When Grief Strikes

I’m waiting. Patiently.

Then again, perhaps not so patiently because if I were, that would mean my shoulders would be rolled back and I would be happily staring at a wall.

But I can’t seem to do that. Ever. While seated in the waiting room area of the doctor’s office I’ve already read about shootings, stabbings and earthquakes. I click on another article about an elderly couple who were victims of fraud and lost over $100,000 of their retirement savings. My mood begins to trudge dangerously close to despair. I realize I need to change gears. I rummage through my purse and pull out my paperback book and a few moments later, I giggle a little.

Tina Fey’s, Bossypants, is a good distraction from the world’s misery but it still can’t hold my attention completely. When the door chimes, my eyes bounce up to see a woman who’s pulled the front door open and carries an infant slung to one side of her hip. Behind her, two small hand-holding girls follow them. One of the girls is probably five or six-years-old and she continues to hold her sister’s hand. The little one wobbles in her boots: obviously, new to the walking thing.

The six-year-old is Deputy Mom.  I smile.

Mom switches sides with the infant while she simultaneously fumbles to get her wallet out in search of her Health Card.  The woman glances over at the older child, wearily sighs, and says, “Mandy, can you take Julie and sit down over there?” Her head bobs in the direction of the clustered chairs.

I glance up briefly to see the older sister slowly guide her unsteady little sister to a chair. A second later, I notice the older girl unzips her sister’s coat, tugs her hat off, and places them on the chair next to her now seated sibling.

I stare down at my book. Deputy Mom clearly takes her roll very seriously. I continue to smile at the beauty of it all. Big Sister takes care of Little Sister. After all, Mom’s hands are full.  Big Sis is ever watchful, always guiding – forever there.

I continue to force a smile. It’s hard though. Something is tugging at me and is bubbling its way to the surface. I push the emotion back down by taking big breaths in and try my best to focus on Bossypants. I can’t sob in the middle of the doctor’s office. There’s no clear reason. People will wonder about me.

I miss him, a voice quietly whispers in my head.

Falling Down

“It hurts,” Kara says while tightening and releasing her hand. A few moments later, she stares down at her bleeding elbow.

“Suck it up, Buttercup,” her mother responds while washing the pots from last night’s dinner. She reaches for a towel and moves on to drying as the dishwasher hums in the background.

“Where did that saying come from? The Princess Bride?”

“Don’t know. But it seems appropriate given the level of whining you’re doing about it. Everyone falls. Get over it. Brush yourself off and move on. That’s what everyone else does.”

“Do they Mom? Does everyone? Because it seems like if the fall is too hard, and you hit your head or something, sometimes people don’t get up.”

Her mother blinks wildly as her hand stops wiping the speckles of water off the pot. “Are we still talking about the fall?”

Kara takes a deep breath in. Should she go down this road with Optimistic Momma to Buttercup? Sighing she says, “Sort of.”

“Listen Kara, everyone falls. Whether that’s literally, or figuratively. Just get back on the horse, or the bike. Or whatever, they say nowadays.”

“Really, Mom,” Kara responds. “What happens if I don’t want to? What happens if I’m tired of constantly falling down by tripping on a curb, slipping on ice, or someone, or something knocking me over.”

Her mother throws her towel in the dish drainer and places her hand on her hip. Lips twitching she says, “Lots of people have it worse than you, Kara. And everyone has their problems. They don’t act like you do.”

“How do you know? Did you ask them? Maybe they do complain, but no one’s listening!” Kara exclaims in a fit of exasperation. Her neck is stiff. Head throbs.  Muscles all over her body ache from the jarring that she felt when she slipped on the icy driveway.

Quietness settles between them. “I think it’s ridiculous, Mom. There are all these books and movies out now that celebrate people being different. But what we still say is each person’s experience is the same. So, we say everyone has the same life. They don’t. They simply don’t. Some people live on the streets. Yeah, I know there are people that have it worse than me.” She stares at her mother for a few seconds, pauses and says, “But some people live in wealth their whole lives, stay married to the same person for fifty years, and die two days apart, as well! Everyone has different lives. And how they translate those life experiences are different too.”

“Well,” mom says with a huff.  “What do you want me to say, Kara? That it’s terrible that you had a miscarriage, your husband left you shortly after, you lost your job because you had too many doctor’s appointments after, and your friend died at the same time?”

Kara blinks back the tears. Her mouth trembles.

Quietly, her mother says, “Boxers get back up whenever they get knocked down.”

“Not always. Too many hits can be fatal. They hit the right part of the body, and their life is over.” It’s a statement of fact. But there’s honesty there too.

Mom shifts uncomfortably. Eyes well up with water. She hesitates and nods at her only daughter saying, “I don’t want that to happen to you, Kara.”

Through tears, Kara says, “Me, neither Mom. I just need some time to heal.” There’s a pause and then she says, “And yes, it does help when you acknowledge I’ve had a shit time of it,” she says giggling.

Mom smiles through the tears, nods, and stretches out her hands while saying, “We didn’t do that in my day. I’m sorry. Come, here,” she says as she hugs her daughter.

Dear Mr. Winterman

Dear Mr. Winterman,

We’ve had a blast when you dusted my world with white fluffy snowballs and drenched the trees with snow capes. You’ve brightened a dark world in the longest and coldest days of the year.  During this time, I’ve considered engaging in winter time festivities such as skating on the canal or snowshoeing. I did not do that. Instead, I chose to sit by the fireplace with a post-activity drink to those considered fun events that consisted of hot chocolate laced with booze.

But now at last, I am done with you.

It may seem an abrupt departure from what was a fairly cordial friendship up till now. But I am tired of your ways: you offer truckloads of snow (I’m not joking, there have been tons of trucks moving snow! But you knew that.) and when you are done, I must shovel my driveway  for a minimum of one hour. Post removal of snow from my laneway, I then work to clear the car off. And then, I must shovel again.

Your cold ways give me nose bleeds, burn my lungs, chafe my legs, and I frequently lose the feeling in my face, fingers and toes. I do not want to go outside. I am trapped in my house dreaming of the days when -10 degrees Celsius will be a reprieve when I can walk around outdoors and it will take 30 minutes before I get cold.

You are cruel, Mr. Winterman, because we both know that when the temperature goes up you’ll hurtle icy spears at us causing hour-long congestion on roads and leaving me trapped again: but this time in my car because of ice-caked roads. When I’m finally given the chance to exit the car, I’ll slip and smack my head on my vehicle because roads and sidewalks have become skating rinks.

You think you are funny. But you are not. I am done with you. Leave now, or we will be forever done.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s probably true. So if you leave now, I’m sure I’ll welcome you with open arms again on December 24th, 2019.

Your friend (but soon to be enemy),

P.S.

Flatline

“Grandma, Grandma? When are we going to bake those chocolate chip cookies?” five-year-old Jessica says.

“Come on, Grandma!” the little girl shouts. “You’ve slept enough!” with that she reaches over to shake nana’s arm. Instinctively, she pulls away with a sudden snap of her hand as if she’s touched a hot stove. But, it’s the opposite of that. Instead it’s as if Jesse, as her grandmother liked to call her, has placed her hand on ice that cuts.

“Grandma?” Jessica whispers.

***

“What the hell, man? Just cut me off like that!” Brian’s hand makes a fist at the driver now ahead of him.

Shaking his head, he says, “Jesus. People are driving like we’re in the middle of a heat wave here! Look at the roads people: that’s black ice on the road, mixed in with a whole lotta snow!”

Brian’s eyes flick up to his rear view mirror. He’s not certain the reason at first. But then he catches sight of the Nissan Pathfinder that’s barreling down behind him as it pushes snow off the road and onto the sidewalk. The driver still isn’t slowing down.

There’s nothing he can do. There’s a crunching sound as the SUV hits the breaks. The truck’s wheels lock on the brown, salted, icy, snow-covered road as it begins to slide slowly at first, and then swings around and charges into the driver’s side of Brian’s car.

The SUV doesn’t stop. Medal twists. Glass smashes.

***

 “Hey, you!” Carmen shouts at the red coat-wearing woman she hasn’t spoken to in almost six months. It’s not because the ladies had a fight. The reason is a simple and a common explanation: lack of time because of too many other obligations; and because at the end of the week they’re too damn knackered.

“Hey! Oh my goodness! I haven’t seen you in ages! How’s everything?” Dana enquires.

“Good, good. Jobs great. Kids, are getting big. Oh, Brent and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary on Saturday!”

“Has it been that long?”

“Yup,” Carmen says with her chin raised proudly.

“Geez, that’s fantastic! Congratulations. Are you guys doing anything special?”

“Yeah, we’re having a party with friends and family. You should come!”

“When is it again?”

“This Saturday.”

“Are you guys still living at 185 Wimbledon Lane?”

“Yeah, still there,” Carmen says chuckling. “Now, you have no excuse NOT to come! Okay, well, I’ve got to dash as I need to pick the kids up from their music lessons. Shit. Didn’t even ask though, how are things with you?”

“Good, good,” Dana says. “We’ll catch up on Saturday. Go!”

“You’ll come then?”

“Absolutely!”

“Great. See you on Saturday!” Carmen says as she turns and continues to jog in the direction of her car.

(Later that day)

“We admitted her into the hospital today. She was complaining of indigestion: felt some nausea coupled with chest pain. We gave her some aspirin as a precautionary measure. She was in her mid-40’s and on observation, was well within her normal weight range. Unfortunately….”

Ms. Kangaroo Pouch

“Are you going to wear that?” Bailey’s eyes skim over me once, and then pass over me a second time. Her eyes are focussed on my stomach as she waits for me to answer.

“Errr,” I eloquently answer. Bailey’s one of my closest friends. I’ve known her since kindergarten when we would tell each other secrets and then, pinky swear we’d never tell anyone else.

Bailey appeared to be in a particularly foul mood today when she arrived at my house. She threw her purse on the couch and flopped down beside it. I know it doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but if you knew Bailey, you’d know she’s never like that. She’s poised and gentle and always in control of every situation. It’s one of the reasons I admire her so much.

I don’t really understand the reason why she’s so upset. After all, it’s a let’s-have-lunch-and-then-shop-day versus a 9-to-5-why-is-the-copier-jamming-AGAIN?-day.

“Yes,” I finally say after locating my verbal skills. “Why?”

Bailey peers at me with an “inspector’s look” as if I were a cow that was about to be sold at market. She says, “I wouldn’t if I were you. You’ve got a kangaroo’s momma’s pouch going on there!” she points at my belly and tosses her head back in laughter.

I place a protective hand over my swollen tummy. Okay, maybe granola for breakfast was a bad idea. Or, maybe I just eat too much. I shift uncomfortably and keep my hand on my stomach, trying to block her view of it.

Bailey gives me a half smile. Silence hangs heavily in the air between us. A few seconds later she says, “We have time. You could change.”

“Okay,” I answer as I blink back tears that sting my eyes.  I take the stairs two at a time while taking a deep breath in.

Bailey’s never like that. I must look really terrible if she felt like she needed to say something. When I arrive in my bedroom I stare at myself. In horror, I realize she’s right: Oh god! I look like I’m pregnant – with twins!

I’ve been upstairs for nearly ten minutes. Pulling on a pink dress, control top pantyhose, and matching Gucci shoes, I take a peek at myself in the mirror. I don’t want Bailey to see me if I don’t look perfect. Turning sideways, it’s still there.

Why don’t I own any loose fitting dresses?

I yank the shoes off, slide out of the pantyhose, and wiggle the dress off over my head.  There’s a mountain of clothes that I’ve thrown across my bed. I stare at the heap and pull one of my bulky grey winter sweaters out of the pile with a baggy pair of jeans. It’s a little warm for it, but not by much. The forecast is ten degrees, not twenty-five degrees. I won’t look like I’m hiding something. It’s springtime, I argue with myself. You can still wear sweaters in the spring.

“Hey, Mackenzie, are you almost ready?” Bailey bellows from downstairs. We need to leave now, if we’re going to make our reservation!” her voice booms from the family room.

I emerge from my bedroom still pulling the sweater over my head. But it’s just me and Bailey here, so there’s no chance someone else will see my pink flabby skin. Charging down the stairs, I race down the steps with too much speed. I misjudge with the last two stairs where one step starts, and the other ends, and my heel slips and I skid to the bottom of the foyer.  The only thing that saved me was that for the first time in my life, I had my hand on the railing.

Bailey’s seated on the couch and is flipping through my National Geographic Traveller magazines.

I mumble, “Sorry,” as I enter the room. She tosses the magazine aside when she sees me, stands up and says, “That’s better,” as she nods her head with approval.

Then she raises a finger to my eye and brushes it while saying, “You just have a smudge of eyeliner there. It kind of makes you look like a racoon,” she says with a snort.

I scrunch my face at her as heat rises in me.  “Maybe we should go to the farm,” I retort with bitterness that seeps through me.

“Sorry,” Bailey says while taking her hands off my face and backing up.

“Maybe, we should go to the farm. After all, you’ve already called me a kangaroo and a racoon.”

“Listen,” she says. “I’m just trying to help you. Would you really want to go out looking like you did?”

I shrug my shoulders at her. No. But I don’t say that. As a matter of fact, I got nothing. So I stand there stupidly. And everyone knows the problem with silence, is that if you can’t come up with a snappy come-back, it automatically implies the other person’s right, and you’re wrong.

“And seriously, your eyeliner was all smudged. You could make more of an effort!”

I rub my eye. “It probably smudged when I was trying on clothes,” I say grabbing my purse. “Are you ready to go?” I ask turning around to face her.

“Yeah,” Bailey huffs as her heels hit the floor and she clip-clops towards the front entrance.

As I stick my key in the door and begin to pull it closed, Mrs. Chrystenson walks up the front path.

“Dearie,” she says carrying a plant up my walkway.  “Here’s one of the ferns from my garden. I just pulled it out right away after we talked this morning. So, I wouldn’t forget. Oh…” her voice trails off, “what happened to the lovely blue dress you were wearing this morning?”

“Oh,” I glance at Bailey and answer, “it was a little tight.”

“Where?” Mrs. Chrystenson asks. Her face is the lovely smoothness of calm that woman of a certain age get when they’ve seen it all. She genuinely looks like she has no idea. It’s not that “look” people give you when they know, and they’re just being nice; or they’re secretly trying to get you to say how terrible you looked, so that way they can quietly snicker at you.

Bailey hangs onto her purse and leans against the stone wall of my house. Breathing out, she announces, “in the tummy.”

Embarrassed, my cheeks turn pink, and I drop my head. I wish I were somewhere else.

“Oh,” Mrs. Chrystenson says. I raise my eyes and notice my neighbour’s lips purse together at Bailey. “Did you tell her that?” she asks Bailey.

Bailey stands up straight as her shoulders square off towards Mrs. Chrystenson. “Yes,” Bailey answers, “I’m trying to live more honestly. So, I’m going to say what I think from now on.”

“Huh, well… I’ve always found that there are versions of honesty. Depending on who’s giving the version of the truth, it’s peppered by things that have happened in their own lives.”

I blink at Bailey and watch her jaw tighten and tears fill her eyes. She’s a good friend. I need to defend her. “No, she was right. The dress made me look like I was at the end of my first trimester with twins. I didn’t notice it at first, until she pointed it out.”

“Oh yes, well…” she says as she continues walking up the path and places the fern down on my front porch.

She glances over at Bailey and me, and nods.

“Well, you have a very astute friend. Good of her to look out for you. Have a nice day,” she says as she walks down the pathway.

“You too,” I say. I glance down at the fern and add, “And, thank you for the plant.”

“Quite welcome, my dear,” she says turning to me as she pulls her flowered gardening gloves off. “You know, it’s interesting what people see.  My son had a motorcycle accident years ago.  Terrible things. They should ban them!” she says shaking her head. “Anyways, he broke his helmet and he had a three inch scar down the side of his face. He was lucky to be alive. After the accident, he didn’t want to date. Thought that he looked too hideous. But I would make him go to the grocery store and get my groceries after my husband died. He met a beautiful young woman there who happened to be the whole package as well.” She turns and begins to walk down the pathway.

I hate it when old people do that. Don’t finish a story. Just leaving you hanging… It’s like they feel like you should know. But we want to know, for certain, how the darn thing ends.

I’ve been baited, and I know it. Reluctantly, I sigh and say, “And?”

Laughing she says, “She never saw the scar until he pointed it out. It had faded with time. But for him, it was as big as the day it was when the Doctor stitched it up. They’re happily married now. Baby number two is on the way. It will be my fourth grandchild.”

“Congratulations,” I beam at Mrs. Chrystenson.

“Thank you,” she says. For a second she pauses, and then says, “in the name of honesty, I didn’t notice. I thought the dress looked lovely on you.” With a shrug of her shoulders, a gentle smile, she then turns, and walks away.

The Thief

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I’m standing in the middle of a winter storm with northerly winds that kick icy flakes into my face scratching my cheeks and stinging my eyes.  Twirling snow dances across the pavement. In the air, the snowflakes link hands together creating white-out conditions. It’s terrifying – because when I’m brave enough to raise my eyes and face the assault of icy air again, I can’t see a thing in front of me. The road has disappeared. There’s nothing in front of me, or behind me. The world has vanished.

I’m waiting for it to stop: that moment when the sun will slide through a cloud and like a flashlight illuminate the faint outlines of buildings and reveal snow covered draped trees to me again. Even for the briefest of moments, would make all the difference in the world: it would be a reassurance that this storm will end.

I’ve been asked what I would do when this happened to me: the moment when writer’s block sets in, and like a thief that’s tip-toed through my home when I wasn’t there stole my dictionary, thesaurus, and in a final assault on my creativity – walked off with my computer in the middle of the night. The bandit has stolen everything I could use to put words together, whether it is on paper, or in a blog post.

In all honesty, I can’t remember the answer I gave to this problem. But I suspect knowing me, I would have used my running experience and said something such as, “I would write over it. Keep writing, no matter what! And then hope, that someday the words would come easier again.”

The experience of running has taught me that sometimes, I need to push on and over, the most difficult days. Not every training day will offer sunny skies, seventy degree Celsius temperatures, and tank top and short-wearing weather.  Some days will be minus thirty-five degree Celsius temperatures, layered clothing, steamed glasses, and ice buildup on my eyebrows, hair and lashes. But those are the days I know I need to get out the door and do the best I can, with the conditions I’m given.

But I don’t always keep running in a race. Sometimes I’ll slow down, walk it out, and wait for the pain in my calf to subside (ditto for nausea). I know this to be true: sometimes I need a little break so that I can return to my 10 KM run, half-marathon, or marathon race stronger than I was a few moments ago. Ultimately, for me at least, what matters most is crossing the finish line.

Writer’s block haunts me. It slithers in the shadows and reappears in the most terrifying and most unexpected times.  It waits for me. Sometimes when I’m at my strongest mentally; and sometimes when I’m at my weakest. It’s stalked me so many times: inching it’s way closer when I wasn’t watching, forcing me to keep my eyes open longer resulting in too many late nights and scrambled thoughts. Then before I even knew what was happening, my ideas and ability to weave stories together had vanished.

In this community I won’t lie to you, there are times I’m scared I may never be able to write another story again. (To those on the outside, I’ll say something different.) Those are the moments I reach for the switch in a room and attempt to illuminate the darkness. When my fingertips hit the light switch and I hear the “click” I’m slightly relieved – relieved, until nothing happens. Because now I know, I’m in the middle of a power outage.

After scrambling around trying to find the one lighter I own in my house, I light a candle and watch the glow because nothing else works. I can’t make toast or coffee, there’s no TV or radio, and if the power outage lasts long enough, I’ll run out of hot water.   Now I know there are some things I should do during a power outage: buy bottled water, batteries, and flashlights; and keep the fridge door closed to prevent food from spoiling. Other than that, I need to wait.

I’ve faced writer’s block before: sleep-deprivation, viruses, injuries, and personal life upheaval have been some of my enemies. With all these factors, when my mind struggles to take care of day-to-day tasks it saps my creativity. My brain busy building to-do lists, for to-do lists, has no room to build heroes and plotlines.

But I continue to move forward as much as I can through it. In those moments when I find I can’t create something new, I’ll work on something old, revise my manuscript, or work on marketing material. Above all else, I keep working, no matter what. My fear is this: If I stop working too long, the ever-present negative naysayer in me will grow louder and my writing adventure might be over.

Eventually, I know the winter storm will stop and I’ll hear the hum of the fridge starting again. With this sign, I’ll flick the switch and the darkness will end with light. Normally when the power returns, the thief shows up on my front step with my dictionary and thesaurus, and good guy that he is, he’ll even help me set my computer up again.  With my coffee pot percolating, and my toaster toasting, I watch as new and old characters walk through my door and my world-building begins once more.

In The River

Water criss-crosses stones and pebbles and creates images in the water. Reflections of gold-orange leaves that cling to trees behind Karen are clearly a mirror of what’s behind her.  Along the river shore it’s peaceful: with the sound of lapping waves and the dots of white, blue, yellow, orange flowers – there are so many wonderful colours!

Karen stares into the bubbles that twist and turn over the rocks. As she gazes into the water, her face instantly contorts and her expression changes from a relaxed-I’m-on-holiday-manner, to one of fearful concern. She braces her hands against the railing of the wood bridge and stretches forward as she struggles to see what looks like a white cloth in the water.

The material bubbles to the surface and rests on a rock. Karen stares at it for a few seconds. Then waves wash over the ivory fabric, and it disappears below the surface once more. With nothing more to be concerned about, she turns and walks away.

Beneath the water, two eyes stare blankly at the people who cross over the bridge, waiting for someone to notice them.

Rich Man

Gouda cheese, fresh baked bread, and home-made jam are the necessities of life. If you don’t have these things, well-; what’s the point of it all?

At the front of a six-bedroom grey brick stone house is a $100,000 black BMW that sits on the interlocking stone driveway. A corner lot property, the house is nestled on five acres of woods: This all belongs to Mark and Barbara Raystone.

The exterior of the house dates back to the late 1800’s when Mr. Elijah Nettie, who was a Superior Court Judge in Ontario, lived in the home. Mr. Nettie wore his black robe to court while he applied his white law to every man and woman. He was good at it some said: well, good at applying the law with a particular rigidness that was commonplace back then. No exceptions to the rules. After all, rules were meant to be followed.

When Mark and Barbara purchased it in the spring of 2009 at the end of the stock market crash for a deal, they gutted the place and rebuilt the house. But the face of the house, the shell of it, remains the same.

“I forgot to pick up your dry cleaning,” Barbara says as she scrapes the yolk from the breakfast plate that belonged to Mark.

“What do you mean, you forgot?” he asks without even glimpsing up from his laptop.

Shoving the green Denby plate into the dishwasher, her eyes won’t look at his. He would have found out as soon as he went upstairs to put his blue button-up shirt on and noticed it wasn’t there.

“I forgot,” she says turning and facing him for the first time all morning.  The right side of her face stings a bit from what happened last night. Hopefully, it won’t bruise. Barb’s tired of answering questions.

“What were you doing yesterday?”

Meeting my lover.  “Baking cookies for Joshua’s Christmas lunch and making Hannah’s costume for the school play.

“What kind of cookies?” Mark asks.

Weird. He never asks any specifics about their children’s lives.  “Chocolate chip cookies.”

“Chocolate chip cookies aren’t a particularly festive cookie. You should have made sugar cookies.” His eyes are locked on her as he leans back in his chair.

“They are if you add food colouring.”

“Think of that yourself?” he asks in his normal argumentative tone.

“No, I found a recipe.”

“What costume did you make for Hannah?”

His interrogation of her annoys her.  Breathing out, while sighing heavily, wearily she answers, “Why? Did you plan to help me?”

“I’m curious,” he says weaving his fingers together as he now leans forward on his elbows that rest on the kitchen table. “They’re my kids. I’m entitled to know what they’re up to.”

Her husband’s a hypocrite: he’s always yelling at the kids to get their elbows off the table. “She’s one of the three wise men.”

“She’s a girl.”

“Well, there could only be only one Mary.”

“Who did they give the part to?”

She places her hands on the kitchen counter and leans heavily into it. “I don’t know,” she answers hanging her head.

“What’s wrong with you?” he questions.

“Tired, I guess.”

“Anything I can do to help?” he asks in a voice that oozes with sympathy

When she looks up again, she watches his eyes. There’s a light to them she hasn’t seen in a long time.    “No. It’s fine. I just need to get through the Christmas holidays.”

“Okay,” Mark says closing his laptop gently.  Then he rises from his chair, crosses the kitchen, and stands in front of her. He gently kisses her on the forehead while saying, “Don’t worry about the shirt. I have another one I can wear.”

In his embrace, she’s not certain how to feel. His breath is warm against her cheek and she wants to relax in his presence. Scanning his eyes, she gives in to this need. Answering with a smile, she says, “Good, good. I felt bad about forgetting.”

He cups one hand around her face, pushes down on the skin, and squeezes it hard. The pressure hurts her jaw bone. Barbara’s eyebrows furrow together as she blinks back tears from the pain. She raises her hands to push his hand away to stop the crushing sensation, but he thrusts her back against the counter. Mark’s eyes narrow at her as he  growls in a whisper, “Don’t forget again. And, don’t you ever backtalk to me again!”

With the words said, he releases her face, turns, and marches away.

Communication Matters

November 2, 2018

Dear Michael,

Michael, I fear I’m a relic with my insistence on sending greeting cards to loved ones; clicking buttons on my telephone to speak to those I care about; and scheduling face-to-face contact with friends to chat about our lives and problems. Although, now that I have written that statement it causes me to pause, and I wonder: is it true?

In all honesty, I find myself spending a great deal of time in isolation with my fingers tightly clinging to my mobile while sending text messages to friends. The message is a two second commitment from me when pressed for time and when I’m thinking of a friend, that shows a certain level of concern. The upside of this? Minimal effort on my part.

I know this to be true, but it doesn’t stop me. I wonder now what else I have missed, or who have I missed, when my head was bowed clicking at that miniscule keyboard sending a message to a friend or family member. Did I pass a homeless person and not see him? Or failed to help a person who dropped their groceries?  Did I make a cashier feel unimportant when I didn’t say, “Hello”, “Please”, or “Thank You” when I ordered my coffee?  Nothing speaks volumes about how much you care about one another, when you don’t even see the person standing in front of you.

With Facebook and text messages it’s easy not to see things. After all, words are a wonderful means of communication, but I would argue, images are more powerful.  You tell me. If I use this symbol 😦 does it mean the same as witnessing a person who is crying on the streets? Or worse yet, someone who isn’t crying, but you know there’s something wrong because their face has been washed clean of all emotions? The face of someone who wants to give up.

Technology today was meant to bind us tighter together.  Relationships were tested when prairies, mountains, rivers, and oceans separated people and required months of travel to visit one another. Now, we can send an email in North America and within a few seconds (as long your server isn’t down) it will be received in Europe. Face-to-face contact is also possible through computers thanks to Skype, where family memories can speak and see one another on the opposite side of the world.

No more reason to send a card. No more reason to travel to visit family and friends. No more reason to face one another. 

It’s different though to receive a text message from someone versus seeing them in person. I can tell you this: if I send a message to a friend and ask, how are you? it’s easy for them to click a couple of buttons and type, GREAT!  I would believe them. But if we meet for coffee and I ask the same question, and they say the same thing with water-filled eyes, or wear a face that’s void of any sign of life; their body language indicates to me something is wrong. From there, I’m more likely to enquire about family, friends, or work in order to flush out what is happening in their lives. It also forces me to be more committed and pay closer attention to my friend to ensure he or she is really doing alright.

I love the poem by John Donne, ‘No man is an island: a poem about interconnection and dependency on one another. We should be connected and care about family, friends, colleagues and strangers. Technology helps us to communicate with one another more easily whether we are only a few miles apart or thousands of miles. But this should not be a substitution for oral conversations and face-to-face interactions that require a larger time commitment because by doing so, it strips us of our humanity towards each other.

Perhaps it’s time for me to drop the phone more frequently and face the person in front of me. It’s time to be a part of all the life that surrounds me.

“;any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

~’No man is an island’

John Donne

Fondly,

Catherine

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.”