treasure for years. When you buy Halloween decorations, you’re buying plastic spiders, rubber severed limbs, fake tombstones. If you’re good at decorating, your house will look horrifying. If you’re not, your house will look tacky. Either way, you’ve wasted alot of money on what is, after all, one freakin’ night. Which brings me to ….

People who buy expensive costumes. Again, why? You can buy a costume for hundreds of dollars, or you can spend $20 at Walmart. You can spend even less if you’re willing to put in some time rummaging through Value Village’s vast selection. You can even forage in your storage room and junk drawer. Either way, you’ll have a fun disguise for (as I just said) one night. And, while we’re talking about costumes, let your kid wear her costume before Halloween if she wants. It’s not a wedding dress, it’s a felt tail and a pair of plastic horns.

Teenagers who don’t bother with costumes. I think it’s weird that people with deep voices or impressive cleavage still want to trick-or-treat, but I don’t mind giving them candy if they at least wear a funny hat or cut some eye holes in a sheet.

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Parents who take their baby trick-or-treating. If the kid’s diet still consists mainly of milk, it’s obvious that the candy is really for the parents. Not to mention that the little one won’t get anything out of the experience, and might even nap right through it. If you must put a costume on your baby, take a picture of him and make copies for the grandparents, then let him go back to squeezing bananas through his fists and staring at the ceiling fan. If it’s candy you want, it all goes on sale November 1 – and you can get it all in one location, rather than going door-to-door and mooching it from strangers.

People who paint pumpkins. A jack-o-lantern is a traditional Halloween decoration. A carved pumpkin. Not a painted pumpkin. This isn’t Easter! Halloween is supposed to be messy and ugly. Halloween is not a time to make our front steps look like Martha has been here. I blame Pinterest for this, along with many other annoyances.

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Why do so many people take their children trick-or-treating at the mall? I know we’ve all become ridiculous about safety in recent years, especially when it comes to our kids, but this is over-the-top, even by today’s standards. When trick-or-treaters are at our door, their parents are – at most – ten feet away from them. Kids who are old enough to go without their parents travel in packs. And most people are harmless – and, like me, love to see the trick-or-treaters at the door. Last year, we only had twelve kids – twelve. Because people have decided that they’d rather not risk a bit of mud (or, in parts of Canada, snow) or darkness or interaction with strangers – they’ll do their Halloweening in a well-lit, climate-controlled, tastfully decorated environment, thank you very much.

The Switch Witch. Unless you are dealing with a food allergy, this has got to be one of the biggest buzzkills any holiday has ever had to rise above …. (This title used to belong to the Elf on the Shelf. No longer.) People will actually spend $30 on this ugly little toy and her accompanying “legend”. As I said, if your child has a food allergy, I feel sorry for her – it’s sad not to be able to enjoy your Halloween loot. Go ahead and switch out some of her candy for something safer – and maybe a product like the Switch Witch will help you do that. However, if you just don’t want your kid to eat all that candy, do this rarely-attempted-but-highly-effective thing: say “no”. Simple. Quick. Not to mention that my revolutionary idea just saved you thirty bucks …. You’re welcome.

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I know that this list of lame will not have everyone nodding and exclaiming “I know” – so let’s discuss. What do people do at Halloween that makes your inner monster come shambling out, ready to eat them alive? And if that’s writing bitchy blog posts about your rhinestone-studded turquoise pumpkin and your $150-costume-clad three month old, you can say that, too. I like a good interwebz throw down as much as the next blogger. Happy Halloween!

Breakdown of a breakdown ….

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The tomb of the unknown soldier, at the foot of the cenotaph, was a peaceful resting place for the remains of a man of whom we know nothing, save that he served his country and, in the end, gave his life for it. I’ve walked or driven past it many times. I’ve stopped there a few times, too. The last time I stopped there was during the summer of 2013, when my brother, André, and his wife, Janelle, were visiting. I walked their legs off all over downtown Ottawa, and the tomb was one of the things I chose to show them. People were chatting, snapping pictures, eating lunch, enjoying a fresh-air escape from the office. Two guards played a game with my daughters, handing them cards with clues describing certain parts of the beautiful monument. They, along with a few other children, scurried around the memorial, eagerly finding each piece of the puzzle. I can’t ever think of it as peaceful again.

Just two days ago, Wednesday, October 22, the peace of the tomb was shattered by a young man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. A lifelong loser trailing a long history of petty crime and addiction, an angry, unstable wanna-be mujahid whose goal was to travel to Syria and fight alongside ISIS. Somehow, he got his hands on a gun he wasn’t allowed to possess and murdered the soldier guarding the tomb. Nathan Cirillo, father, animal-lover, soldier, was shot at point-blank range, from behind – the favourite angle of the cowardly. Brave bystanders tried frantically to save his life, but he died in their arms. Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Centre Block on Parliament Hill, where he was confronted – and later shot – by the sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers. Even though Zehaf-Bibeau was dead, it was unknown whether he was operating alone. Were there other gunmen? Had bombs been planted? Was the killing a standalone act, or was it the harbinger of mayhem? Nobody knew, so the surrounding area was swiftly shut down and closed off. All government offices were put in lockdown, as were several schools. Civil servants were told to stay in their building, including (of course) Ryan and I. Phone lines were tied up, and the internet was creeping at a snail’s pace (or, at times, completely stalled) as people all over the city frantically tried to find out what was going on and reach loved ones to reassure each other.

I was in a meeting when the news broke. I can’t tell you anything that was said in the meeting after hearing about the attack. My mind shut down. I was able to hold back the tears that sprang immediately to my eyes until it was over, then I took refuge in the washroom – of course, it is a fact that, if you are trying to cry quietly in the washroom, people will bang in and out and force you to converse with them. But I couldn’t stop. I cried in a washroom stall, then – when I thought I was ok – I made it back to my desk in time to start sniffling again. I texted my mother and her husband, then André and Janelle, to let them know that we were safe. Mom called, and I talked to her for a few minutes around the lump in my throat, trying not to let her hear my fear. I’ve been leaking tears at odd moments ever since. It is, I suppose, some sort of breakdown – a response to the tension that you can almost touch, floating in the air, thick enough to choke on. An overwhelming sorrow at the thought of two young men wasted, a peaceful place stained with blood, a city transformed by terror. The dissolution of the thin mental membrane between my usual state of calm and the sickening, screaming state of panic.

My emotions were even more difficult to control when I realised that we were nearing school dismissal time. Fiona’s and Bridget’s school, which had been secured at first, was now operating as usual, even though it is only a few blocks from where I was locked down. Somewhere between my office tower and their school, somebody had drawn an invisible line – apparently, was not safe and they were. Who decided that? How did they decide that? I wasn’t supposed to stand near a window or on a rooftop for fear of potential snipers, but my children were about to leave their school and walk down the street to the Y Kids Club. I must have called their group leader’s number twenty times or more. Ryan took over the task of calling their school – maybe the school staff could tell us if things were ok. I couldn’t do anything about school dismissal or them walking to their after-school program, I couldn’t even leave my damn building – so I needed to know that they had reached the church basement where the Y Kids Club is held. I couldn’t stay still, couldn’t put down my phone – could barely breathe – until I learned that they were safely inside. After that, it was easier to wait out the lockdown. Sometimes, in fact, I managed to forget for a few seconds – then I’d look out the window at the empty grass and paths and picnic tables, and remember that a nightmare was happening even though we were all awake.

The lockdown was lifted just before four (for us, anyway – the downtown would remain shuttered and surrounded by police until well into the night). As we left the building, I drew in a grateful breath of fresh air, my first since walking in that morning. My shoulders were tight and my eyes were roaming – every sound was magnified in my mind, and I couldn’t help but look behind me every few paces. Cars were backed up all the way to the parking lot, because every car going across the bridges to Quebec was being monitered – and, because this is a border city, there were alot of cars heading across those bridges. After picking Fiona and Bridget up from daycare, tears were threatening again – this time, tears of gratitude at the simple blessing of the four of us reunited in our filthy car. I was exhausted, and my head pounded, and my eyes felt raw – but we were together, and unhurt, and going home.

There’s been a great deal of poetic waxing – journalists are reaching the dizzy heights of sports writers as they scramble for words that are deep and wide enough to encompass this event and the fallout. “Loss of innocence” is used often. It’s not really that, though – most of us have known for years that this was coming. We’ve watched the United States and Europe suffer through much worse, and really we’ve just been lucky until now. We all know that things will change, but these things are mainly of a procedural nature, and won’t stop everything we want them to. What has happened to us lives in some dark, airless corner of our mind with the other spiders – it’s always been there. The only difference now is that this corner has been disturbed, some of its denizens have come howling into the light. The word I keep coming back to is breakdown. The shooting of Nathan Cirillo was a breakdown of security, of trust, of humanity. It is a breakdown of the line between our bad dreams and reality. It is a breakdown of our illusions of peace and easy living. It is a breakdown of my feeling that all’s right with my world. My calm façade – that’s all it was, I know that now – cracked in the face of our collective tragedy and grief. This is just a description of my experience – I can only imagine what it was like for the people downtown, in the eye of the storm, for the families of Nathan Cirillo and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, for Kevin Vickers, for our soldiers who know they have become moving targets merely because of their uniform. I’m praying for them all, because that’s all I can do. In the meantime, we’re all back to work and school and life, because that’s what we must do. We won’t let this breakdown break us.

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“For what we have received, may the Lord make us truly thankful.”

So, with Thanksgiving behind us (at least, in Canada) and myself being someone who never gets there until everyone else has already been there a while – I thought I’d write about gratitude. Every Thanksgiving, Ryan and I, together with his family, rent a chalet in Collingwood for the long weekend. We bring homemade soups and desserts. We decorate the chalet with an art collection the kids have been making since they were toddlers, as well as gourds and ears of corn that we buy at a farm on our way there.

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This tradition goes back so far that we all call it “Collingwood”, not “Thanksgiving”. Once we’ve arrived at the chalet, we do …. whatever. We play poker, and whatever other games someone might be inspired to suggest. We do crafts. Ryan and his brother, Derek, play a deadly serious tennis match. They bring their guitars, and we all sing along – and cheer enthusiastically. The guys watch hockey and football, the ladies have cocktails and talk about the guys. There’s usually a hot tub, and sometimes a foosball, ping pong or pool table. This year, we added a soccer ball (one of my powerful-but-aimless kicks nearly took out the next-door neighbour as he was watering his tomatoes), Jenga and the dispicable “Cards Against Humanity” to the list, as well as a spa experience.

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Because the chalet belonged to everyone, so nobody was playing host, everyone pitched in with everything. So there was time. Time to sit down and sing a favourite song with the guitar players. Time to take anyone up on any game. Time to lie around with cucumbers on my eyes and some mysterious goop on my face and feel the presence of others in the same situation. Time to chat whenever anyone felt like chatting. Time to cuddle. Time to close my eyes and breathe in the smell of the delicious whatever-happened-to-be-simmering in the kitchen. Time to just be. I took some of this copious time to teach Fiona and Bridget to sew. Nothing fancy, just how to close a rip and how to apply a button. They loved it! And now they have another life skill that will save them money and grief down the line …. Years from now, when they are in therapy over all my glaring inadequacies, at least they won’t be able to say that their mother never taught them to repair clothing. Also, the loved-hard-but-still-smiling Sleep Sheep has a new blanket.

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And, of course, there was time to consider what we have received. On the funny side ….

- Ryan and I packed the car to maximum capacity, and duked it out over what’s essential and what’s not. But we didn’t fight.

- Fiona carried a phalanx of live ladybug larvae on her lap all the way to Collingwood and back (about fourteen hours, round-trip) – and none of them escaped or even, as far as I can tell, shuffled off their mortal coil.

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- Nine grown-ass, full-blown human beings stayed in a chalet together from Thursday to Monday, and nobody lost their shiz.

- No dinner was eaten before seven on any given night, and – still – zero shiz was misplaced.

- We ate the Perogie Palace out of perogies. No, really, there were no perogies left by the time we were finished ordering. But it was fine – we shared, and there was more than enough. (As an aside, if you like perogies and schnitzel and a few cool twists on traditional Polish food, go to the Perogie Palace in Meaford!)

- Two kids were learning to sew, so several people were treated to a needle in the foot. But, again, everybody’s shiz stayed right where it was – and nobody died of sepsis.

- These same children were subsisting on a diet of sugar layered between sugar, rolled in sugar, drizzled with sugar and dusted with sugar, served in a sugar cone – and staying up about three hours past their bedtime every night – but they didn’t kill each other, and no one killed them.

- People over thirty played soccer, but nobody had a heart attack or broke their self-bone.

- I acquired a three-blister-shrivelled-skin burn from a sloppy gravy boat and yelled at everyone to “do something” while doing nothing myself because the pain lit my brain up like Canada Day fireworks, and nobody hates me, and I still have a right hand.

- After several straight two-a.m.-or-later bedtimes, we made that long drive home – and unloaded the car, which looked like our whole life vomited in it – and we didn’t fight.

Then, there are the not-so-funny things.On our way to the chalet, we passed two terrible accidents. Broad daylight, dry roads, and crumpled cars. But not for us …. Did we miss it by seconds? We were able to afford to come together, and in style. How many people are separated from their loved ones because of distance and money? While we were together, we could say whatever we wanted, whenever the thought occurred to us. Not everyone can say that. Any given person in the chalet (aside, of course, from Fiona and Bridget) could walk into the grocery store for extra supplies, not even consider the cost, and cart it home. Once it arrived at the house, any of us could lift it up the stairs and into the kitchen, because we are blessed with health and strength. We can prepare the food, wash ourselves and even our clothes and surroundings with perfectly clean water. None of us are sick. And, if we were, a few hours in a waiting room is the only price we’d pay to get back on track. Any time we wanted, we could plant a sloppy kiss and a tight hug on some of the people we love best in all the world. Our girls, when they are in Collingwood, are surrounded by love – and they know it. Oh, the beauty of that!

I write about all these factors in the context of Thanksgiving, and this one lovely weekend we spent together, but really what I’d like to see is this level of gratitude expressed every day. God knows we have received alot. We don’t live in Iraq or Syria or North Korea. Nobody we know has Ebola, or has even come in contact with it (yet). The hospitals, care facilities, schools, libraries, churches and roads we use are free to any Canadian citizen. If we fall on hard times, there are people and institutions waiting to help us. We can look however we like, be any colour or creed or non-creed. Our race is not a source of shame. Who we love is our business, not society’s nor even the state’s, and most people are happy to celebrate our love with us. How high we rise does not depend on the achievement of our forbears. And, if we reach out, we can find people with whom we can share ourselves because so many people are just waiting to be tamed.

For what we have received, let us be truly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! (There. I’ve published this just in time for our neighbours to the South to enjoy and reflect. Not bad, Beth, not bad.)

Lessons from “The Little Prince”

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A couple of years ago, I received a gift from my brother-in-law’s fiancé. (Back in May, Di shortened her title to my sister-in-law by having a wedding.) The gift was a beautifully illustrated copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince”. Somehow, I had never read this lovely little allegory about the travels of a prince from another planet. I made up for that all in one evening. I thought it would be a light read, an imaginative romp. I was wrong. It made me cry. It occupied my thoughts for days. There is so much to learn in this book.The lessons are jumbled, and don’t really follow a theme, but they’re so clear and sweet and true that I want to share them with you.

“Because where I live, everything is very small ….” When we meet the little prince, he’s imploring the narrator (a man whose plane has crashed in a desert) to draw him a sheep. The narrator offers an elephant, but the prince says an elephant would get in the way. It has to be a sheep, and the sheep has to be small, because his planet is small. It’s so small that he wonders if there’s enough grass for the sheep to eat. He laughs at the notion that the narrator would draw him a tether for his sheep – there’s nowhere the sheep can go anyway. Everything he has can be surveyed in one sweep of the eyes. I thought about the similarity of my situation: my world is very small. My home, my circle of friends, my concerns are like a drop of water in an ocean. At least the little prince is wise enough to know that. I keep forgetting.

“But, of course, those of us who understand life couldn’t care less about numbers!” We are told that the little prince’s planet is called Asteroid B-612, which was discovered in 1909 and presented to the astronomical community in 1920. The author tells us these cold, dry facts so that we’ll believe his story. To him, the proof that the prince was real is “that he was delightful, that he laughed and that he wanted a sheep”. But he knows that most people focus on how old something is, how much it cost, how many others there are like it – not the intrinsic value of its beauty and dearness.

“…. if it’s the seed of a bad plant, you must pull the plant up right away, as soon as you can recognise it.” The little prince details how he spends his time on his planet. A good deal of it is devoted to tending his garden, including ridding it of baobab trees. They are, apparently, as tall as churches and would destroy the prince’s tiny planet if they were allowed to grow to their full size. So, the prince pulls the baobab seedlings up as soon as he knows what they are; they start out looking like all the other plants, “charming, harmless” sprouts “reaching toward the sun”. Would our tendencies, criticisms, regrets and troubles grow so large and overwhelming if we spent more time inside ourselves? Maybe a few minutes every day of reflection over the state of our life would help us cope with it …. “When you’re finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend your planet.”

“You know, when you’re feeling very sad, sunsets are wonderful ….” Little things give the prince great joy – even when he’s feeling down. We, too, can find contentment in the little things – but we need to actually notice them, and make an effort to focus on them.

“I should have realized the tenderness underlying her silly pretensions …. but I was too young to know how to love her.” In the eighth chapter, we are introduced to the flower …. On the prince’s tiny planet, there were only plain flowers – until a rose grew. She’s vain, unfurling slowly, “selecting her colours with the greatest care” and “adjusting her petals one by one”. She has only four thorns, but thinks herself “ready for tigers”. She needs a screen to protect her from drafts, and glass over her at night. She coughs occasionally to make him mindful of her delicacy and guilty about his lack of concern for her. The prince grew tired of her neediness. She was too complicated for him. So, he left the bell jar over her, and flew off to explore other planets. It is only when he is away from her that he realizes what she did for him every day. “She perfumed my planet and lit up my life …. I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words.” We all have people who love us in clumsy, complicated ways – ways that are not always easily recognizable. We’ve all, at some point, thrown kindness aside because it comes with obligations and mixed feelings. Sometimes, it takes a long time – and great deal of examination – to truly appreciate what we have received from the people around us.

After bidding adieu to his flower, the prince visits several planets before falling to Earth. He meets a king who “insists that his authority be universally respected”, but has no real authority. So he will only command what can be performed, when conditions are favourable, convincing himself that he is in charge because his demands are always for the obvious and inevitable. A vain man, alone on his planet, demands and happily accepts admiration – which is easy to give him, because he’s the only man around (a fact he conveniently ignores). There is a businessman who believes he owns the stars, because he’s the first person who’s ever thought of owning them. Owning the stars makes him rich, because he can use them to buy other stars. It doesn’t make him happy, though, because now he is obsessed with the need to take inventory – and he just can’t count all the stars. The prince meets a geographer who demands information about the Asteroid B-612. The first thing the prince mentions is the flower, but the geographer explains that he doesn’t want to hear about ephemeral things – things that are “threatened by imminent disappearance”. Hearing this, the little prince regrets leaving his flower.

He then visits Earth, where he encounters the narrator and coaxes him to draw a sheep with a crate and a muzzle. He also meets a yellow snake who pities him, “being so weak on this granite earth”. The snake offers to send him back to his planet, but the prince isn’t ready to leave yet. He has more exploring to do. He comes across a blossoming rose bush, and weeps. He thought his flower was the only one of her kind; now that he knows there are thousands like her, he is disappointed. “I thought I was rich because I had just one flower, and all I own is an ordinary rose.” He was happier when he focused on what he has, rather than everything he doesn’t have. Sound familiar? He isn’t crying over the rose, but the loss of his innocence – the feeling of being special just isn’t there anymore, because greed has eaten it up.

“It was then that the fox appeared.” The little prince’s encounter with the fox is the loveliest part of the story, in my opinion. The fox greets the weeping prince, and asks to be loved. The fox explains to the prince what it means to love and be loved (or, as the fox calls it, to tame and be tamed). “For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.” He explains that if they love each other, the prince’s footsteps will become precious to him – he won’t notice other footsteps, but the prince’s footsteps will call him out of his burrow “like music”. Wheat means nothing to the fox, because he doesn’t eat bread – but the wheat would become dear to the fox, because it’s the same colour as the prince’s hair.

“I’ll discover what it costs to be happy!” In the same conversation, the fox tells the prince about the sad side of being loved – that now he will have something to be anxious over, something to lose. In time, the prince and the fox tame each other – coming together and sitting side by side, every day. Edging closer together. Not speaking, because “language is the source of misunderstandings”.

“You’re lovely, but you’re empty …. my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass. Since she’s the one I sheltered behind a screen …. Since she’s my rose.” When it is time for the prince to return to his planet, the fox says “I shall weep”. The prince points out that the fox asked to be tamed, and expresses sorrow that the fox will “get nothing out of it”. The fox answers that he does get something, “because of the colour of the wheat”. He urges the prince to go back to the roses before they say goodbye. Upon returning to the roses, the prince – having had his eyes opened to the beautiful and terrible world of love – sees that the roses are nothing special, because none of them is his rose. When he comes back to the fox, the fox reveals a secret:

“One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes …. It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important …. People have forgotten this truth, but you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”

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After leaving the fox, the little prince meets the narrator again, and they go in search of water. They find a well, and they agree that the water is sweet, because they are so thirsty. That the desert is lovely because “it hides a well”. That the stars are beautiful because, somewhere in the midst of them, the prince’s flower waits for him. The surface of anything is only that: the surface. Trappings. “What’s most important is invisible.”

At the end of the story, there’s one last lesson – that of death. The narrator is heartbroken because he knows his little friend is about to leave him. The prince pleads with him to understand that he cannot fly away unless he leaves the shell of himself behind. “It’s too far. I can’t take this body with me. It’s too heavy.” He needs to return to his planet, to the core of himself – to his rose. Holding onto the solid is keeping him away from all that. Sometimes, we have to let go of what we can see, touch and quantify – to fly free and find what’s essential. And, though we grieve, we must give those we love the same chance.

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