Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On The Precipice and The First Noble Truth

It is nearing the last day of my husband's work before he is permanently laid off, and right now I feel as though we are standing with one foot in the past and the other in the future. I suppose if you look at it that way, a person is always in this position, but today it seems a more significant stance. 

Last night I lay awake for quite awhile with the thought that a person can have everything in one moment, and lose it all in the next. This happens to all of us at one point or another in our lives. Our story is about the loss of a long-standing job, for others it might be the loss of a loved one, or their house burning down to the ground...ultimately it is the loss of our own lives. It would be a pretty depressing thing if you let yourself think about it too often!

I know better than to let myself get on that train of thought, so last night instead of getting too caught up in my own misery, I reminded myself of what the Buddhists call the Four Noble Truths: 

There is suffering.
There is the cause of suffering, which is desire and clinging.
There is an end to suffering.
There is a path to the end of suffering.

Quite often when I find myself about to get caught up in sad or angry thoughts, I remember the Four Noble Truths, and I have to admit I've repeated them to myself quite a bit lately! When you look at them, they seem quite simple. A lot of Buddhists consider them to be "beginner's Buddhism", but those who are wise enough know that they are the backbone of the Buddhist philosophy. How to stop suffering was Siddhartha Gautama's (the Buddha's) quest and what drove him on a spiritual path. The original word in the Pali language was "dukkha" which was translated as "suffering", but the actual meaning of dukkha is closer to something like "unsatisfactoriness".

We experience dukkha in very small ways every day. Standing impatiently in the slowest checkout line in a supermarket is dukkha. Running around the house desperately looking for your lost keys, is dukkha. Suddenly remembering an embarrassing incident from your past and fretting about it all over again, is dukkha. And realizing with great fear that in two days you no will longer have a job, is dukkha.

Dukkha, or suffering also comes in the aftermath of wonderful experiences, happy times and great accomplishments, not because of those wonderful times themselves, but because we want to hang onto them and feel that way forever, or repeat them over and over again. This is also suffering.

Of course, there is physical suffering and pain, illness and growing old. But the main focus here in this post will be on mental and emotional suffering....because that, as the Buddha taught, is something we can actually change.

Today, you who are reading this post will experience dukkha on some level or another. I guarantee it. It may be very small and almost indistinguishable, but it will be present...on the other hand, if you, like me, are going through a difficult time right now, you'll have no trouble recognizing it. The interesting thing about suffering is that it ebbs and flows. If you "stand back" from it for just a moment, you'll begin to notice that its intensity is not constant. Sometimes you'll even forget about it for a moment, or actually find yourself feeling good. This is something very important to note! Because most of the time, we actually perpetuate our own suffering...we will actually REMIND ourselves of it again and fall right back into it! Is that stupid, er what?? This is human nature.

So today, I'm going to "watch" my thoughts very carefully, and every time I find myself slipping into that unhappy train of thought, I'm going to say to myself "Ah hah! That is suffering." If you are interested in joining me, please do. In the next post, I'll explore the Second Noble Truth in more detail.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Gift of Forgiveness

You see it in television interviews, read it in newspapers, hear it on the radio...everytime there is a legal case against a person or organization, or when people are interviewed after someone has gotten away with some kind of crime, you hear the word "closure"; all we want is closure, this will give me some kind of closure.

The Oxford Dictionary defines closure as : 1 an act or process of closing. 2 a device that closes or seals. 3 (in a legislative assembly) a procedure for ending a debate and taking a vote. Most people are referring to the first definition, "an act or process of closing". But I think what they are really seeking is an end to their own suffering and a feeling of peace, which I think they expect a legal proceeding or the receipt of something to do. It doesn't. Closure is over-used and misinterpreted, a tacky and misunderstood cliche.

It's not that I don't have empathy for a family that has lost a loved one to a drunk driver, for instance, standing outside the courthouse at the end of the driver's trial, relieved that the whole procedure is over. I can't begin to know how it must feel. But although it may be closure with respect to the end of the trial, it won't end their suffering or give them peace.

The end to suffering happens gradually over time and is the result of inner work, not a court verdict. Something else that I'm afraid we human beings mis-identify as "closure", is revenge. We believe that if someone is punished for what they have done to us, that we will feel better. Perhaps for a short while we do, but as many often discover, revenge doesn't put things back to where they were before. And it often leaves us feeling worse in the long run.

What truly ends our suffering in all of these cases is forgiveness. But forgiveness is also a word that is misunderstood. Many people believe that forgiveness means they have somehow approved the other person's heinous act, or given permission for them to continue to behave that way. We often feel that by remaining angry and hateful towards the other person, we are punishing them in some way. More often than not, they don't even feel it!

What forgiveness does is relieve our own suffering by helping us to let go of our anger and pain. And often when we do this, we are more able to understand the cause of the other person's behaviour. Forgiveness liberates us from the burden of our own misery, and clears our view just like clouds parting to reveal a crystal blue sky. True, heartfelt forgiveness is something we all need to practise once in awhile...all the time, in fact!

Every time Christmas rolls around I inevitably bump into someone who feels Grinch-like about the whole thing, for various reasons. Most of the time it has to do with old wounds, disappointments and misunderstandings around family or friends. To all of you who are feeling this way even a little bit this season, give yourself the wonderful gift of forgiveness. Let it go, even just for a little while and enjoy the peace that it brings. I wish a peaceful, happy Christmas to you all :-).


Friday, November 28, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid. Er, The Economy OF the Stupid

When Gracie asked me the other day why the economy was in such a mess, it took me awhile to explain it, and I'm not really sure I did. She's 20, and smart enough to understand a lot of things, but I can't say that I'm smart enough to figure it out for myself.

It's hard to believe that only five months ago, we were actually standing on the street where it all began to unravel; Wall Street, in New York. Oh, I know there's more to the economic mess than the greedy guys on Wall Street, but I remember sitting in a cafe in the financial district looking at all of those young men walking around in their light blue shirts and black slacks and thinking to myself at the time that this was a whole different world from mine. Little did I know then that their world was going to impact my world so drastically.

I was in the middle of writing my last blog entry here when I got an email from my husband titled "No Joke". So of course, I thought it was a joke of some sort...or a forward, or some link to a funny video. But it wasn't. He and his entire department had received their layoff notices.

Suffice it to say that he works in the television industry, and we all have to admit that TV has been on the decline for a few years now. As far as my viewing habits, I watch the news and a couple of shows that I like, and that's about it. I have the TV on when I'm working in my office, but only in the background to keep me company because I work alone so much. Television isn't what it used to be to me and to everyone else. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I won't go into it here. 

The sudden downturn in the economy gave the brass at my husband's company an excuse to lay off hundreds of their employees, even though many of their financial troubles were their own to begin with. And these financial troubles they've acquired gives me pause for thought. This is the root of our economic mess...even on a personal level, we have stopped taking financial responsibility for ourselves. As companies and as individuals, we can't just blame a bunch of greedy CEO's in some far away place like Wall Street for this horrible mess...we are each accountable in some way.

We don't know how to handle money! We having been living in a culture of easy credit for too long. There are two people in my life who are perfect examples of what not to do...they think a credit card is free money, even though LOGICALLY they know it isn't. But they can't resist the temptation to HAVE NOW and PAY LATER. The only problem is that they are always having now, and never paying it off because they can't possibly keep up with their own spending when later comes.

I was in a similar position when I was younger. When I first moved away from home, I didn't have a credit card and didn't have any desire to get one...that was my saving grace at the time. But one day an interesting thing happened: I wanted to buy a car, a fairly big purchase at the time, but I couldn't get a car loan until I had established credit. So, in a sense, I was obliged to get a credit card in order to get my car loan. And of course, once I had that card, I got pretty used to using it whenever the urge to have something hit me. And over time I managed to get myself into a certain amount of debt that took me awhile to recover from.

This happened to me a couple of times before I finally got it under control. So I understand how it happens to others and I can see how some people would just never get a grip on their spending urges.

On a larger scale, corporations have to start thinking not just in terms of saving themselves from financial ruin, but recognizing the impact of their actions when it comes to the bigger picture. I've had a theory for awhile now called "The Refrigerator Theory", although I know there are many other versions of my theory out there devised long ago by others who are a lot smarter than I am. 

In simple terms, the theory is that companies, especially the larger ones, can actually choose to impact the economy in a small way, or in a big one. Sometimes one CEO earns more than a dozen employees, and even more. And when you lay off the dozen employees, that's a dozen fewer refrigerators that they are not going to buy because they have no money for it. If you lay off one CEO instead, it's only one less refrigerator. Does that make sense?

In other words, laying off a dozen people has more impact on the economy than laying off one top level person. And not only do you impact the economy by laying off lots of lower-level employees, you begin to destroy what might otherwise be a healthy work environment, which in turn impacts their production and your company! Why don't they think of that?

Even the poor sods left behind after their co-workers have been axed will probably stop buying refrigerators because they are too afraid that they will be next. Again, why don't these companies realize that? It's called short-sightedness and it has long-term impact.

It is unnerving to sit here and not know where this global economic mess is going to leave us all. I believe, as most do, that we will eventually recover, not just my little family, but the global community too. The question is...will we learn anything from it? Will we start to use our brains when it comes to our spending habits and will corporations do the same?

Maybe those greedy Wall Street guys actually gave us a wonderful opportunity to learn something that will change things for the better. This is going to be a very different Christmas.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Power Of Words

I was reading Time Magazine the other day on one of my regular monthly ferry trips, and found an interesting article about the Collins Dictionary trying to eliminate 20 old or unused words in order to make room for 2000 new ones.

Not that I ever use apodeictic (unquestionably true by virtue of demonstration) or fusby, (short, stout or squat), but when you read a list of new words that dictionaries have included lately, such as cookie cutter and fanboy (a boy who is an enthusiastic devotee of such things as comics or movies), you wonder about the future of our language. Then again, as with most things nothing is static, not even language.

Words have fascinated me since I first started to read the lyrics of songwriters like Joni Mitchell and realized how weak and ineffective my own lyrics were. Just the right turn-of-phrase can create powerful images and emotions, and literally expand a person's consciousness. I'm not a big fiction reader, but I know the same thing can happen with a well written book.

In listening to some of Barack Obama's speeches over the last two years, you could feel the effect not only of his words but of his delivery. He reminded us of the great orators of the past whose power lay in the way they could rouse the public's emotions, both bad and good, by the way they delivered a speech.

The internet has exposed some interesting, and sometimes disturbing, facts to me about people. Sitting at a computer and typing away just as I am doing now, creates a sort of disconnected self-aggrandizing effect--a sense of fearlessness in expressing one's ideas and opinions. The danger is that once you hit the post button, you are sending a part of your private thoughts out there for anyone to read and even respond to in some cases. And you might not like what they say in return!

Without trying to sound too pompous, I've discovered that there is an awful lot of ignorance out there, so much so that it's almost shocking. People spew all kinds of "information" that is simply incorrect, they list facts that are not true or haven't been properly researched, and others sop it up as if it was out of a bible.

For example, who can forget the elderly woman who stood up at a McCain rally and said Obama was an Arab? Where did she get that idea from? Not that there's anything wrong with being an Arab...but to her, apparently there is. Could it be that she heard people on the campaign trail intentionally repeating Obama's entire name...Barack Hussein Obama? Mr. McCain had to correct her, and he had to impress upon the crowd that Obama was not a bad man. What a shame that it came to that.

In contrast to the internet, old standbys like newspapers and magazines, and radio or television news broadcasts (other than Fox :-), now have my respect like they never have before! They have the rule of research behind them...it doesn't mean that they are always correct, but fact-checking and finding multiple sources for the same information means that what we read or hear from them is probably as pretty close to the truth as it can get.

I want news and information, I don't want it skewed in any particular direction, and when I want an opinion I'll seek it out. But who cares about me? :-) There have been several times when I've found myself in a verbal scuffle on the web when I've expressed my point of view. It has taught me to be a lot more careful about what I say and who I say it to. Words on a computer screen are not like a face-to-face discussion where facial expression and inflection can affect what comes out of the mouth. People are usually more polite when it's face-to-face, but online they become like a pack of dogs on the attack with little or no thought as to how it might impact the person being responded to, or even that there is a human being on the other end of the argument.

I used to engage in these wars of words, but I've learned that it's useless...I'm not going to change anyone's mind and they're not going to change mine, so why even bother? On the rare occasion that I break past my own rules and post my response to something, I leave it at that and don't engage any further. I really should just shut up in the first place.

In Buddhism, one practices something called "right speech". That doesn't simply mean checking information and getting your facts straight. It means that we should be acutely aware of the impact of what we are saying at every moment. Words are like that proverbial ripple effect of a drop of water, they spread much further and impact much more than we realize. A kind word can spread from person to person like warm sunshine, a harsh or ignorant one can create an endless chain of negative events. And it isn't just what we say, it's how we say it...tone of voice, volume, eye contact and facial expression, they all have their effect.

I think most people suffer from the "nobody's listening" syndrome, and the number of blogs (like mine!) and YouTube videos and iReports out there proves that. The idea that no one is listening may very well be true...because if everyone is yelling, who can hear anything? The other side to it, however, is that over time we become louder and more insulting and obtrusive, and we stop thinking about the harm we may be causing.

"You STUPID IDIOT!!" Who hasn't found themselves spouting something at someone in frustration at times? The problem occurs when it becomes almost like an addiction and we CAN'T STOP YELLING or sputtering our angry responses.

Okay, I vow this very second to never post an annoyed opinion on the web again. Until somebody REALLY pisses me off....

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Let It Go

This seems to have been a year of many changes for me and for the people around me, the latest one being my youngest daughter, Gracie, who is moving away from home. And she's not just moving down the road...she is moving to another city, Vancouver. She is moving in with a friend and neither of them have a pot to pee in. Literally :-).

So I've been digging around through the cupboards to find old cutlery, cups, plates and other bits and pieces to get her started, and all the while I've been thinking about the first time I moved out. I had a bed, a dresser, my clothes and my guitar and a couple of friends with a truck. I moved into a basement suite in Richmond with my best friend Linda who had her bed and some kitchen supplies and her sewing machine. 

Between us we may have come up with a table and a lamp or two. But it wasn't much. We were 18 years old, not very old really compared to the age kids are when they move out these days. We were excited about living on our own. But all of these years later I have to admit that Linda did most of the work, the cleaning the cooking and all the rest. I was a lazy ass and didn't think to do things for myself.

So a few months later when we had to move out again because the basement suite was declared illegal, I told Linda that I thought I needed to live on my own. There was a part of me, as dumb as I was, that knew it was time for me to take care of myself. So we parted ways and I found an apartment in Vancouver, not very far from where Gracie is now about to move. I'm sure my Dad lost a lot of sleep when I first left, and I didn't think to call home very often. I was too caught up in myself and my life to think that he might have needed to hear my voice every now and then.

I'm sure he has long since forgiven me, but remembering that now, I have set Gracie up with a webcam for her laptop (she WILL have an internet connection), so that I can check up on her constantly :-). Ain't technology wonderful? Thank heavens.

When I was first living completely on my own, I was a slob and didn't know how to cook anything except rice. I was constantly running out of toilet paper or bar soap and forgetting one thing or another. But I always paid my bills on time because I was afraid NOT to. I got fat from eating too much Kraft Dinner and I got depressed because I had no one to talk to. So I got a cat.

I didn't have a TV, so sometimes I snuck out on the balcony and listened to the news from someone else's TV in another apartment. And over time, I did get used to being on my own and there certainly was a sense of satisfaction in being completely independent. I only ever asked my parents for money once...when I broke the back axle on my car and didn't have enough to pay for it. I didn't have a credit card back then, so I always paid by cash or cheque.

In retrospect, I am happy that I had that time on my own, and I hope that Gracie gets the same sense of satisfaction from taking care of herself. But it's hard to think about her being over there in that big city without me to smother her with hugs and kisses. Okay, maybe she won't miss that part :-)

And that brings me to what this blog entry is really about...the gut wrenching ache of having to let go. There have been many, many parents before me who have gone through this, and there will be many more again. But this is my first time. I am happy to have her experience her independence, but I am sad to know that my life is going to be permanently changed without her here. She is funny, she is the only person in the world I can be a total goof with, she is smart, she sings with me, plays guitar with me, talks about Buddhism with me. She puts up with my smothering and rolls her eyes at my lectures. She sews the small tears in my clothes (I don't sew), brings home a meal from the DQ when I don't feel like cooking, and now she has a dream that she wants to follow. I can't deny her that.

As I said before, letting go has been a recurring theme all year. The truth is that letting go is something we have to do all the time, but it seems that sometimes we have to deal with it in a much more profound way. My father had to let go of his home, and to some extent, his freedom, when he had to move into a care facility back in March. More recently, a very good friend of mine had to let go of her husband who passed away in August at the very young age of 54. And now I'm having to let go of my little girl as she ventures out on her own for the first time.

I wrote a song about letting go many years ago...at the time I was leaving my job and moving onto other things and I actually wrote it for my boss, Mary Jo, who was very soppy when it came to saying goodbye:

Is this goodbye?
Well, we haven't said a thing all day
And it almost time
So I'm wondering when the dam will break
But I know that the road is right
I'm just following all the signs

We spend a lifetime letting go
Resisting it to the end
You can't stop the wind, you can't change the flow
So just love it and let it go

When you touch my hand
Part of you will always be with me
And you're in my life
No matter where your world might be
I'll remember and you'll be here
Out of nowhere you'll feel me near

We spend a lifetime letting go
Resisting it to the end
You can't stop the wind
You can't change the flow
So just love it and let it go

And now the moment arrives
For the tears and the ties to come down
But if you give it awhile
What remains is a smile
From someone who loves you

We spend a life time letting go
Resisting it to the end
You can't stop the wind
You can change the flow
So just love it and let it go
You just love it and let it go

...I am going to miss you terribly, Gracie girl.
Love always, Mom xoxoxo

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Songwriter's Bucket List

I guess I crossed something off my bucket list last night.

A couple of months back I heard that James Taylor was coming to Victoria. One of my big dreams in the last few years has been to see all of my songwriting heroes live. Aside from Joni Mitchell, he has to have been one of the greatest influences on my writing. He's also been, in my opinion, one of the best interpreters of other's songs over the years. "Up On A Roof", "Handyman", and of course "You've Got A Friend", Carol King's beautiful song, were all given that distinctive JT sound back in the 70's when his star was flying high.

I've seen snippets of his concerts on TV and DVD, but of course seeing him live gave me a much better sense of his personality, his energy and his showmanship. He looks like he's thoroughly enjoying himself up there. I've seen concerts where the band or the artist looked like they'd rather be anywhere else. One of my heroes who strikes me this way is Gordon Lightfoot. When I saw him for the first time only a few years ago, he was quiet, reserved and just let the songs do all of the work. There was a bit of a disconnect with Lightfoot but with James Taylor it was the complete opposite.

From a performing songwriter perspective, you realize the importance of that audience connection. Granted, last night we were all already sold on JT before we got there...but when you're not known, creating that connection is absolutely critical. It endears you to your audience, gives them a sense of your human side, your sense of humour and your personality. You can't just bow your head down and play the songs, you have to play them TO someone and let them feel for themselves where the songs came from.

JT is a fabulous guitar player, and on his old hits the sound guys let his fingerstylings stand out just as they did on the original recordings. He used two Olson acoustic guitars; a dreadnaught and a cutaway...I incorrectly quoted the price of them to someone last night, but they start somewhere around $12,500. Yikes. The sound of them is wonderful though, rich and bright.

It was a great turnout and he gave two encores, which were such a treat. I have to admit, I enjoyed his acoustic hits a little more, but that band of his was absolutely fabulous. I think it was his last night on his Canadian tour, so maybe we were just lucky to get a little extra out of them. Actually, the last encore appeared to be spontaneous...he ran to each member and whispered in their ear as if he had just decided to do one more.

And then there were the songs themselves. I wondered how many older hits he'd actually play, knowing how difficult it is to play the same songs over and over and still give them the energy they deserve, but he managed to do that so well. "Caroline On My Mind" and "Sweet Baby James" were real highlights for me, and of course he had to do "Fire and Rain"; that song is a staple in his bag of hits. The one that teared me up, though, was "You've Got a Friend". He has a wonderful, rich baritone voice...not one note was out of place...it draws you in with it's purity and resonance. I've often tried to emulate a female version of that voice and it was always James Taylor's vocal that I was hearing while I was writing so many of my songs over the years.

So, JT, you helped an old 70's girl to fulfill a dream last night. Thanks for coming to Victoria, thanks for all of your wonderful songwriting and performances over the years. You really are the best.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

We're All Immigrants

One of the highlights of my trip to New York, was a visit to Ellis Island.

I am here in North America, as many of us are, as a result of my recent ancestors' immigration to this continent. In fact, if we all look back far enough, we are all immigrants.

Ellis Island was a place my father always told me about. My Grandfather John Jokumsen (who got frustrated with people being unable to spell his name, and changed it to Jackson), came across the Atlantic from Denmark all by himself on an old rust bucket of a ship nicknamed the Holy Oly. He was only 16 years old.

The reason he came was because he had a wealthy Aunt and Uncle who lived in Kalispel, Montana. They had offered my grandfather's parents the opportunity for one of their 12 children (the "smartest" one) to come to the US, so that they could take him in and educate him.

And that's how my grandfather, who was apparently the smartest one of the lot, got on the Holy Oly for that infamous trip to Ellis Island. It was 1912. And guess which other very famous ship was crossing the Atlantic at the same time? That's right. The Titanic.

When my Grandfather's ship pulled into the harbour at Ellis Island, they could see the lifeboats of the Titanic moored up to the docks. Can you imagine? The mightiest, "unsinkable" Titanic, didn't make it, but the Holy Oly did. The photo above is the main hall on Ellis Island where every immigrant was processed before they were allowed into the U.S.

To make a long story short, my Grandfather did not take to his aunt and uncle very well, and ended up jumping on the rails and travelling all over the US and Canada by himself, working wherever he could and then moving on to the next stop. Eventually, he went back to Denmark and married my Grandmother, and brought her to settle in Canada. My father was born not long after they reached Calgary.

My mother was also an immigrant. She came to Canada via Montreal after a year's tour on a Danish hospital ship, the Jutlandia, during the Korean War. She was a registered nurse, and had been banished from her family (long story), so she decided to move to Canada in 1954, because a lot of other Danes were doing the same during that time. And that's where she met and married my Dad.

Here in Canada, we depend a lot on immigrants...if it weren't for the growing immigrant population, our economy would pop like a balloon stuck with a pin because our birthrate isn't great enough to sustain us. But, as has always been, there is a segment of the population who resent the "foreigners" "invading" our country, "taking over" all of the jobs that should be "ours", etc., etc. When I listen to Lou Dobbs on CNN talking about the "alien" Mexicans invading the US, it makes me cringe. We forget that most of us are here because our ancestors were also immigrants, trying to find a better life in another country, full of hope for a better future. Maybe they don't all do so in a legal, above board kind of way, but their intentions are almost always good. They are simply trying to help their families. Over hundreds of years, this is one ideal that hasn't changed.

When I walked through that building on Ellis Island and saw the way the immigrants of those times were shuffled around like cows, marked with symbols on their clothes if they were blind or sick or poor, put behind bars if they were thought to be of dubious character, unable to defend themselves simply because they couldn't speak the language, I felt a great deal of compassion. In the present day, there is no difference...people just want to find a way to do better, and we have no right to deny them that. Not really.

Ellis Island is now a museum. It is part of a tour that includes the Statue of Liberty...the ferry takes you from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, over to the Statue of Liberty first and then to Ellis Island, and then back to New York. A part of me wondered how many people would actually get off at Ellis Island. Everybody did. Maybe they were just curious, maybe they didn't know any better, or just maybe they were from immigrant families too, and knew the significance of the place. That's what I'm kind of hoping.


Saturday, May 31, 2008

Weed Me, Seymour

I have a love/hate thing for gardening. My Dad was a very disciplined green-thumb, out there in the yard every day that it wasn't raining, doing one thing or another. As a kid, I used to be upset when he didn't want me playing in the yard and ruining his lawn and flower beds. Now, I understand. I think I spend 95% of my time weeding. This is what feels wrong to me. How am I supposed to enjoy gardening when all I do is weed? I just want to plant pretty things, not pull out ugly, difficult, sweaty, dirty things. But weeding is all I ever seem to do.

I admit, when we first acquired a house (and a yard), 25 years ago, I did not know what was a weed, and what wasn't. I had to bring my poor Dad over to instruct me, and I'm sure I forgot half of what he told me. So he ended up doing all of the weeding, while I watched from the livingroom window. He hated it. But every time he came over, he'd resolve himself to go out there and do it. I swear, if it weren't for my Dad doing that every three months or so, my weeds would have been taller than my house. I was a gardening failure.

When we moved into our second house, my Dad was smart enough not to offer his services. I don't blame him, we moved to a corner lot with a whole lot more lawn and garden. The people who lived here before us had a good thing going. It was well taken care of, and well-planned. But of course, not long after we moved in, it all went to pot.

I did my best, but I was a young mother and taking care of kids and getting a good night's sleep were far more important than house cleaning or gardening. I'm sure I killed a few more things that weren't meant to die, but I did get a little better over time. In fact, there came a time where I actually started planning my garden (poorly) and created a few flower beds, putting in flowers that couldn't tolerate the area I planted them in, or neglecting to water them after they were in.

You have to water those stupid little flowers or they die.

We put in a swing set in one corner of the back yard once. The kids played on it so much that the lawn beneath it became dirt. That corner never did get back to what it once was after that. Still, I would get myself all enthused to go out there every spring and start weeding. By the time I got all around to every flower bed, it was fall and I'd long since given up. What's the point? You just have to start all over again. All I did was weed.

Last spring, my husband resolved that we had to really make a project of the back yard and try to create a space so that we would actually want to spend time in it. So we hired a lovely English couple (you have to actually live in Victoria to get that THIS IS WHAT YOU DO IN VICTORIA), to come and take a look around our yard and give us some advice.

I have to say, I've never been more embarrassed. They took one look around the massive devastation that was our back yard and you could see their expression of horror. 'Ohmigod, what do we tell them?', I'm sure they were thinking. But they did their best to look beyond our pathetic yard space and gave us a list of things to get, a design to keep in mind, and lots of other pointers. 

My husband took copious notes. We resolved ourselves to take their advice and get started. It would take at least two years, they said. I'm sure they were being generous. We tried to put things in order...this is what you do first, this is what you do last. The more we educated ourselves, the more confident we became that we could actually do this. That area that became dirt because of the swing set, was replaced with a little patio and a gazebo. We took care of the lawn for the first time, re-seeded and weeded-and-feeded. We took every dandelion out by hand. We moved numerous big rocks, replanted this and that, disassembled the pathetic, collapsing wooden compost and bought another more efficient one.  We repainted the garage, and found ways to get rid of the bugs and ants that chewed the heck out of everything. We edged the lawn, we found plants and trees that would work in different areas, we created more shape, more colour.

Today, I actually finished weeding the back yard. It's the last day of May. In the late afternoon, I took a glass of wine with me and wandered out there and realized that we've actually accomplished in one year what we thought would take two. It's a work in progress, of course. No putting in plants and flowers and letting them take care of themselves! No letting it go to pot again. Then I walked around to the front yard.

Oh, sh*t, we have a front yard too. Sigh.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Man Created God - An Essay Of Sorts

[This blog entry may be offensive to any of you who are Christian or Muslim, or believers in a God in one form or another. I don't mean it to be so, of course. For me it's simply an exploration of my own spiritual journey. So readers beware :-)]

When human beings roamed the earth millions of years ago, they literally did not have the brain capacity to understand very much about their surroundings. Their survival instincts were the sole driving force of their short lives. Can you imagine hearing thunder for the first time and not knowing what it was or where it came from? It would be a pretty terrifying experience (it scares the heck out of me even when I DO know what it is!).

And how would a creature with such little information understand, for instance, the sun? Why is it here and where does it go at night?

Now I'm not a natural historian, but I can certainly understand how an early human with such limited knowledge might begin to think of and even to personify, all of those mighty forces around him. The Sun would be considered a very powerful being, it must have a reason for being here or going away. The Thunder would seem like a very angry sort of creature..maybe I do something to make it angry? How do I plead for the Rain to come and provide me with water when I need it? Is that even possible?

Humans then went from personifying the forces of nature, to believing that perhaps they could do something to please them (or piss them off!) as well. And out of this, kings and powerful leaders in earlier cultures made themselves middle-men between the gods and their subjects. Sacrifices and rituals were a way of exuding power over the people, and influence over the gods. We know that in some early societies, natural forces were indeed given identities and names and they were understood to be gods with great power. It does not seem so far-fetched to me to see that this is how our present-day ideas about one God grew.

It would take nothing but a leap of faith to determine that perhaps only one mighty power was in fact in charge of everything, the objects in the skies, the weather, the thunder, plants and animals, and ultimately, human beings. One force created all of this 'in the beginning' and is still there today, simply because we are.

Two million years ago, early humans had very small brains and over time, those brains grew in size, but not only in size, they also developed new "parts". The cerebral cortex is one of those newer parts. It is where we humans can, among other things, "pre-experience" something in order to decide if that's what we want to do. This is where memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness resides. It is known that teenagers have a period of very rapid growth of this area of the brain, and that in some it happens more quickly than others. Its development is associated with maturity, recognizing the consequences of our actions and being able to more carefully control our impulses.

Could it also be true that, as this part of the brain developed over hundreds of thousands of years, it was responsible for the original concept of gods and ultimately one God? At some point in our human history, we began to question where we came from, rather than only existing as impulsive, reactive and instinctually-driven creatures. Maybe the beginning of the belief in God was, in fact, a physiological event.

It was in a writing by a Buddhist monk where I first read the concept of man creating God. This, to me, was an amazing revelation. Why didn't I think of that before? Man created God, and then ultimately came to the conclusion that God had, in fact, created Man. Since then, I have explored my own ideas and theories and experiences of God, as well as those of others that I have read. I've looked back at my own personal spiritual history and development to try to better understand what brought me to the conclusions I made. And the more I think of it, the more I experience the way the world appears to work, the more I come to the same conclusion that the Buddhist monk did.

As I said, I have no intention of dispelling or undermining anyone's faith. Faith is a very personal experience and I am not trying to change anyone's idea of God, rather I'm only out to explore my own. Lately, I have been delighted to see the leaders of different religions in the world more open to spending time together and looking for the common-ness of their beliefs, and banding together to support certain human causes, rather than fighting about who is "right". This is the way it should be.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

On Happiness (And Being A Mother)

I have a surprising number of female friends who are not mothers. I've always thought this to be an odd thing, but maybe it's nothing more than circumstance. Being a mother is something I always knew I would be, and maybe my friends did too. But nothing seems to pre-determine how our lives turn out and, more often than not, our lives turn out to be pretty different from what we imagined. Of course, I had ideas about what being a mother would be like too; I knew how many children I wanted and what type, etc., how they would behave, what their lives would be like. And I have since learned that even when things appear to turn out the way you imagined they would, you get a few curve balls thrown at you anyway. Kids are who they are. Regardless of how blue in the face you get trying to tell them what they should do, they do what they will. If you ever want an exersize in how powerless you really are, have a couple of kids. I don't think I was the kind of kid my Dad wanted. First of all, he wanted a boy. I couldn't do much about that. Secondly, he wanted a quiet, studious kid who sat in a corner and read books. Now, I love books, but I certainly wasn't quiet and studious. I was creative, I liked having all of my friends in my yard, I liked putting on plays and having adventures. Much to my Dad's chagrin, I trampled all over his lawn and flower beds. I screamed and hollered. I wanted a guitar and dreamed of being a star. When I think about all of that, I realize that I couldn't possibly have expected my daughters to live up to my expectations either. I think I've learned that it's more important to see them for who they are rather than being disappointed in them for not being who I want them to be. Not that I'm disappointed or that I have had particularly great expectations. I never thought that I lived up to the "ideal" of mother. I'm pretty sure that has to do with the fact that I lost my mother when I was so young. I never had the chance to see her as human, to observe her imperfections and inadequacies...I was left with a very iconic image of her and I carried the notion with me that, as a mother, I should be the same. Instead I struggled through a long depression after having my first child, feeling like I wasn't good enough because I wasn't incredibly happy and satisfied after giving birth. I never had brothers or sisters while I was growing up so I didn't understand jealousies or sibling rivalry and felt I didn't handle that well either. Oddly enough, my Dad always expressed the fact that he never felt like he was a very good father, yet I think he was a wonderful example to me of a caring and giving parent. Recently I heard an aquaintance of mine say that she couldn't wait for her daughters to grow up...it was more of a "I'm looking forward to when they get out of this young and difficult age", rather than a "I'm looking forward to who they're going to be." The fact is that every age has its struggles. I mean, we only have to look at our own lives to realize that there are good and bad times to every age. There is no "there". Which is, I think, the message that I really want to pass on to my daughters. It's about happiness. I know that when we're young, we get this idea in our heads that once we achieve this or that, we are going to be eternally happy. I hear them express that in various ways when it comes to relationships, achievements, personal goals, appearance...all of it. What I have learned through my own life is that expectation inevitably leads to disappointment. And there is no permanently achievable state of happiness. That sounds rather depressing, but really it isn't. When we cling, when we expect or look forward too much, we only create the potential for unhappiness. True happiness, it seems to me, is when we let go, and find peace and joy and acceptance of who we are and where we are right now. Goals are fleeting, ideas are fleeting, triumph and tragedy, circumstances, thoughts and feelings are fleeting. If you spend a little time just observing what goes through your mind, you realize that none of what goes on around you or inside of you is real or permanent. So if I could give a gift to my children, it would be the ability to focus in on the beauty of now. Because there will never be another now. Slow down, stop judging how the present should be, look around you and see how much you have. That is what you, my daughters, have taught me, and what I would like to return to you. And Happy Mother's Day to my mother who continues to inspire me, 36 years after we said goodbye. IJ

Sunday, April 27, 2008


"A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart, and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words."
I went to dinner last night with an old friend, someone I truly enjoy the company of whenever we get together, no matter how long it has been since we have last seen each other. She is always up on the latest restaurants or hangouts and tidbits of information, she is intelligent and full of interesting thoughts and we are never at a loss for something to chat about. As we have gotten older, I have learned to appreciate who she is and how compassionate and giving, and FORgiving, she really is. There is nothing more precious than a friendship. Nothing. I have a number of very good friends whom I have collected over the years, some who I see often, some not so often, but I consider myself very fortunate to know them all. I can count on my friends to accept me, to understand and consider my feelings, to make me laugh uncontrollably, and to remember me when times are wonderful and happy, as well as at when times are dark and bleak. Let's face it...we all have a lot of both!
"It takes a long time to grow an old friend." - by John Leonard
When I was a kid, a friend was someone I played with and argued or fought with. Most of the time you made friends because of proximity. They were in your neighbourhood, sat beside you in the classroom, or hung around the same places you did in the playground. In high school, there were friends who you identified with because you had the same interests or you were in similar "cliques" according to your status. In my era, there were punks and greasers, there were geeks and jocks. I mostly hung out with the geeks :-). I kept a few friends from that time in my life and still see them from time to time. When you enter the working world, you don't have a sense of where people come from as much as how you relate to them. Work provides the common experience and time away from work is where you develop your friendships and common interests. Most of my friends today evolved from where I worked. I have had many wonderful aquaintances, students I've taught and enjoyed the company of, people I've met through this experience or that. But my core friendships are from a place I started working at 20 years ago whom I've kept in touch with, although most of us have moved on since then. I have, in the last couple of years, really come to understand the significance and the importance of my good friends. There is a group of us who get together once a year and go to a spa for the weekend. We have done this now for several years in a row, and each year it has become more and more significant for me, something to really look forward to. I don't need to "escape" so much as I need to be with my friends for that one weekend where we can all laugh our heads off and be as silly or stupid as we want, as well as talking through our personal struggles, support each other and have some quiet time in a place far away from our everyday lives. I hope that I can return to my friends what they have given to me: love, compassion, humour, acceptance, and above all, the feeling that we are in it together. When I was a young mother and my first daughter began to go to school, I would drop her off, and on some occasions I'd take my younger daughter to McDonald's for a treat...she would have pancakes and play on the indoor rides they had, and I would sit with my Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee. Almost every time I was there, I'd watch the same group of ladies, all in their 70's and 80's sitting together and enjoying themselves and each other. At the time I remember thinking that it was a pretty boring thing to do...join each other at McDonald's every morning. What kind of life is that? They had a good time, but I could not, for the life of me, relate. Fifteen or twenty years later, I get it. I can now visualize my friends and I many years from now still trying to keep in touch, getting together for a coffee or visiting each other wherever we may be...making each other laugh, and truly valuing what we have. It isn't about McDonald's. It's about making time to be together. May you always have a friend, and more importantly, may you always BE a friend.
The only way to have a friend is to be one. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Through The Hoop

Well, it has been almost a month now since my Dad went into the care facility. I thought I'd provide a little update to those of you who have made mention of reading this blog. I am actually in Richmond where my folks live at the moment, on my regular monthly visit to help out. Today I went to visit my Dad by myself, and had some enlightening moments of conversation with him. First of all, he is doing well. When he first moved there, he was rooming with a fellow named Hugh. Well, Hugh is a very sweet old guy, but he likes to wear a full suit to bed at night! So my Dad would have to watch Hugh go through his ritual of getting his shirt and tie on, followed by the suit pants and jacket, socks and yes, even shoes...every night! One of the first times I went to visit Dad when he was with Hugh, I found all kinds of Dad's things mixed in with Hugh's things. It was hard to say if it was one or the other of them getting mixed up as to where things should go. I would call Dad and ask "So how is Hugh?" and he would tell me "Well, every night he wears his suit to bed...he's a little off his whacker, you know," and tell me all about it as if for the first time :-) Eventually, the staff thought that Dad would do better with another fellow named John, so they moved him to that room. My Dad's name is also John, so the staff decided to call my Dad Jack (being as Jackson is his last name). I'm sure my Dad found it confusing at first to be called Jack...life is confusing enough with dementia! What the heck did we have for breakfast again??? Who is Jack and why do you keep calling me that??? But Dad and John took to each other immediately. I met John once, and he was a real sweetheart. He was 92, and had a bad heart so he wasn't feeling all too well most of the time. And unfortunately, only about a week after they started rooming together, John was taken to hospital and died of heart failure. Poor Dad. He was pretty devastated. When John's family came to take away his belongings, they gave Dad his nice watch. This was a very sweet and generous thing to do, and I think they knew how much John and my Dad had enjoyed each other in those last days. All the reports I've had are that Dad takes part in just about every activity. He's never played Bingo, never participated in Yoga or water colour painting in his life. But he does now! He joins up with just about every activity they provide. The nurses all like him...he's one of the few who can actually talk and bestow his charms upon whoever he comes into contact with. I'm sure he tells them the same stories over and over, but they are a caring and friendly staff and he enjoys them. I try to call every couple of days. He doesn't have a phone in his room yet, so I have to bother the nursing staff to fetch him so we can talk for a few minutes. He always sounds cheerful and happy to hear from me, and even though he can't remember what he did that day, I know from the reports from everyone else that he is very much involved in whatever he can do. So I'm happy now that he has settled in. Today when I went to visit him I found him in the TV room. Most of the people there were in wheelchairs, pretty much out of it, either asleep or in a dementia daze. There was a lovely old Chinese woman sitting beside Dad and I think they were chatting a little. I came up and he looked at me as if he was surprised to see me. Well, he's always surprised to see me even when I tell him I'm coming :-) We walked arm in arm to a lovely garden that is part of the complex. He hasn't had much of a chance to enjoy the garden yet because the weather has been cool and damp since he's been there. But today it was lovely and sunny and warm. We walked to the gazebo and sat in the big wicker chairs and chatted. And I asked him "So Dad, how are you doing here?" And he said "Well, I think I have adjusted to it." "Good, I'm happy to hear that." I said. "You know..." he went on, "when I first got here I wanted to get the heck out." I was surprised at his candor. "But now I feel comfortable and I'm doing okay." He would never have admitted his discomfort at the time, I know that about him. And I'm almost sorry to know he felt that way. But on the other hand, if he had said something I would have felt even more horrible about leaving him there. And now that has passed, and he has become accustomed to his new living arrangements...and it doesn't matter anymore. I worry when I leave him that he might be a little sad. But today, we passed the activity room as I was about to leave, and he decided to join in with them. They were playing basketball. Well, basketball for a bunch of elderly and incapacitated people means a hoop sitting on the floor, and everyone in a wheelchair or a chair being given the ball to throw in. Immediately one of the staff helped Dad to a chair...."we need you on this team!" she said. She gave him the ball. He had three chances to throw it in. My Dad always considered himself "uncoordinated". He couldn't dance. Well, he could, but it sure wasn't pretty. A leg would go up in some kind of strange kick, arch position...it was mostly hopping. He wouldn't participate in sports or anything like that...he was one of those kids who would have been the last to be picked for the team. But today, he confidently took the ball and held it to his eye, staring down the hoop in the centre of the room. I held my breath. The room got quiet. He took aim, and then threw it. And he got it in. Everyone applauded, "good for you!". He was handed the ball again...and he got it in a second time. More applause. Third time, he again took his slow aim, and got it in. As the last applause rang out, I decided it was a good time to go. He had long forgotten that I was there anyway, and I had a big smile on my face watching my Dad get the ball in the hoop three times, just as if he was my child accomplishing something for the first time. Funny how life works out, isn't it?

Thursday, March 13, 2008


The other day, our family had to move my Dad into a care facility for the first time. Things at home were getting too difficult and the decision had to be made. We were told that we would be given 48 hours notice once a space became available.

And then it was about sitting on pins and needles, trying to prepare emotionally for what was to come. I had just come back from a trip to Maui when the evaluation was done, and had to speak to my Dad, explaining what was going to happen. Because of his dementia, this was difficult. On several occasions I had to tell him again, and it was as if he had to get used to the idea all over again each time.

My Dad is a pretty easy going and adaptable person, and on those occasions when it had sunk in for a time, he would assure me that he knew it was inevitable and that he would get used to it.

What it really came down to was ME getting used to it, along with the rest of the family. It is literally a life-changing experience for a whole family to have to put an elderly family member into a care home. You have to adjust your thinking about everything. How will you stay in touch, how will you know when they need something, who will take care of the medications, the laundry, haircuts, what do you do when you want to take them out? There are clothes and other items to mark with his name, there are countless papers to fill out...some of them regarding future possibilities that are not too pleasant to think about. There are literally dozens of questions littered amongst the fears and anxieties and the doubts about whether or not you are doing the right thing.

There have been questions about elderly care homes in this province (as I'm sure there have been in many other places), and whether or not they get enough funding or have good and qualified staff who are able to pay enough attention to all of the residents. There have even been occasional stories about abuse in these facilities. Only a few days before my Dad was to go in, there was a story on the radio of some such abuse. It certainly wasn't the greatest thing to hear just then, nor is it at any other time, for that matter.

Every three months I take my Dad to one of his doctor's appointments in Vancouver. I live in Victoria, so I have to travel on the ferry each time. Every time we go, my Dad introduces me to his doctor :-) He forgets that I have been at every appointment he's had there! The doctor said to me once that I would be surprised at how many people abandon their elderly parents once they become less able to take care of themselves. Who am I to judge others and their situations? But I don't understand how it is that we have such little respect, sometimes, for those in our midst who have worked so hard for so many years and are now dependent on ourselves and others to care for them. These people who have so little time and energy to devote to their elderly parents seem to have no idea that they may also, one day, be in the same position. Maybe there will be some karma to pay!

For me, this has all been a very real lesson in impermanence. Nothing stays the same, not even for a moment, no matter how static and still and solid it might seem. If you sit and watch a flower bud long enough, you will see it bloom. And if you sit for some time longer, you will then see it wither and fall. In Buddhism, we learn about letting go rather than grasping and clinging to objects of our desires, to memories and circumstances and to people. This is an extremely difficult aspect of the teaching, and right now I'm in the middle of a great struggle between wanting things to be the same as they always have been and knowing that it is impossible. I am lucky to have wonderful and kind and supportive friends and family to help me through my heartache.

And my father is still here, he is still able to laugh and joke, and to walk in the garden, share a cup of coffee and chat a little about the inclement weather. His world has become a little smaller and a little different, but he is still here.

I love you, Pop.