Filling my unforgiving minutes with sixty seconds’ worth of distance limped, leaving a trail of blood behind me ….

51QB2ZTV8AL
I have a decent job, and most of my colleagues are good people – but when it’s quitting time I hit the ground running. When you have a husband and two kids and a house and a job (and no nanny or maid or chef) your evenings are busy – and it feels like every second counts. Christmas is less than a month away, and I do Christmas big. This, of course, adds to my to-do list. Today was no exception. Having spent my adult life not even trying to fight my addiction to artificial height, I was wearing five-inch heels, so I wasn’t running – just walking really, really, really fast (which, I am aware, looks ridiculous). I hit a crack in the pavement at the wrong angle, and nearly fell, wrenching my ankle a bit. So I limped really, really, really fast the rest of the way to the car (looking, I know, even more ridiculous).
Traffic was doing what it always does between four and six in the afternoon – crawling. Shoulders and neck tense and hunched, eyes narrowed, I silently cursed every car that wasn’t parked. I wasn’t enjoying the beloved Christmas music on the radio, or the glorious sunset. I was in a hurry to get to the Y to collect Fiona and Bridget and get them home, and every car between me and that smelly church basement was stealing my precious time. (This has nothing to do with anything, but why is it that, when you kennel more than three kids in a room, it always ends up funky? A solid 90% of the classrooms and daycares and party rooms and dance studios and gymnasiums that have been frequented by our girls over the years smell like feet. Why?)
After hustling Fiona and Bridget into the car, and completing the drive home, I started my second shift at breakneck speed. Ryan was out, so I decided that we three ladies would indulge in a very girl activity: sharing baked brie and fancy-pants crackers and pink milk in front of “Madeline at the North Pole”. Yes, even Baby Bear Bridget is too old for Madeline, but the movie is sweet and Christmassy and we like it. Who can resist “an old house in Paris that was covered in vines” and “twelve little girls in two straight lines”? And those adorable beribboned boaters ….
Before relaxing, though, there were things to do. Their agendas needed to be reviewed and signed, and food prepared for tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow’s Pizza Friday – but they still needed juice boxes and snacks and a side of veggies to ease my conscience about the pizza. The dishwasher was filled with clean dishes, and the counter was covered with dirty ones. I’m one day away from going commando, so Mount Laundry (soaring into the clouds like Everest, if slightly less majestic) had to be conquered. The beds needed new sheets. And the kitchen was filthy. The girls and I, along with my mother, had a Christmas baking marathon last Friday – sugar crystals, coconut and blobs of dough everywhere. That night, a gaggle of girlfriends came over to make dozens of chocolates (while, of course, laughing our heads off and drinking gallons of wine). Ryan and I made a pizza together, always a messy affair, and more cookies were churned out. Before I knew it, it was Monday, the beginning of another four days of hastily assembled meals, haphazardly swept and swabbed away just in time to rush off to the next thing. As I said, filthy.
I decided that I would tackle everything but the kitchen. I would do that chore after the girls were tucked away for the night. With the help of two little elves (and now that they’re eight and ten they actually do help when they try to be helpful), I blazed through the agendas and school snacks and laundry and dishwasher – tripping over things, bumping into things, saying “excuse me” alot, wearing out the carpet on the stairs. Still, despite my determination and my enthusiastic crew, I was dismayed to see the clock ticking forward at an alarming rate. I attempted to shift into a higher gear, tackling one thing while my mind focused on the next thing. It all came to a stinging, yelping, bleeding halt when I attempted to shave the top skin off the brie and shaved a slice of skin off my finger instead. In the follow-through, before I realized I’d parted with a piece of my self, I sank the knife into the ball of my thumb. Pain, and then blood – and I was forced to stand still. I wondered if I might need stitches for the finger, and then realized there’d be nothing to stitch together – the chunk of flesh was resting on the knife I’d abandoned on the counter. Bridget fetched me a bandage, and Fiona (with all the staggering sensitivity a fifth grader can muster) requested that we use a fresh knife for the rest of the brie. Because we were all hungry and my finger and thumb had become numb anyway, I finished preparing our dinner. I hadn’t learned anything, though. Trying to carry too much at once, I slopped pink milk all over my already-disgusting kitchen floor. Trying to retrieve green onions from the fridge while opening the freezer to scoop out some ice cubes, I bumped my head on the freezer door. It was only when we were finally relaxing in front of Madeline and her friends, snuggled deliciously together in a nest of blankets like a litter of baby animals, that I realized how stupid I had been.
What, exactly, was I rushing for? Would it have made that much of a difference in my evening if things took ten or fifteen minutes longer to finish? Would it have mattered if I had left the damn laundry one more day? Was I any faster for all that hurry? Not really. I shared my thoughts with the girls, and Fiona said “Mommy, you should write a blog post about this”. Great idea – so, here I am, writing a blog post about this. It’s not as if I can clean my kitchen now anyway. Just the thought of warm, soapy water anywhere near the crater in my finger and the crevice in my thumb makes me want to paste myself to the ceiling and make noises only dogs can hear. So I might as well do what writers do when they slam into a revelation: write. My throbbing finger and thumb are a constant reminder of the fresh breeze and sunset and crunchy leaves I didn’t appreciate, the precious evening hours I spun away from me like a top, and the fact that I need to slow down.
I’ve always admired “If” by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a beautiful poem, insightful and encouraging. However, right now, I’m heavily questioning one of the lines – the one that recommends filling “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”. I think I need to fill more minutes, forgiving or otherwise, with nothing but my heartbeat and my thoughts. Maybe that’ll be a Christmas present from me to myself this year – second-guessing what I’m running for, and slowing down when I can. If I had done that today, I wouldn’t be typing an entire bloody blog post without my left thumb and index finger – and my kitchen would be clean.

When words fail ….

image

So, this week, for the first time ever, I wanted to burn my computer. I wanted to set it on fire, throw it through a window and pour myself a glass of champagne to celebrate its demise. I don’t feel this way during DST, when people whine about how they can no longer function because their clock changed by one lousy hour. I don’t feel this way on May 4, when an army of nerds wishes me the company of the Force. I don’t feel this way every November 12, when people start carping about keeping Christ in Christmas. I didn’t even feel this way when the Minion craze was in full swing – even though I severely dislike (and, worse, don’t really get) Minions and they were all over my Facebook newsfeed. No, what brought me to an all-time low in my experience of the digital world is the overwhelming wave of anti-Muslim memes and rants that I’ve seen over the past week. Horrible things have been posted. Things I wouldn’t say in a sound-proofed closet in an empty house, yet they were proclaimed for all to read. I won’t repeat them, because I can’t bring myself to give them voice. I will say, however, that it is not an exaggeration to observe that my Facebook newsfeed was oozing, dripping, spewing, hemorrhaging hate. So I did what I always do when I don’t like something – I said something. I said alot of somethings. At times, I was buoyed by the positive responses of like-minded people. Most of the time, though, I felt like I was standing alone against a swarm of ignoramuses, bullies, xenophobes, racists. Haters.

I have wanted to blog about this for days now, because this is BethBlog and I’m Beth and I blog. But I’ve been having trouble finding words. Usually, I use my own words. I love to write, and words come easy to me most of the time. Today, though, I can find no better words than those of Jesus Christ in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”

Today, I’m extrapolating on perfection when I add “For I was a refugee, without home, comfort, possessions, food, clothing or health …. and you opened your arms to me.” 

“They shall grow not old”: familiar, yet tragic, words.

mqSXwh4hSN2J6rx3p41Q_poppies 662x320

Somehow, another year has flown by, and another Remembrance Day is upon us. I nearly lost my poppy again this year. It might just have been a time-between-purchase-and-loss record-breaker, had it not been for Ryan’s sharp eyes. I bought it on my way out of a store, wore it while driving home and discovered it missing upon entering our house. Ryan rescued it from our driveway, and I applied the crafty little eraser-chunk fix (as discussed in this post from last November). It’s still rolling with me. For now.

McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” has always been a poignant read for me (and, of course, millions of other people). “We are the dead.” So simple, so bleak. Our war-dead “loved, and were loved”, and now they are gone. A field of people has been replaced by a field of crosses. And that stirring, haunting call at the end! “To you, from failing hands, we throw the torch …. If ye break faith …. we shall not sleep ….” As the years roll by, though, I find myself thinking more of Binyon’s “For The Fallen”. This poem, though also beautiful, didn’t really resonate with me. Possibly because I felt so very far from growing old myself – to me, the young men and women who lost their life had already lived a fair slice of it. Now that I’m 35, I know that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Looking at pictures of the brave men and women going off to war, I’m struck by how young so many of them were – far too young to die. Some of them never even finished school before shipping out. Some of them had never been more than a few miles from home until they followed the bugle call across the ocean. Some of them had never been in love. Some of them were lucky enough to have fallen in love, maybe even to have married their sweetheart – but they would never experience the ripening of that love into the unbreakable, bone-deep bond that a lifetime together forges. Some of them had children, but many did not – they would never see their own eyes looking back at them from a brand-new face, would never know what it feels like to have a piece of their heart living on the outside of their body. The ones who had been granted the profound blessing of becoming parents would not be able to watch their babies grow up. They may have gotten along well with their own parents, but they would never relate to them the way you do when you’re standing in their shoes. They likely never had a chance to know themselves, either, because that takes years of experience and reflection – they just didn’t have time.

What an awful lot to give up for the security and peace of people who would never have a chance to say thank you.

“We will remember them” – because that is all we have to give in return.

What I learned (and am still learning) from time spent at the food bank ….

cans

After the sweet, sunny chaos of summer, fall signals the return of many things. School. Regular schedules. Healthy eating and fitness routines. People being around instead of away. Much-loved sweaters, scarves and boots. And, for me this year, volunteering at our local food bank. I volunteered there last fall, winter and spring, taking a break for summer because my children are with me on my days off when school’s out – and because we’re hardly home for more than four days in a row in July and August anyway. Though I love summer, I found myself missing my Friday food bank shifts and looking forward to getting back into them. Not only did I make a few friends there, I also learned some things:

Hunger has many faces. When people think of the food bank, maybe they think of weary single mothers or the elderly. The truth is that the people who rely on the food bank are as varied as the rest of the community. Sure, we see plenty of single mothers, but we see single fathers, too. There are also traditional families who are food-insecure, as well as couples with no children. The elderly are well-represented, but so are the young and strong. My heart is particularly squeezed by the single men. Many of them shuffle from foot to foot and look at the floor alot, and I suspect it’s because they think they have no right to be there – they don’t fit the stereotype of a food bank client, and they fear that they are being judged. You don’t have to spend much time at the food bank before you realize that there is only one thing you can predict about anybody in the queue: that they need help.

Poor people have food issues and preferences, too. When you talk about the food bank, and poverty in general, there is the assumption that hungry people will take anything they can get – and the majority of them will. However, as I’ve already said, there is as much variety among food bank clients as there is among the general population. Intolerances, allergies, diabetes. There’s one regular who asks to read the labels of everything so he can choose the items with the lowest sugar content. Many parents will only take baby foods their little one is used to, partly because it’s easier to feed the baby familiar things – and partly because they don’t want any of the food they take to be wasted. Some children have sensory processing issues, and their parents advocate for them by asking about the texture of this food or that. Many of our clients want halal meat, and to make sure there’s no pork in any of the items we’ve given them. Sometimes, it’s a simple matter of liking one food more than another – or turning down packages that have been opened, or warped cans. When this happens, there’s almost always someone muttering about how they should just take what they can get and be glad they’ve got it. This is true – and they know that. But if they can get something they prefer, or something that serves their needs a little better than other things, why not ask for it? I would, and I’ll bet you would, too.

Having things doesn’t mean you don’t have needs. “Oh, yeah, they go to the food bank – but go to their house and look at their big-screen TV.” “If she needs food so badly, why doesn’t she sell her jewellery and buy some?” “He can’t afford food, but he can afford a cell phone, of course.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard things like this, and watched as the speaker mentally patted him or herself on the back for figuring it all out, then sank back into their comfortable, monochrome existence. Know what? These trappings don’t mean a thing. Life is unpredictable, and can play rough. People who are able to buy themselves a comfortable life one year can fall on hard times the next. Expensive items can be acquired at Value Village, St. Vincent de Paul, and the Sally Ann for a fraction of their value. And some things are worth more than money. You feel better about giving someone a few cans of tuna and soup if they’ve already pawned their grandmother’s diamond bracelet, and they’ve dropped out of society by surrendering their electronics – you feel that makes them more worthy of charity? Here’s hoping that you are not at the mercy of “help” like yourself if you ever need anything.

There, but for the grace of God, goes you. There are alot of people who believe that people who need handouts are somehow inferior. They’re not as smart as the segment of the population that can pay their bills without assistance They squander their resources. They should have organized their lives better. As I said before, though, life can kick your ass in any number of ways, from any number of directions. Some people live paycheque-to-paycheque, and don’t have sick days or severance. They are one bad bout of pneumonia or one pissy boss away from hard times. Some people become disabled and can no longer support their family or even themselves. Some people have a stable situation until the breadwinner dies – and then they need help.  Sure, some people end up being food bank clients because they’ve made stupid decisions. They’ve smoked, drank or gambled away all their money – or they never bothered to try making money in the first place. Here’s the thing, though: their reason for being at the food bank doesn’t diminish their need. What kind of society would condemn people to starvation for having made financial mistakes or bad calls? Not one I’d want to be a part of.

If you’re volunteering at the food bank for a warm-fuzzy, you might be disappointed. Some days, there’s lots of everything, and all the clients are happy with what I’ve given them – and I feel good when I leave. Some days, though …. not so much. One day, an eight-months-pregnant woman came in, toddler in tow. She said that she usually tries to avoid coming to the food bank because it’s tough for her to get there, but that she and her son had literally run out of food. She had dragged her weary near-due self, her two-year-old and a trolley on two buses. She was about to take the same two buses back, this time with the same now-grizzling boy and a full trolley. On top of all this, it was thirty below. I drove her home. Then, I cried all the way back to my own house. I havn’t seen her since. Another day, we ran out of damn near everything. Diapers, milk, cereal, bread, ground beef, spaghetti. Even tuna. Yes, that’s right – the food bank ran out of canned tuna. Every week some old dear asks hopefully if there’s any jam to go with the bread. There’s never any jam, ever. And not everyone is grateful – or even nice. Some people are fighting mighty battles in their head or their heart, and it takes everything they’ve got to keep existing – never mind manners or other people’s feelings. Some people are beaten down by their problems, and feeling sorry for themselves. Some people are just plain angry that they have to come to the food bank, stand in a long line and bring home a load of stuff other people didn’t want – or maybe they’re just having a bad day. I can’t say for certain that I’d accept their circumstances with grace at all times, if I were them – so I don’t judge them. On the low days, I have to remind myself that I’m doing something, and that’s better than doing nothing.

I love it. I enjoy the camaraderie with the other volunteers. I love chatting with the regulars and getting to know them. I love filling empty bags with food for people who might not otherwise have anything to eat. I like the bin of treats where I can choose a few goodies to dole out – little surprises, like a tin of salted cashews or a handful of candy or some packets of hot chocolate mix. It gives me a thrill when I finally get a smile out of someone who’s been responding to my warm greeting with a curt nod week after week. This happened the last time I was there, and it made my day. I may be handing them a few days’ worth of groceries, but what they’re giving me is something that will last a lifetime.