soft-bellied

In an interview with host Krista Tippett, I heard *angel Kyodo Williams, an African-American Buddhist, use the term “soft-bellied” to describe people who are willing to be vulnerable in an age where vulnerability is severely lacking; I thought, what a gorgeous word that is, and how apt a term for what she describes! Williams believes that we can use our willingness to ‘un-become’ as a way out of the present crisis of divisiveness, fear and pandemic. I thought how wonderful to hear intelligent people confess a belief in humanity after all that’s gone so terribly wrong in our world. This lovely Zen priest also reinforced how important it is for us to listen to what others say – the ‘others’ who sit on the opposite side from us in almost every discussion – and to why they say it.

Williams’ sage words were wafting into my ears as I walked along the river path, walking with my oversized, ungainly black brace strapped tightly around my right knee. Eventually I arrived at the St Vital Bridge. There I came upon two men, about twenty meters apart, who were both intentionally walking backwards. I reached the first one: he said good morning to me, and I said good morning back, my earbuds still firmly intact. When I reached the second man, I pulled one of the buds out just in time to hear him say, “and all this time we could have been talking.” Oh my. In this time of Covid, here was a stranger who wanted to talk to me. Too bad I missed the opportunity to listen. Ideas are well and good, but being soft-bellied is where the rubber hits the road.

*lower case intentional

Standard

innocence

“There’s the playground!” my two year old grandson exclaims joyfully as he catches sight of the swings and slide and various play structures strewn over the tear-drop shaped area etched out for the neighbourhood children. He is oblivious, of course, to how those words, sung out so innocently and so joyfully, clutch at my heart.

IMG_9243

How to capture that innocence, and – not put it into a bottle, but – maintain it in a little boy? My heart ached because I knew that wasn’t possible. There will come a time, and maybe in the not-too-distant future, when this child will hold himself in check before he happily sings out his anticipation. Because he will see children steal toys; he will hear adults arguing as they watch over their children’s sandbox antics; he will eventually outgrow the swings and the slide. And yet, this experience reminded me of something I perceive in myself every now and then – something the poets talk about, something about how this earth may still hold the possibility of new joy, of novel and well-founded belief in people and things around us. To this day, the Christmas season evokes some happy, anticipatory feeling in me – something that keeps me believing or, at least, hoping. So then maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is an innocence that can be maintained. Or at least a joy. Maybe teaching a child that stories are real, that people are kind, that life is a gift, propels their innocence, keeps it alive. Maybe that is the only way to safeguard a child’s so-tender, so-precious, so-innocent heart. Maybe I can listen to those joyful words next time without feeling like I’m about to lose something.

 

Standard

channeling laura ingalls wilder

I’m getting a grocery delivery today, and it’s a big one. My fridge has been bare for a while now. We are scraping the barrel (well, actually the cupboards I don’t go into very often). It’s not a bad thing to do; in fact, it’s a good thing to dig out cans of tuna you meant to use when you went camping three years ago, and it’s a good thing to make up your own vegetable stock with the few veggies you have left in your fridge (including a one half cauliflower from a stop-gap Kingshead Pub order from last week).

IMG_8765

And it’s good to be thankful for what we have, to be forced to think about how lucky we are to have not only enough food, but to have the kind of food we feel like eating: not rice every day for a year (although we have been eating a lot of rice).

I imagine Laura and Mary Ingalls eager with anticipation for Christmas morning when Ma will offer cake to her family, when an orange will be part of their day. I also think of the many, many animals that will be destroyed this week because of slaughterhouse closures – as I simultaneously think of the many, many children who will go hungry this week. It makes no sense.

But, despite the hungry children in Yemen and the euthanized hogs, in about eight hours I will drive to Superstore and pick up a literal truck-load of groceries – enough for three households: my two daughters’ and ours. We ordered a lot because we don’t know how soon we can get another ‘slot.’ Maybe we should start a bartering system: can I offer you a free piano lesson for your next grocery slot?

Tomorrow my husband can have porridge with yogurt for breakfast again, and I can have scrambled eggs for lunch. For supper I can add cheese to the cheese-less pizza that’s in my freezer. And I can bake a cake. And my fruit bowl will once again be full of oranges. And, for at least the next little while, I will be remember to be thankful.

 

Standard

more with less

Self-isolation. Who knew it would come to this?

I have often thought in the past how both my boomer generation and our millennial kids’ generation have not had to live through any kind of global hardship. Our parents remember the war, or at least the repercussions of it – either through their own experience or through stories they heard from their parents. But we grew up assuming we would always have everything we needed. Until now.

The malls are ghost towns, and the city roads are being sparsely driven upon. Meanwhile, the river paths, icy though they are, are played upon by young families, run along by young people, and walked upon by older people. Some of us even smile and nod as we pass each other (albeit at a safe distance). To me the shift from malls to river paths is not a bad thing.

When my daughter designed the house we live in now, she suggested a great big island. I thought she was nuts. That’s far too big! I thought when she measured it out. Boy, am I ever glad I took her advice. This island is the mainstay of my existence. I probably should be editing a chapter for my husband, but instead I’m baking beer bread from flour that I milled myself from wheat that my husband and son grew last year. I’m also making soup using leftover bacon fat – bacon that was Superstore’s ‘gift’ to my daughter who bought a whack-load of groceries a few weeks ago. I’m adding yesterday’s leftover wild rice to it, as well as a tin of canned tomatoes (I hear that’s a hot commodity now in supermarkets), a tin of black beans, green pepper, chipotle spice, and of course the mandatory onions and garlic.

My phone beeps and friends and relatives’ messages keep me connected to them. I am a social person in that I like to feel that I belong to a community, but I am naturally an introvert, so social isolation is not a huge hardship for me. The idea of staying put and reading and watching Netflix and cooking and baking in my house appeals to me. (And because I began this self-isolation a while ago I can still see my grandkids – so that part of my life remains intact. A gift, for sure.)

People are aware of each other now, even if some of that awareness is wary. We are not taking each other for granted. We think about what we really need when we send the designated someone from our household to the store. We wonder about our neighbours whom we haven’t seen for a while – we hope they’re okay, understanding that we can’t just knock on their door to find out.

We hear the stillness when we go outside; we notice the fewer fossil fuels in the air. That air is crisp, but it is cleaner than it was a week ago.

There is more to life than living our routine lives as we did two weeks ago. Who knew?

 

Standard

lavish lavishly

I am freer with my vocal emoting when it comes to my two grandchildren than I was with my own kids. I have many names for these two young ‘uns: Pumpkin, Remy-cakes, Honeybun, Sweetpea, Baby-bird, Sweetheart, Gorgeous – well, you get the idea.  I know that I sometimes called my own babies ‘Pumpkin’ or some such endearment, but I also know that those ‘special names’ were not plentiful. (I can probably figure out why this is if I think long and hard enough – reasons having to do with how I was brought up, what place I held in my own nuclear family, and on and on. But that’s not my point today.)

I’ve been pondering the significance as well as the repercussions of my new-found freedom. I am relieved that my kids appreciate the fact that I am extravagant when I ‘talk’ to  these little ones, and I am happy that I have arrived at this place. I rue the fact that I didn’t lavish more lovable names on my own children. Of course I bestowed much love and attention on them; I hugged them often and told them I loved them – I still love them with all my heart – but I am looser now with my expressions of love. And that looseness feels good.

mother-daughter-love-sunset-51953

Sure, part of the reason I am able to heap sweet talk upon these little ones is because I can hand them back to their parents after my stint with them, because I am not sleep deprived because of them, because they are not my immediate dependants. And yet, I do see them and care for them a lot, and I still manage to lavish lavishly. I have more patience with my grandson when he ‘digs’ in my indoor plants and spills dirt all over my dining room floor than I would have had with his mother, had she done the same thing 35 years ago. I take time to explain to him why that mess is not such a good idea. He and I clean it up together with the broom and dustpan. I have patience because I have the luxury now of time: the only deadline he and I have is making sure the muffins we made together come out of the oven when the beeper goes. But I see now that I am patient and I lavish not only because I have time, but also because it feels good to be patient and to lavish. And I have learned that life is too short to not do that, and that it’s really never too late to lavish love on anyone.

Standard

‘chat benches’ versus ‘lock ’em up’

 

 

I just read an editorial in the Winnipeg Free Press about the UK’s use of ‘chat benches.’ Build a bench and install a sign that says “‘happy to chat. Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello.’”*

I think this idea is inspirational. Not just for lonely people – although it’s absolutely wonderful to think that a short chat on a public bench can actually diminish someone’s loneliness – but for any and/or all of us. I know a lot of people will think I’m naïve, but I still believe community is the answer to many of our social problems. If everyone had someone they could talk to about their problems, they would be less likely to act out because of them. And the person who is listening might learn something about a different segment of society.

Photo.People.Lonely-Senior-sitting-on-Park-Bench.SS756640.Color_.HiRes_

Bigger prisons, more guns, more locked doors, fewer people who say hi to strangers: these are not the answer. I don’t expect our government’s decisions to represent a communal philosophy (although wouldn’t that be something!), but I can hope that some of us who live in cities where crime is at an all-time high will act in ways that counteract the fear factor.

I’m not advocating a loss of prudence. I’m not suggesting we try to begin a conversation with someone high on meth. What I am advocating for is open minds and hearts toward people we don’t know very well, an openness to the possibility that not everyone we see in public is out to rob us or beat us up. A lot of the folks we see on the street are just lonely; even a smile directed their way (look right into their eyes) is a step in the right direction, in my books. Following that up with a short conversation could have a happy effect on both parties.

two-young-people-sitting-on-bench-in-park-and-have-a-conversation-BTANFR

So ‘chat benches’ sound real good to me. Would you sit on one?

*Wpg Free Press, July 24, 2019 (p A7)

Standard

wisdom from a (child) philosopher

I was so glad my earbuds worked in the gym yesterday; I was able to listen to The Ezra Klein Show (a podcast) instead of watching the beautifully “got up” women and men on CNN debate whether or not Joe Biden’s youthful 70s-something looks can beat out Donald Trump’s 70s-something tanned face. Ezra Klein and his guest, Alison Gopnik, discussed the important and fascinating issue of love, specifically with regard to children. Gopnik is intelligent, and despite the letters after her name comes across as sincere and accessible; she offered reflective, hopeful insight as the conversation ensued.

She said many profound things – about what’s it like to be a child, about child-rearing, about the way we love each other, about how good it is for a child to be a part of a community. She said things like, “We don’t care for them because we love them; we love them because we care for them.” Just imagine if that’s true, and if it’s potentially true for all of our close relationships. That would mean that ‘we choose to love.’ And while that may not resonate with the romantics in the crowd (of which I used to be one), from my perspective it makes sense to hang your hat on a thought like that.

Alison also explains that “what it means to be a good gardener is to work hard to produce an ecosystem that will have enough diversity, enough possibilities, so it’s robust and . . .  resilient, and . . .  can change when the seasons change. And that kind of robust, unexpected, variable, messy system – thats’ what you want to create when you’re having children, too” (AZ Qotes). Amen.

IMG_6262

Just this past week I sat in a circle of women of varying ages. A few of us older women were sharing menopause stories. Eventually we started wondering why women and not men were singled out for the whole birthing thing. This ‘light’ conversation continued, and in time we asked the inevitable question: why do we even bring babies into the world when there are far too many children who go to bed hungry, when even the babies who are born into developed countries don’t get all the lovin’ they deserve, and when we hear that our planet may not support all of us for much longer? (Did I mention that among this group was a young woman, six months’ pregnant?)

I say: find a baby to love. (It doesn’t have to be your niece or your grandson; it can be a neighbour’s baby or a friend’s baby.) We may not cure all of our world’s ills: we may not convince the corrupt Yemeni powers-that-be to allow in much-needed aid; we may continue to have night sweats; we may not even be able to stop the next tsunami from occurring. But love a baby and you will ooh and aah at the bird-sounds coming from way up in the oak tree, at the neon numbers changing as the microwave warms your coffee, at the way a sand castle disappears in an instant. You will find yourself saying things like “nana” (ba-nana, a metonym for all food, really) and singing songs you thought your brain had forgotten years ago. You will watch the gears turn inside his head as he figures out how to put a lid onto a sour cream container. Best of all, you will become a gardener instead of a carpenter – watching children be messy and creative instead of following rules for the sake of following rules (Gopnik’s metaphors), reveling in the moment and knowing that there’s Master Card for everything else.

That’s where hope lies. Thank you, Alison, for the timely reminder.

 

 

Standard

then he smiled at me . . .

You know how you hate it when people say things as though they discovered them, when you’ve known about these things forever?

  • The sun setting over the ocean in Puerto Vallarta is absolutely heavenly!
  • You should try the Brazilian ribeye steak at Hermanos; it’s fantastic!
  • The grammar in that book is simply atrocious!

Or, having a grand baby is the best thing in the world!

I put my desire for a grandchild on the back burner a few years ago because my wonderful kids were doing oh-so wonderful things, but producing grandchildren was not one of those wonderful things. So I enjoyed my kids for who they were. And that was great. But then my oldest child got pregnant.

IMG_0983

Remy Marcel, arriving 6 1/2 weeks early, spent his first three weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. I held his tiny body for hours at a time. I changed his “preemie”-size diapers, and called him My Precious. I even got to bottle-feed him freshly pumped breast milk now and then – a few millilitres at a time. I watched the monitor as his heart rate skyrocketed and then came tumbling back down (my own heart mimicking his in my anxiety); I saw how his respirations changed on a dime.

At three weeks of age he came home.  I held his slightly bigger but still tiny body for hours at a time – sometimes because he needed it and sometimes because I couldn’t resist that snuggly warmth next to my chest. I changed his diapers – still tiny but not “preemie” anymore. I called him My Precious. In between nursings, I bottle-fed him breast milk replete with probiotics, to soothe his troubled tummy. I gradually learned to trust that his heart was beating just fine without a monitor to tell me so.

And he began to make sounds apart from crying for milk: he burped loudly, and he sneezed often.

IMG_3208IMG_3229
IMG_3182

Then at three months of age he came to the lake with us. Soon he was making sounds that were not cries or burps or sneezes – they were coos! Such music I have not heard since my own children were babies. And he began to show his personality, covering his face when he’d had enough of our adult noise, scrunching up his face in pain when he had gas, letting out contented kitten-sighs when his tummy was full and sleep was upon him, and grimacing when his Auntie Meg sang “there comes a moment when my heart must stand alone, on this lonely path I’ve chosen like a house that’s not a home.” * And one day, I held him close and smiled at him, and . . . wonder of wonders, he smiled back. And that rocked my world.

IMG_3178

And now I know why people say some of the things they do.

* (Nikki Yanofsky – Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games theme song; p.s.  you already have solid musical taste, little grandson!)

 

Standard

tuesday mornings with simon

I have a new little friend. His name is Simon. His mother is a professional cellist, while Simon is still an amateur. Every Tuesday morning I hang out with him so his mom can go to the music hall to practise.

IMG_7519 (1)

Simon and I do all sorts of fun things together. Last Tuesday, for example, on what began as a rather dreary, chilly morning, the two of us headed for The Buttery (a nearby coffee shop) for treats. Simon had a mini chino – a small cup of steamed milk – and a very quickly demolished chocolate donut, while I happily sipped on a black Americano. As we whizzed back to his apartment (one does not linger over coffee with a two year old) – Simon on his “little blue bike” and me on my feet, stopping and then starting again, depending on whether “the light was red or blue” (not green) – the sun came out. So we stayed outside for another hour. We drove the schoolbus, reminding children to take their backpacks with them when they got off; we zoomed around on a fire engine and put out many fires; we planted a plethora of vegetables in the sandbox garden, filling our newly dug rows with beans, corn, tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes. “Would you like some carrots?” asks the tractor driver. “Yes, please.” “Okay. And now would you like some more carrots?” “No, I think I’d like some onions now.” “Okay, onions it is!” says the helpful unloader, who is all of two years old.

When it’s not warm and sunny outdoors, we stay inside and make trains cars out of Playdoh. Or we get down on the floor and race our separate Lego trains on the same track, averting at the last minute what looks to be inevitable disaster; we read books, books about octopuses and pirates and trains and “bigger diggers.” Simon knows a lot of the pages by heart. His energetic renderings are music to my ears.

A two year old with energy and cheerfulness and a huge natural capacity to learn and to love, Simon is a lovely reminder of how others help to shape little lives like his. His six year old brother, Abram, tells him all about his days at school and then engages him in a fun-filled, zesty game of indoor hockey, cheering loudly every time a “one-timer” slams into the net. Then the suddenly very tired brothers crash on the couch together with a book.

IMG_7617IMG_7637

Simon’s parents read to him, play trains with him, teach him what words mean, remind him to use his manners, are generous with their hugs, exulting in his innocent eagerness. One of the things I like best about his parents is that they allow Simon to admit other adults into his life and encourage him to trust them, allowing community to happen. Because if they didn’t, I wouldn’t get to spend happy Tuesday mornings with Simon.

 

Standard

remnants of walls

What are walls for?

Roy and I took the train from Cambridge to London this past Sunday, to celebrate Rebecca’s birthday with our girls. We arrived early, and because it was a Sunday in a part of London that we were not familiar with, we took time to explore; we happened upon the remnants of the famous London Wall.
img_7433img_7432According to Wikipedia, the wall that surrounded the then-city of London was built as “a protective measure.” Certainly, “from around 200 AD, the shape of London was defined by one single structure: it’s massive city wall . . . . stretch[ing] for two miles around the ancient City of London” (Ben Johnson *).

So, that’s what a wall is for.

To protect, to defend and define one’s territory. That rationale makes sense to Donald Trump. He likes walls that say: This here is our territory, and don’t you dare mess with us! He wants to prevent Mexican drug-smugglers and all manner of evil Mexicans from entering the hallowed land of the United States of America. Interestingly, my new friend Ben, who is working on a Master’s of divinity here in Cambridge, told me yesterday that he visited a segment of what is already and has been for a while “that” wall, just last week.

Between San Diego, USA and Tijuana, Mexico, there is a double mesh wall that separates the two countries. It was here, in this spot, that the United Methodist Church chose to hold a communion service. Indeed, that wall, Ben tells me, didn’t stop Mexican fingers from finding American fingers – in between the mesh squares – as they together took part in the sacrament of Eucharist. During the moving ceremony, Ben says that participants “laid hands on the wall praying for an end to division. It was easily the most powerful communion service I’ve witnessed.”

Regardless of our religion or race or gender, it is within powerful moments like this that we find our humanity. Clearly, the strength of a physical wall doesn’t hold a candle to the strength found in our desire for understanding and compassion. Not even Trump can stop that kind of connection.

img_3791

*http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Londons-Roman-City-Wall/

Standard