Embrace Differences

I love to travel. Why you ask? Is it the cramped airplane seats where if the person in front of me drops their seat too far back, their head is almost resting on my lap? Is it because of the free pretzels the flight attendant whips at me as a snack during the flight? Or perhaps, it’s the dry air that saps all the moisture from my hair and face no matter how little time I’m stuck in the winged aluminum can?

It’s none of those things.

It’s the food, the landscape, learning about the history, and the people who live there. For me it’s seeing how other people live: that small window that is raised where I get a momentary glimpse as a visitor of how other people’s lives in countries differ from my own.

I’ve had watermelon juice in India for breakfast (yummy!), boiled potatoes in Portugal, pastries in France for breakfast (dessert for breakfast would never be a problem for me!), dried cod in Iceland (not for me), and cheese pie in the AM before I boarded a returning flight home after visiting relatives in Greece.  Breathtaking landscapes can be found everywhere whether that’s Vic in Iceland (bring your Parka!), The Adirondacks in New York State, or the pristine and protected beaches in Ocracoke, North Carolina.

The food and landscapes make things interesting for me. But the history of a country provides the framework for understanding the people who reside there. Before I visited Portugal, I had no idea they had an earthquake that destroyed most of Lisbon in the mid 1700’s.  When we were there, you could clearly see the division between the old part and the new part of the city that was rebuilt.

It was also in Iceland on a bus tour that I learned there were 70 active volcanoes on the island. Sure, I knew about the geysers and that much of the island is fueled by thermal energy. But I had no idea how extensive the volcano system was in Iceland. Suddenly it was clear as to why before we travelled there, a volcano had erupted (Bardarbunga) that resulted in part of the island being closed to visitors.  A few years earlier, a volcano had gone off in Iceland creating chaos at European airports that resulted in delayed and cancelled flights throughout the continent. We mistakenly believed an eruption was not likely while we planned our trip because one had recently occurred. We were wrong and found out only after we purchased our tickets. We still went – but some sites were closed to visitors.

I was surprised the first time I visited London, England as I had been told that the “Brits” tended to be unfriendly and cold. I was perplexed when, for my husband and I, this was not our experience. We found Britons were right from the start, willing to talk to us. We had a lengthy conversation with a cab driver on the way in to the city from the airport who told us many details about the city. Years later when we travelled there again and made a failed attempt with our Oyster Cards to get through the gates to the tube, several people stopped to help us figure out whether we needed to tap or swipe the cards even though they themselves were attempting to make trains to their destinations.

I travelled to India for work more than a decade ago, and I had never felt so protected and well taken care of by people I had never met before. The company I worked with provided a car to pick me up at the airport and my co-workers called me the first day I arrived to ensure I had everything I needed at the hotel. (I had travelled for more than 24 hours, so what they got was probably a disjointed, garbled conversation because I was napping.) Their phone call alone, probably doesn’t seem exceptional.

But it was a Saturday when I arrived in India. The other purpose for that first call was to make a plan as to what I wanted to do the next day. Yes, you read that right: A SUNDAY.  Two women from the Finance section of the company willingly gave up their Sunday. And their commitment to me wasn’t simply a little breakfast and a toss back to my room; no, they spent the full day with me showing me their city, taking me to the market, helping me negotiate prices to purchase some souvenirs, and then took me to lunch. At one point as we passed a river, one of my colleagues turned and pointed in the direction of what looked like a canyon and said, “That was a river.” I was surprised by this as I had never noticed so clearly the impact of global warming.

When my husband and I travelled to Philadelphia, we saw the Liberty Bell. But what I remember most of that trip was a re-enacted lecture we saw at one of the sites. I don’t remember where it was, or the name of it as it was several years ago. But it was a showcase of American History and touched on the American Revolution, the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States, and the American Civil War. The lecture was not one of the grandness of America but it was about the hard fought rights of liberty and democracy – and the ongoing fight for liberty for all that continued hundreds of years later for Native Americans, to abolish slavery, and with the Civil Rights Movement. Their was honesty within the history lesson that’s stayed with me years later.

I’m not an American. I’m a Canadian. But as I left the auditorium the building blocks of America swept through my mind and I felt misty eyed and tired on behalf of my neighbours.  Because they have a long and complicated history, with many hard won battles, and their people continue to fight for the ideals of freedom.

With each country I travel to, I find many people are typically keen to stop and help a visiting stranger in providing directions, offering advice, or starting a conversation with a stranger who is travelling alone so they’re not so lonely. We are different. But in many ways we are also the same. The differences shouldn’t separate us. It offers us the opportunity to share and to learn from one another.  That’s what makes this, “A Wonderful World.”

Crossing the NY Finish Line

20180727_070411My feet hit the pavement in slow motion as a red-pink sunrise greets me. Each one of my foot strikes is slower than I want it to be. Like the sun rising above me, I take my time in getting started.

But that’s not always a bad thing. What other creature wakes up to a screeching alarm clock and hits the ground running right from the start? I know my brown, furry, four-legged friend begins each day like this: with his bum in the air and paws outstretched, he’ll effortlessly complete a perfect Downward-Facing dog pose. Then he yawns. No one can rush him.

Why can’t I be more like him?

I berate myself on a daily, if not an hourly basis. Why am I not a faster runner?  Why can’t I put the fork down? I probably wouldn’t need to hit the gym and the road nearly as often if I didn’t eat so much yesterday, the day before that, or on weekends.  Clearly, I have a problem with food.

Why don’t I dress better? Why don’t I learn how to speak French? Or, why not learn Italian? Why don’t I spend more time with my friends? Why don’t I share more with friends?  Why? Then with all the unrelenting questions spinning in my mind, I find myself hating me and running. Definitely – hating me running.   

Finally, I turn a bend. I’m being followed.  Who’s there?

Oh, it’s only you. Memories of what’s already happened: Dad’s death at sixty-three years old from lung cancer.  Damn it. I’ve been here before.  I know this road. I’m running down a dead end street with no other options to change direction.

I breathe hard. Here it comes: those terrible news clips that are replayed about losses that I’ve suffered. I hear myself hyperventilating.  Excellent.  Now, I can’t breathe. I stop to walk it out. In my brain I rationalize, I’m just having laboured breathing because of unknown allergens in the air. That’s it. Or, so I tell myself.  What’s that I feel on my face?  My eyes fill up with tears and burst along the sides of my cheeks like a waterfall. I feel my lower lip quiver. I can’t stop it from happening.

What will my neighbours think? Today, I have poorly chosen to run in my neighbourhood. It seemed like a good idea when I started.  If someone sees me that I know, they will think I’ve left my mind two blocks back. I pause for a moment and wonder:  maybe I should go back and get it? Nope, my inner voice reminds me.  I lost it a long time ago.

I rage against my history, fighting, to pick up the pace. With every footprint left on the road, I am dragged down by the quicksand in my mind. Here it comes: my brother’s accident. STOP IT. A random accident that could have turned out worse: but I can’t help but question, why not better?

I slow down, slithering back to my house, defeated. I am sobbing and hyperventilating. I hold my hand over my tummy clutching it in an effort to try to force myself to stay in an upright position.  Please, let me make it home.  Don’t let me end up lying in the fetal position at the side of the road, only to be found by a kind-hearted passerby who will immediately call 911 because they believe I am injured. The next day’s headlines would read:

LOCAL WOMAN FOUND IN DITCH UNHARMED:

SUFFERS MENTAL BREAKDOWN TWO BLOCKS FROM HOME

Why do I try to run?  Why don’t I just give up?

***

November 6th, 2011

The sun is breaking over the horizon in New York. The air is crisp and cold and it awakens my senses. But it’s not just the air that has my adrenaline pumping: it’s also because today is RACE DAY.

The sun rises a little more over the horizon, and my mind uses the light in front of me to review what I’ve done. Or maybe, dwells more on what I haven’t done.

SHIT. HILLS. How did I not realize there were hills in New York?  But there are no hills in New York. Right. They have bridges. A dedicated marathon friend of mine informed me just days before the NY Marathon. See, he prepares, and knows what to expect. I, on the other hand,  prepar-ish.   I think to myself, should I have done hill training?

Oh well, nothing can be done now. You did most of the work. Run. Ice bath. Physiotherapy. Massage. Repeat.  You’ve done the work. Just enjoy the race.

As our bus arrives at Staten Island the bus finally stops and we step outside. The air is brisk. But the weather forecast predicts a high of 21 degrees and that’s quite warm for New York in early November.  And it’s nice weather to run in. I’ll take it.

After more than four hours of waiting, walking, stretching, chatting, and sitting (oh and taking those last minute bathroom breaks!) we are finally in our corrals. The announcer enthusiastically states it is the largest New York City Marathon, with 47,000 runners. A little later, Frank Sinatra’s, “New York, New York” echoes everywhere. Sometime later, my corral is finally released and we set off on the marathon route.

I start to run, running, then, I’M FLYING.  Well, flying while taking intermittent walk breaks. I do things at my own pace.  But the advantage is by doing my run slowly, I get to take it all in. The crowds of people cheer, and clap, and line the streets waiting for us. Music rumbles through the roads. They encourage us, hand out food, and remind us that we’re one percent of the population that will ever complete a marathon. And they’re there, for us. Even the slow pokes like me. The back-of-the-packers who have the slimmest of hopes of finishing the five Burroughs run in less than six hours. When we enter Brooklyn, a big man, with a gruff Brooklyn accent says to us, “Welcome to Brooklyn!

WELCOME, INDEED.

Throngs of people line the streets through Manhattan and as we turn a bend we enter Central Park.  I secretly wonder, how long have these people been out here? Did the mayor of New York create a schedule for the people of New York instructing each person as to when they should appear to ensure there was always sufficient support along the marathon route?

No, it couldn’t be.  The enthusiasm was genuine. The energy given off by the crowds could not be scheduled or rehearsed. It was a five Burroughs block party.

As I pushed onwards towards the finish line, I went down that haunted road that follows me. It starts off innocently enough with me reminiscing about 2008. As luck would have it, 2008 would be the first year that I didn’t make it in to the New York City Marathon. See, if you’re slow like me, there’s only one way to gain entry and that’s by applying and hoping, to be randomly selected through the lottery system. Of course, if I applied three years in a row, I was guaranteed entrance in the fourth year. Who says perseverance doesn’t pay?

But other things happened in the fall of 2008.  It’s a trigger you see. The year matters. In the fall of 2008, my husband was laid off. Two weeks later doctors found the “shadow” on my father’s lung, and a couple of months later my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer.  Of course, in Feb 2009 my father succumbed to pneumonia.

Then, I’m back in January 2010. Hubby and I are at a local pub called, D’Arcy McGee’s. It was a spontaneous suggestion on my part brought on by a wish for fish and chips. In between mouthfuls of deep fried haddock and French fries, I declare to my husband with utmost confidence, “I think I’m turning a corner.” The overwhelming, penetrating, grief of my father’s death was starting to lessen. Finally, I thought, I think I’ll be alright.

THIS IS A WELL DOCUMENTED RULE: NEVER ANNOUNCE SUCH THINGS TO THE UNIVERSE.  IT WILL CLUB YOU OVER THE HEAD.

The next day I was clubbed.  My mother called in the early morning on Saturday to say my brother had an accident and he had surgery overnight. He was recovering in the Intensive Care Unit of the Hospital.  He had an accident while working on a construction job that changed his life forever.

I snap myself back to the present day.  Am I hyperventilating a few hundred meters from the finish line?  Now, I’m walking.

No, this is not happening. Not here. Not now. I’ve worked too hard.

With new found determination I push forward, forcing back the memories with each footprint. Timing is everything. I know that. I wouldn’t have been ready in those three years. Stumbling, one foot in front of the other, in a sloth-mode-walk each day to work was challenging enough.

I feel my arms reach towards the sky as I cross the line where above me is written the word – FINISH.  A picture taken shortly after the race shows me proudly wearing my medal. My eyes glisten. I wear a smile so wide that on the right side of my forehead a blood vessel protrudes above my eyebrow.

Sometimes it’s best to let fate take its course. You can cry as much as you want about the unfairness of life, but life may have other plans for you. And sometimes, something you want so desperately isn’t meant to be, at least, not right now. So, you wait, for another day, when you have warm weather, sunny skies, and long lines of crowds cheering you on.

***

Happy

The company Clinique offers the following two scents: Happy and Happy to Be.

My pointed elbows swinging around in my haste to get ready one morning, I bump Happy off the counter and watch as he topples off, onto my square-tiled ceramic bathroom floor. In the few seconds before impact, I secretly pray that Happy might make it.  Maybe, the bottle won’t break. Catastrophe averted, I will smile and think: yeah, how lucky am I?

The glass smacks to the floor and I watch as the bottle splinters into a jigsaw puzzle of bits of smaller and larger pieces.     

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Sadly, Happy to Be suffered a similar fate months earlier.  

The overwhelming scent of too much Happy burns my olfactory senses, smothering me.

I see my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Lines cross my forehead, laugh lines flatten, nostrils burn, eyes run cold with this thought:  I’m not even allowed to own a bottle of perfume called Happy!  I am pissed with the irony of it all.

This reckoning causes the image in the mirror to begin another transformation. A new set of lines map a different network on my face. I break into pieces like Happy, scattered at my feet. I can’t watch it happen and for my own protection; my head falls forward avoiding my reflection.

I sob, wishing for happiness instead.     

***

First published in The Commonline Journal. 

http://www.commonlinejournal.com/2016/03/happy-by-penelope-s-hawtrey.html

Some of My Favorite Things

Memories of my life drift in my mind like the snow that spirals along sidewalks, roads, and that dances on rooftops. It’s odd the moments that I remember fondly, and the ones you think I would, I can barely recall.

It seems what I should remember are the highlights: graduating from University, or getting married.  But while these were important pivotal moments, they are nothing in comparison to the time my father skipped work (he worked almost every day of the week) to take my brother and I tobogganing. Dressed in snowsuits we climbed up a hill located in Fonthill, ON  and then flew down again on a wooden toboggan. It was special to me, because it was such a rare event.

Or the very first time my Mom and I paid $2 to see Casper in theater.  When we drove back home I looked over at my mother who was giddy from the experience and recounted the story and how wonderful it was with a smile spread across her face. I believe the last movie she saw in theaters up to that moment was Love Story.

Then there was a Valentine’s Day where I was still stinging from the pain of my father dying when I felt isolated and alone, even though I wasn’t. My husband and I had driven to a small town called Merrickville that’s about 45 minutes from Ottawa.  A picturesque and quaint town that bustles with tiny shops and restaurants we make our way there a couple of times a year, in a quest to purchase the most delicious and diverse selection of fudge that my palate has ever had the joy to experience.

After we made our purchase we found a quiet little restaurant called the, Yellow Canoe and had soup and a half-sandwich. There was something about the quietness, the smallness, the gentleness of the place that suddenly made me feel reflective of the moment, and I realized how grateful I was to be there with my ever-supportive husband.

My husband had not purchased long-stemmed roses for me, or written a poem describing me as a wonderful Wonder Woman. It was hot soup and half-sandwich. And it was beautiful. Even though I’m fairly certain I cried a couple of times as I talked about missing my Dad, it sticks out in my memory as by far, my favorite Valentine’s Day.

Finally, there was the time I got my favorite birthday present. It didn’t come wrapped in gold lined wrapping paper with dazzling diamonds embedded in it.  It didn’t come from Canada Post, or UPS. It wasn’t something that was purchased at the store, or something that someone spent many anxious nights racing to finish in time to complete by a specific date.

It came in the format of an email, and with a click of a mouse, I saw a few words written…It was a wish from my brother for a happy birthday with a few additional words written about how much he loved me.

My brother rarely remembered my birthday and when he did, would send his wishes late. The fact that he remembered on the right date even though he was facing so many challenges in his own life, and with his note of love included, it made it even more special.

At this time of year, I’m reminded of the simple experiences and gifts that have made my life exceptional. It is the rare and golden moments I’ve shared with family and friends that have brightened my life. On the eve of Christmas I will keep this in the forefront of my mind as I remember what Christmas should mean to me.