Monday, January 31, 2011

Skating My Joy

Deb: Swish swish swish. All I hear is the slice of my blade and the beat of my heart. Although I am the only person on the rink, I go as decorum dictates, counter clockwise, ever the good girl. The ice and I are married, linked by the steady rhythm of my amateur glissade. The ice supports me and propels my form as I etch my mark into its beautiful sleek self. Although I am skimming far and long, I reach no physical destination. But ohhhhh where my mind and body are going! 

I am thinking not about work or life or sorrows or successes. I just am. Spontaneous meditation. Joy. Joy. Joy. I am alive.

My blade hisses sweet grateful tingling taps that resonate deep within my  body and soul. The cold air snapping my cheeks and my tingling toes are my only reminders that this is real. This is happening now. It’s a celebration and I am the only guest.

I came to this party in the beginning prompted by a desire for winter exercise and as a reminder of my youth. What it has come to mean to me is something I could have never dared dream. I am in heaven. This is prayer to me.

Barbara: What a beautiful ode to your mode of prayer, Deb. You have brought me right into the zen of meditation just by reading this (which is good because I have so little equivalent outlet, save my weekly yoga).

Deb skates virtually ever day, even keeps her skates in her car because, to quote her, “Then I can just stop and do a few minutes on my way to the grocery store. Skating doesn’t always have to be an event I plan for.” I was stunned by the simplicity of this logic. You know, you have to plan to go to the gym or do yoga or meet your friends for a run, right? But if there’s no sense of responsibility to the event, then you can sneak it in anytime it fits. And you maybe get to enjoy this kind of dream-like, meditative, beautiful awareness of life almost by accident, unplanned for.

Deb took me skating the other day. We have a new outdoor rink in my neighbourhood that she had to try. It had been a while since I’d skated, but I was game. I can always handle winter if I’m embracing it somehow. And she was right, the rink was gorgeous, a large figure eight around naturalized hillocks. And she was right again—despite the fact that we were chatting as we skated (not usually associated with zen or prayer) and having to avoid rambunctious 10-year-olds who did NOT respect the rink “decorum”––it was soulful and rejuvenating. I think we both could have stayed out there for hours if we didn’t also have “stuff” to do.

Maybe I’ll keep my skates in the car and go meditate on my way to the grocery store.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Kindness Of Strangers

Barbara: I had to wait for my daughter the other day because she had an interview in an out-of-the-way place and needed me to take her there and home afterward. Thing is, the interview might last anywhere from half an hour to a couple of hours (as luck would have it, it took two). Now I’ve been wading through an intensely difficult and distracting revision of a 300-page manuscript, so decided that I would ensconce myself in the nearby Starbucks and get some work done.

It was snowing out, just climbing up from a frigid -20, and I didn’t like the look of the cold, hard-backed chairs that I could have chosen. I wanted plush and cozy. Well, wasn’t there a nicely plush and cozy chair right next to an older gentleman––Stranger––who was enjoying his coffee and was deeply immersed in the local paper. I asked if he minded if I sat in the chair next to his; he said of course. I pulled out my computer, and off I went, plunging into the dark world that I had created and was now irrevocably changing. 

Twenty minutes passed and then Stranger, apropos of nothing, very gently asked me what I was working on. Now, this happens to me a lot at Starbucks. Older gentlemen, friendly, curious, possibly retired men enjoy engaging the people around them, and a light-hearted question is often thrown my way. The ensuing conversation usually lasts just minutes and I’m always glad I’ve partaken. It’s the real-life version of blogging or Facebooking—getting to know a little about a fellow human being that you wouldn’t otherwise get to know. And older people who try to engage you are always ALWAYS fascinating. They have so many stories, such a wealth of experience, and––if they are compelled to talk to you––are probably pretty good raconteurs.

No different with Stranger––yet Stranger was utterly different. He was a retired sociology professor and, MAN, did we have a conversation. We spoke about everything from my work to his work to marriage to love to our tribal natures to world politics (which I know very little about, but with the incredible catch that he was an Israeli dedicated to sustaining the Jewish faith in modern times and I was of German descent who struggled with guilt issues).

Anyway, long story short: I met someone incredible in that Starbucks who I would never otherwise have met had I been closed off to human interaction. So this is one part shout-out to my new Friend (who has no idea I’m blogging here), one part encouragement to you to lend an ear to a wise person, and another part pat on my own back. You heard me: ON MY OWN BACK. I’m not ashamed to tell you––in fact I want to shout it to you––that, yes, he was a kind stranger, but so was I. And I feel immensely, incredibly lucky that because of an initial kindness, his by letting me sit next to him, mine by letting him interrupt my work, my world opened up plus one.

I just had to share that with you.

Deb: Barb, the kindness of strangers is one of the many things that can make my day. I can strike up a conversation with a can of soup and have been known to do so. I love love love chatting with people and having moments of connection. My Mom, Dad, and brother are all like this. It is the only way of being I have ever known and it is glorious and satisfying. We all have the uggers moments in our day where people behave badly, so it is gratifying and life-affirming when we interface with a lovely face. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Praise Of Bald Men

Deb: I was aghast at headlines in England surrounding the marriage of Wills and Kate. Headlines like “Hair to the Throne?” mystify me. The concept––if you haven’t seen it yourself––is that William, he of the hottie persuasion, is losing said hotness as his hair disappears. The prevailing thought from more than a few morons is that he had to leap into marriage with Kate before the he lost the few full follicles he had left. There are some who feel that as his hair goes, so does his last shred of attractiveness. Conversely, does that mean that every man with a full head of hair is attractive? Ahhhhhh––NO.

Never mind how this undermines William himself, it also shows Kate in such a shallow light the mind boggles. Add to that the fact that she would have to be a notch above simple to have not sensed that this was coming.

This is a real button for me for obvious reasons. I myself have a husband who is bald. Not losing his hair, not thinning out––bald. He has been bald so long that it kinda surprises me to see him in our wedding picture with hair. I guess because I never see his damn hair. I am looking into his warm eyes and his beautiful face. And when he walks into the room I see my handsome sexy husband.

My Dad is bald and I guess when I was growing up, I saw a handsome man whom I adored. Never saw bald. Saw my sweet attractive Dad.

I guess what galls me is that baldness is always the brunt of jokes. From TV, film, dating dissing, all you need to say is “he’s bald” and conjured up is the quintessential loser, the person you would be loathe to date.

Why is bald the line in the sand? People with bad rugs even rank above the bald. ‘Cause hey, they’re doing something about it. They’ve fixed the bald. And yet most of the rugs are so bad, so hideous, so embarrassing that you have to marvel at this “fix” they have chosen. Look around at the sexy, wonderful bald men. Patrick Stewart, Sean Connery, Samuel Jackson, Bruce Willis, Michael Chiklis, LL.Cool J, Michael Jordan, Vin Diesel, Andre Aggassi and the list goes on. Do they get away with it because they are famous? Is that their “Get out of Hair Free” card?

In our politically-correct world we can’t make fun of anything anymore. Except apparently––BALD. Yep. No worries. Keep those jokes coming. He’s bald, for Godssake. It’s okay to make him feel like a troll living under a bridge. Deserves it. He’s bald.

Our son is 20 and he has gorgeous thick curly hair. He might lose it one day. Probably will. But he is handsome and kind and attractive and witty and funny and talented and smart. And his girlfriend would probably add sexy. None of that will fall out with his hair. But maybe it’s just easier for people to reduce all those adjectives to “ he’s the bald guy”.

Barbara: I can see how this might be something of a sore point (she says shiftily). If people start dissing something that you think is glorious, it does kinda boggle the mind. I hadn’t heard the Wills scandal. I think he is a very good-looking kid, hair in or out. But then I also think your husband is incredibly handsome, and so too the very excellent list of bald beauties you’ve compiled here. It’s poooooossssssible that I might have said “hair” over “bald” (again, shifty), but you have opened my eyes, Deb, to the blanket-statementness of that. And also made me recognize that my own husband probably doesn’t have quite the head of hair he once had and yet I never ever ever think about that. Only, like you, see the gorgeous sexiness.

Monday, January 24, 2011

When A Nag Is Not A Horse

Barbara: My daughter blurted out a comment the other day that hit a nerve. And while I don’t want to betray her confidence, I did think it was the kind of subject apropos to throw around here for a bit. She had something she wanted to discuss with her boyfriend but was worried she’d come across as a “nag”. This thing she wanted to discuss was neither a demand nor a recurring issue between them; it was more along the lines of a request that he might or might not like. Okay, enough about them. Now to the subject: ARE we nags, or do we FEEL like nags, or do our significant others BELIEVE we’re nags?

And whoa, Nelly, no hating on men, women, significant others, or nags for that matter, equine or other. Just a debate on the difference between how things are and how things are perceived.

Please believe me when I say I am not dissing my husband here—I love him madly, you know that and he knows that––but I will confess that over the years I’ve had my own issues with requests. If I bug him about the tap dripping, am I a nag? If he doesn’t feel like fixing the tap, does he make me FEEL like a nag (meaning, it’s my fault I feel this way) or has he actually ever SAID I was a nag? Honestly, I don’t know!

When I look back over the years, I can remember often feeling that I was a nag, but as I write this I’m not sure if that comes from a literal experience or from my own ingrained response that just because someone doesn’t welcome my suggestions (“Honey, would you mind fixing the tap?”) that their negative reaction turns into a REJECTION OF ME, thus turning the whole sordid affair into an implied accusation that I am a … NAG.

Over the years I’ve gotten a lot better at not twisting people’s responses into indictments against me (it’s win-win, if I misinterpret, I’m an idiot, and if I’m right, I don’t wanna know). But this nag thing keeps nagging at me. And the reason I brought up my daughter’s experience is because I thought their generation might be past all that (especially modern urban creative types). But clearly, no.

So, here’s what I told her—and what I try to tell myself. If you want something, there’s nothing wrong with putting it out there (even if it’s an unwelcome chore). And if the other person doesn’t like it, that doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Even if it takes 200 reminders that the tap needs fixing J

Deb: The word Nag has been around as long as I’ve been alive. And sadly it has always been attached to the female of the species. But I have seen male Nags. And really, to me, Nag simply means someone who is responsible. Someone who wants to get things done that need to be done. Man or woman. It is the person in a relationship that is trying to keep things in running order and keep things looking nice. 

I have witnessed first hand on occasion those who overuse the Nag moniker and they are scary. But my general take on it is that those who are calling someone a Nag, are generally those who don’t give a damn how anything works and are even less interested in keeping it in order.  Do I sound bitter? I have a husband who does more than his share. And a father and a brother who do the same, so I am really not speaking from family experience. My bitterness around this has nothing to do with personal experience. 

I just hate when woman are saddled with these unfair labels and I think that this one has been passed down through generations, which is probably what made your daughter cop to it. There is nothing naggie about this lovely girl. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Never Heard Of Them

Deb: I am standing in the checkout line at the grocery store and it occurs to me that I do not recognize one single human being on the front of one single magazine cover. In fact it has been some time since I have known these cover-of-magazine people. In fact if it hadn’t been for John Travolta and their new baby, it would have been like the checkout counter on Mars. As it was, I was staring at a nameless tabloid wasteland.

I remember when I was younger and I would mention a random actor or musician and my Dad would famously respond with “Neeeeeeeeeeeever heard of him.” I remember thinking how odd it was that he was so out of touch, and worse, didn’t seem to give a damn. I vowed that I would always stay current and know the latest celebs and music.
And then something happened. I stopped caring. Took me by surprise that did.

I have been able to stay fairly current as the boy makes me mix-tapes and has done so  for a long time. He calls them “Mother’s Mix” and I love them and listen to them often.
But the peeps on the covers of the magazines? Don’t know ‘em, don’t really wanna’.

Who are these cookie cutter creatures anyway? They all look the same to me. Different blonde versions of a skanky cyborg. And the guys all look like they were chiseled from the same rock. Six-pack, eight-pack, a dozen eggs! Geeze louise, do these guys live at the gym? Isn’t the point of “buff” to get some action for your efforts? And for the love of all that’s holy ... SHAVE! We get it. It’s that just tumbled out of bed look. But when the world is becoming overshadowed with five o’clock shadow, it’s time to break out the Gillette.

So, as a result, it has finally happened to me officially. I have decided I will spend more time living my life instead of reading the sordid details of someone else's. Plus it really makes me sad. I always think, “Man, what the hell must Martians think of us?” Then I get really embarrassed for humans and our rep in the Galaxy. Sheesh.

So as the US magazine shouts out to me that Brett Michaels has gotten engaged to Kristie Gibson, I can’t help but proclaim, “Neeeeeeeeeeever heard o’ them.”

Barbara: Oh, this so hit a nerve, Deb. I used to looooooove glancing through gossip rags as I waited in line at the grocery store. Why? Guilty pleasure, morbid curiosity, nosey snooping into how the other half lives? Sadly, all of the above. I didn’t actually buy the mags, but slurped up all my celebrity info via my 10-minute toe-tapping waits by the conveyor belt. It was intravenous gossip.

Nowadays those lines are no less boring, no less a seeming waste of time, but do I pick up those rags? No. Because the very thought bores me even more than the toe-tapping alternative. I too don’t recognize ANY of those people on the covers. And I’ve wondered countless times if it’s that fogey thing of being “out of the loop” or if the loop has gotten so ratty—with its Kardashians and its Snookies and its 16-year-old pregnant moms—that I’m loathe to imagine ANYONE actually interested in them. So:


And then I hear myself say, Well, if they were showcasing Natalie Portman, say, or someone like that, maybe I’d be interested. She’s young, she’s fresh, she’s hot. But really I like her because she’s a nice girl with an Ivy League brain who’s actually talented. And I hear myself say: WHY CAN’T THEY ALL BE LIKE THAT? A nice girl like Natalie Portman.

So I ask you again:


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When The Bugs In My Bed Are All In My Head

Barbara: I woke up the other night, my back itching like crazy. It was smack dab in the middle of the night—I was almost REM I was so out, I was so out I’d have to be pulled physically out of bed for any of nature’s calls––and so I was in no mood to discover the source of the itching. I’d rather have just flopped over and gone back to sleep and waited for a more godly hour. But my back had other plans.

This itching was driving me so absolutely crazy that I started to scratch and squirm. I wriggled and writhed. And THEN I remembered that there has been a lot of talk lately about bedbugs infesting city homes. Well, I live in a city. And they were especially infesting the homes of people who travel a lot. Well, Phil travels a lot. And suddenly I had to replay every article I’d ever read or report I’d ever seen, going through the nauseating lists of the ifs and whats of bedbugs. If they were bedbugs, then I’d have to completely overhaul my home, maybe throw out my mattress, maybe fumigate the entire place, toxins infiltrating every nook and cranny. And what were bedbugs anyway? Minute, invisible creatures that attacked and disappeared, that were impossible to trap, that crawled up out of the darkness of your precious sleep-space, ate voraciously of your flesh, then crawled away again, leaving no evidence of their route except drops of blood on your sheets.

Of course I spent way way too long considering all this and not getting up to see for myself if there was any actual evidence on my body of these scurrilous creatures––beyond the itching. It was twofold: the aforementioned mid-night laziness and the dread at having my fears confirmed. But finally I couldn’t take it anymore. At the very least I had to put something on my itchy skin or I’d be up all night.

I managed to heave myself up and out and I stumbled to the bathroom. Then I got a handheld mirror and positioned myself to look through it into the large bathroom mirror so I could inspect my back. It was inconclusive. My vision was blurred from lack of sleep and my back was covered with incriminating red scratches. But all I could see when I looked closer were tiny bumps the size of rash-spots, not red or all congested like a rash, but spattered here and there like dead skin cells sloughing off. And when I googled bedbug bites—as we are so compelled now to do, right?—I saw how alarmingly awful they looked and how thankfully different from my own itchy skin. And, no, it wasn’t psoriasis either.

As I’ve told you all before, I am a habitual creamer, but despite that I think my skin is just really really dry from the cold air and the endless heating. I slathered on the cream and my itchiness abated. It is an unhappy skin I sport these days, but I will say this, it is a happy happy thing that it isn’t friggin’ bed bugs.

Deb: Okay, I can barely type, what with one hand busy scratching. Pavlov’s dog lives and I am he!

Barb, I think you showed great restraint frankly. When my mind goes to the dark place of anything, do NOT be in my path. In one sweeping motion I would have had the bed stripped, and my husband up, a flashlight combing his back. Then the mattress would have been turned on its end, inspected within an inch of its coils. The dogs would be barking and the lights in the house blazing. In the end, I would have been, as you were, covered in cream. I would have also been uttering a string of apologies to my disheveled husband and receiving a grunt in reply. And sleep? Fuggedaboutit! 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Deb and Barb Have A Three-Way

Deb and Barb Have A Three-Way With Hollye
Deb and Barbara met Hollye when she arrived on the scene here with her beautiful, heartfelt comments. Then we discovered her wonderful blog, Truth and Consequences, a touching, articulate examination of how we react to events around us, whether they are world issues, community politics, or personal upheavals. Hollye is also a gorgeous singer, which you can discover for yourself if you follow the links on her site.
Hollye as Bunny
Hollye: If you had asked me ten years ago what I’d be doing in my late forties, I’d have said that my two children would be grown and out of the house, I’d be in college finishing that elusive degree, travelling all the places I used to dream about, and finally writing that book I’d always had in my head. I expected to be sipping espresso in a café in Paris, lost in deep contemplation, engulfed in the reinvention of myself at mid-life. But here I am in this bunny suit.
Not exactly what I had in mind, and yet, I couldn’t be more grateful. My life is a clear illustration of that saying Man plans, God laughs.
Here’s where my plans went awry. I had a surprise pregnancy at forty-one (and OH what a surprise). Then at forty-six my college-attending son broke the news of his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy. She was also a Japanese exchange student, losing her housing, and they’d need a place to live.
Today we have six people living under our roof. I spend my days chaperoning field trips, changing diapers, rocking the baby, kissing scraped knees and volunteering as the Easter Bunny….
The reality of who I am now is so far from the expectation. Life is funny that way. You ask the universe for apples and you get oranges, but hey, I’m not complaining. Every shock became a great blessing. So on the days that Taylor’s band is rehearsing downstairs at deafening levels while the cat is puking, the dogs are chasing each other through the house, the baby is teething and my five-year-old is hanging from the chandeliers, I take a deep breath and remind myself how quickly these years will pass, and how I’ll yearn for them when they’re gone.
So I guess its no café in Paris for me, at least not right now. But hey––I still wrote that book! I strive to be a writer in the midst of constant interruptions and pre-menopausal memory failures. Yes, it’s hectic, but as a person who loves story, I watch the daily goings on and say to myself I couldn’t write this any better.

Barbara: Hollye, this idea of how we thought we would be versus how things turned out is such a fraught subject, I’m THRILLED you brought it up. My friend Charlotte often quotes me as having said many years ago, “I want an extraordinary life, not an ordinary one.” The good thing about that mantra is that is encourages you to keep going despite any setback, it convinces you that anything is possible, and it inspires you to always shift the lens to change the view when the image isn’t quite what you had hoped. BUT it can also make you overlook the beauty of your ordinary life in all its extraordinariness.

I remember distinctly the idea I had in my head of myself as an adult when I was 10 or 12: a coiffed brunette wearing a spaghetti-strapped white clingy dress holding a mic and singing my heart out on stage in front of thousands. I was SURE that’s who I was going to be one day. It didn’t matter that I was a skinny blonde with absolutely no singing talent whatsoever. What I did do was write, write, write. 
Barbara at 10 doing what she loves best
Later I thought I was going to be an actor, star of screen and stage. This is also when I gave up writing, believing a careless grade ten English teacher who made a point of telling me that I didn’t have any talent. But with visions of stardom dancing in my head, did I go to Hollywood and try my luck? No, I had babies and loved them and loved my cozy life here in Toronto. My husband and I settled in for the count. But that picture kept clinging: me starring in countless projects and always having the opportunity to do this thing I love…. That didn’t quite work out either.

BUT because of that setback, I found my way back to writing. And here I sit, laptop on hand, chatting with you guys, something I COULD never have dreamed, and diving into all that is extraordinary within my “ordinary” life. Like you, Hollye, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Deb: Hollye, I always think we go through our lives hoping to do what we want to do, and in the end we find that we ended up doing what we were called to do. Certainly that doesn’t mean you still can’t travel the world and follow your dreams but clearly there are other pressing things to take care of first.

We figured when the boy left (almost three years ago now) that we might sell the house and buy an apartment in NYC or travel to our passion places. But my Mom and Dad, as it turned out, need us at this time of life and we just can’t go. I had no idea what a gift it would turn out to be. Giving back to them has not even scratched the surface of what they have given to me in my life. I am on an adventure, just not the one I planned.

And for the record, the most beautiful picture of you sipping wine on a balcony in Paris would never compare to the shot of the Hollye Bunny! Makes me smile every time I look at it. But keep dreaming that dream, girl! It will become reality ... one day.

Hollye Dexter is freelance writer, blogger, and author of the memoir Only Good Things. She is also a singer/songwriter with four albums out. She founded two nonprofit organizations, running intergenerational arts programs for senior citizens and teenagers in the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems. In 2007 she received the Agape Spirit award from Dr. Michael Beckwith (from The Secret) for her work with at-risk youth. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.

Friday, January 14, 2011

I'm Not Judging

Deb: I’m not judging. Or am I?

Yes, as it turns out, I am! And so are scores of others it would seem. There will always be catch phrases to jump on. “Happy Campers” comes to mind.  And TV gives us some great ones. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

Lately I have noticed one phrase that has gone viral. “I’m not judging.” I have been using it with self-righteousness for about a year. And proud??? You betcha. Cause you see ... I’m not judging!!! And by saying I am not judging before I say anything proves that in fact ... I am NOT judging. Didn’t you hear me? Not judging.

What a lovely helpful phrase. It is like a get out of jail free card that allows the user to well ... judge.

I REALLY thought it was good. This lovely little phrase set me up as a fair and unbiased person. You are gossiping? Not me. I am NOT JUDGING. Except as it turns out, I was judging. I was using the catchphrase as an excuse to judge. As a prelude to a judge. As judgie foreplay. Judgie mcjudges alot! And no one was more shocked than I to discover the truth behind this false proclamation.

So I have come to a conclusion about this overused phrase that has been my stalwart go-to. There are only two times you can use the phrase “I am not judging” and really get away with it. One is when you say “I am not judging” and then you let lose with a litany of over-the-top judgments! This is good. This is irony and we love irony. Irony is ironic and it makes us laugh. The second time is when you say “I’m not judging” and then say nothing else. People will wait for your judgment with baited breath as they have come to expect it following this judgie disclaimer, but you will not follow through. Because you are REALLY not judging. Said it. Not judging. Nuff said. Not doing it.

I guess I fell into the trap of thinking if I said “I’m not judging” that people would take note of this and think I was a really really nice person. Look at her. Wow. She is not judging. I was wrong. If you are really not going to judge, just don’t. I am trying very hard not to. But sometimes I do. If you are, that’s fine too. Judge away. Judge yourself into a stupor. But don’t use the poor “I’m not judging” as your henchman.

From now on if I judge, I judge, although I will do my damnedest not to. And if I am not judging, I will just not.  But if you want to continue saying “I am not judging” even though you are judging, please don’t worry. I am not judging. 

Barbara: It’s true, Deb!! We use this phrase ALL THE TIME without even thinking, don’t we? How about “no offence”? Have you ever used that one? Not necessarily directly to someone, of course, like: “No offence, but your outfit sucks” (although I have been privy to that degree of “no offence”), but more in the vein of: “No offence to people who like liver, but it’s seriously disgusting.” Aren’t I still being offensive? And do I really need to give offence of any kind, even to weird liver-lovers? No, Deb, I’m with you––I’m going to try not to "judge" or give "offence" anymore. 

Unless of course I’m being ironic.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Helping Hands List

Barbara: On Deb’s Monday blog-post—her heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to a marriage through “worse”—Katie May gratefully acknowledged Sheila’s efforts and the example she was setting for her daughters, but also noted that: “One might think that her behaviour was ‘just natural,’ but believe me, it is not as common as one might assume.” It got me to thinking that sometimes we know what to do when our loved ones are going through tough times and sometimes we don’t.

So let’s powwow for a bit about what we think are the best ways—from a friendship point of view––to help each other when things are bad. (Yeah, I think it’s a rule that spouses and children do whatever they can for their ill loved ones, especially those on deathbeds. Doesn’t matter how hard it is. These are our peeps, our tribe. ‘Nuff said.}

So this is just a little suggested “bro/bra code”. Most of us aren’t called upon to help out our friends––to really be there––more than a few times a year. If times are really bad, maybe a month. And when you think of it that way, well then it’s just a handful of generosity within a whole world of it. We have it to give and it is the simplest thing, even if—for reasons I viscerally recognize but don't fully understand—we often think it is more than we can “handle”.

So while these might be painfully obvious to some, let’s offer some guidance to those for whom this is unfamiliar territory (for any reason from inexperience to self-consciousness). Some of the ways we can help each other get through the worst:

1)      *  When someone we know is struggling with a particularly hard slog, we can call and check in regularly.

2)        *  We can make a dinner. Or bring the baked goods. If we’re very well-organized or part of a bigger circle of friends, we can even time our dinners so they don’t all come on the same night (or we should make sure there’s room in the freezer if that’s where they will go). Our friend may not like our offering, they may not even get around to eating it, but even so, food is a balm and a comfort, and if it is eaten, it’s one less chore. (I once brought a few dinners to a neighbour whose mom had just died only to taste one of my usually reliable curry dishes AFTER THE FACT and realize it was actually kind of icky. Sigh. Although the pie––baked by my younger from scratch––was heavenly.)

3)      *   If we bring flowers, we could already vase and water them. When you’re exhausted, the last thing you want to do is unbundle and snip and search for stemware and … well, you get it… 

       *   We can ask our friend if there’s anything about their situation that confuses them. And if there is, we can make a few preliminary enquiries for them, or we can be there with them when some diagnosis is made or some directions are given so there are two sets of ears. 

5)       *   If news needs to be spread, be a list-maker of the need-to-knows. This is a relatively simple task but it’s often overlooked. Just like that good friend who somehow didn’t find out that your mom was in the hospital. Overlooking people makes the person who already feels bad feel even worse. Even if no one in this world would blame them.

6)      *   We shouldn’t forget that pain is incredibly cathartic—we will find ourselves laughing hysterically as often as we’re sobbing uncontrollably. Both are okay.

7)       *   If we really don’t know what to do for our friend, tell them and offer to do “whatever”. It usually depends on the friend. Some people have issues around accepting help (formerly guilty-as-charged, have since kicked that issue to the curb). We want to urge our friend to yield. Because it will be better for everyone (the giver and the givee).

8)        *  We shouldn’t be heroes. It’s not our time to shine. Fade into the background and be unobtrusive, gentle, kind.           

Add your own ideas to the list. Spread the word. We only have each other for better and for worse and no gesture will go unappreciated (even if the curry is icky). ( … I don’t think…)

Deb: Barb, what a great idea this is. I have lived and learned through too many crises to count, the things that work for the people who are suffering and the things that don’t. And given that I am doing just this right now for my dear friend, here are some dos and don’ts (in my humble opinion) for this.

* When taking food, spring for some tin foil containers or plastic containers that you don’t want back. There is nothing worse after receiving gifts of food than having to clean and figure out who brought what dish ... and RETURN IT to them!

* When visiting the home of a friend who is going through a crisis, look around. Do the dishes that need doing, check if a meal needs heating and serving. Can you clip a dead flower of a floral gift or water the fresh flowers? I always just do these things without asking because often the person will decline if asked but secretly hopes someone will do it!

* Listen.

*  Try to resist comparing crisis stories unless you think what you have to add will be helpful.

*  Human touch is welcome––hugs are worth millions.

* I am not a cook. I have one dish I make and cookies, so with my wonderful and talented friends who do cook, I do the pick-up and delivery.

*  If you have a gift to offer, it’s great to think outside the box.

* Do a phone chain or an email chain. Sometimes with older people who need to know what is happening, we forget they are not on email.

* Don’t forget that laughter is the best medicine!

* If your crisis involves a funeral or travel in anyway, offer to pick up people who may need a ride.

That’s all I can think of right now. I am sure you guys out there have a million others? 

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Marriage

Deb: Today is my 22nd wedding anniversary. As I have said in previous blog-posts, I have a happy wonderful marriage for which I feel truly blessed and grateful. But today, on the occasion of this anniversary, I am getting a first hand look into the heart and soul of another beautiful marriage. On our wedding day, I wonder how many of us really take it in when the phrase “for better or worse” is uttered? On that glorious day, none of us can really fathom that it is not always going to be better, like the eternally happy figures at the top of the cake.

Today I am celebrating my anniversary without my husband who is physically three thousand miles away, but emotionally tucked right into the heart of me. Right now I am sitting in the palliative care ward of Princess Margaret hospital in Toronto on this the second day of a loving vigil. I am here because of my darling friend Sheila and her wonderful husband Pete. Pete we are told, is in the last days of his life and the panic to grasp it is welling up in my already full heart.

Pete is in his bed sleeping, unable to communicate anymore, except occasionally with his eyes. He cannot move on his own or speak. And yet, his marriage is thriving.  I am watching Sheila sweetly talk to him as she wets the sponge that will moisten his lips. I see her cry rivers of tears, and seconds later laugh at a visitor’s funny story of Pete. She is loving him and clinging to him and watching him slip away from her. She is not grasping at him or begging him to stay, although I know she would like to.

She is simply honouring her love for him by working on their marriage. It is probably not the first time she has had to work on it. Heaven knows we all have to from time to time.
But today her marriage needs tending and she is tending it as bride, wife, and mother of his children.

Although she is powerless to stop this train in motion, she is loving him as if he were not going anywhere. She spends the day greeting their visitors and making them feel at ease, which is no easy feat during this heartbreaking drop-in. She has spent their marriage playing the consummate hostess, doing it with joy. These endless gatherings over the years would end I am sure with she and Pete clearing the dishes and talking over the night’s events. This one won’t. But you would never know it. Sheila is a dancer and although this is a dance she never wanted to perform, I have never seen her so graceful. With the grace of a prima ballerina she shifts effortlessly between repeating Pete’s condition to a newcomer, to comforting one of her beautiful daughters who has just broken down, and back to her husband’s side where she kisses and strokes him and reminds him that she is “right here, sweetheart”.

People kept asking me “how is she able to do it, how is she able to cope?” The answer is simple. She is tending to the “for worse” part as promised in their vows. The “better” has been their whole entire marriage. This is a “worse” no one should have to face. But she took her vows and she loves her Pete more now than she ever believed possible on that wedding day. And so, as hard as her task seems to those of us on the outside, I realized halfway through the day that it is actually an easy job for her. Easy to love him, easy to help him, easy to be his wife. Because that’s what she is for better or worse.

***Peter died tonight night within a half hour of the last visitor leaving. He was surrounded by his girls and he just quietly and gently slipped out of this world.

And every anniversary of our lives Colin and I will raise our glasses to Pete and Sheila,  filled with the precious reminder of what marriage is and should be.

Barbara: Deb, this homage to a marriage and to a deathbed vigil is absolutely heartbreaking and stunningly beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing their amazing story. I wish Sheila much love and strength and Peter everlasting peace.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Winter Closet

Barbara: I know I complain about the weather. I haven’t really hidden the fact that I’m fussy
Car buried in snow
that way, have I? I’ve harrumphed about the cold, the damp, the rain, the snow, here and to everyone else that will listen (even to Deb who will have none of it!). I can make peace with it, but still it’s the lack of sun and air that I find hard to navigate with good mood intact.

Okay, THAT SAID, I have to admit that I take a bit of a guilty-pleasure every Jan 1st because that’s when I really look forward to a few months of isolated hibernation … during which I can write, write, WRITE!!!

I mean, obviously I write year-round. It is my escape, my reward, my pleasure, my pain, my job, my obsession. There are so many stories and SO LITTLE TIME!! But there’s something about hunkering in for a long haul that has winter-respite written all over it. Like an endless snow day where the reward isn’t cocoa and TV, but disappearing into warrens of stories too complex to see the light of a summer day, too delicate to be interrupted for walks or gardening or the chores necessary for greeting guests. Winter (after the holidays) is not usually a time for greeting guests. That honour goes to lazy warm days and nights.

Person using fountain pen
So for me, winter has come to mean the glory of a good long cold-induced REVEL. A revel of creating and discovering. Of editing and re-editing. Then editing again. Of polishing and spit-shining and high-gloss-waxing. It is a time like no other for me to allow myself to “just do it”. Yeah, I said “allow”, but that’s because there is a certain surrender involved and surrender is only truly delicious when you don’t always GET TO give in to it. At least that’s how I feel.

Writing is my silk purse out of the sow’s ear that is winter. You?

Deb: And that is exactly what I was talking about when I discussed the weather and people complaining about it. So I am very glad you have your silk purse to get you through. As you know, my thing is to not sit in the bad feelings.  I simply refuse to be unhappy and complain when I know that every single thing I complain or feel badly about has good side. My goal is to always try to find that good side. Now I confess that with winter I did not turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, as winter is a frosted silk purse to me. But I am thrilled that you have found its gift for you!!!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I Never Get Sick!!

Deb: How often over the years have I heard someone exclaim, “I NEVER GET SICK”? It is
A man and woman sneezing with cold medicine sitting between them
always in response to my saying, “I haven’t been feeling too well”, or “I just got over the flu, cold, leprosy” or some similar claim.

The response “I never get sick” always amazes me for several reasons. First of all, it is clearly their way of saying to you, "I am superior to you. Your inability to fight common bugs makes you my human inferior." It is such an obvious status game and it really gets my goat.

This Christmas I declined to hug an old friend at a party because I was just coming out of a flu and didn’t want her to be exposed to any residual germs. She exclaimed loudly to the general crowd around us that she NEVER GETS SICK! I said, “Wow, I guess that makes me a big fat loser.” She looked as though I had struck her, but she had done this same damn thing to me for years. She never sees how rude and elitist that comment is, not to mention condescending.  But there you have it. She doesn’t see her rudeness and never will.  I was the rude one in her eyes.  But I don’t care. I have had it with this game. I have listened to this for years without saying a word.

Do they think I get sick on purpose, like this is something I can actually prevent? I take vitamins and wash my hands and take precautions, but sometimes a bug gets me. So piss off, you “never get sicks”! You do TOO GET SICK! You’re just too egotistical to admit it. If my only claim to fame was “I never get sick”, it would be a sad boast for a sorry life.

My name is Deb, I am human, and I do get sick! If you are some evolved form of humanoid then keep it to yourself or donate your body to science.

Barbara: Well, I never get sick. Because clearly I am a highly evolved humanoid. With super-
Man wearing superhero costume, cape overhead
hero powers to fight infection and disease. I strut through city streets and verdant glen oblivious to germs and illness.

Did you not know this about me, Deb? Have I not impressed you with my (albeit humbly silent) immunity??? Have you not wondered at my strength, my fortitude, my … what’s the word … perfection???

Sheesh. Well, okay then. You read it here, so let that be the end of it between us. I await (with reinstated humble silence) the imminent arrival of marveling scientists from around the world.

In the meantime, could you please pass the Kleenex?

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Night The Time Stood Still

Barbara: When Kathy wrote her beautiful post here about nature talking to us in times of stress, we shared a lot of interesting stories. I think I told you guys that one day I would share one of my favourite stories about my late father-in-law. I waited to share it because, well, yes because it’s so magical, but frankly, because it’s also a little too involved to summarize briefly. So here it goes:

My father-in-law lived most of his professional life in France. He and Phil’s mom divorced early on and they made their lives on opposite sides of the big blue. Despite the challenges of being a child of divorce and not getting to see his beloved father an awful lot, Phil did enjoy a few nice perks, from the privilege of enjoying a Canadian life to the benefits of vacationing close to the Alps and getting to be a part-time ski bum.

But after we married and had children, Phil’s father realized that retirement wasn’t quite as sweet when you’re thousands of miles from your closest loved ones. He decided to move to Canada, and he chose a beautiful apartment not too far from our house. For nine months we enjoyed his company, his cooking, and his selfless babysitting. Stefanie was in her third year, Michele in her first. The relationship between our kids and their grandfather was very special. Stefanie and Raymond would spend hours together over tea and cake having sophisticated tea parties (Stefanie was always Chanel-going-on-25). Michele, too young to talk, would nonetheless spend long minutes staring deeply into his eyes. Raymond once looked up after one of these staring sessions and famously proclaimed that she was a genius (we tend to agree with him).

Raymond was only 67 when he died suddenly from an asthma attack. We’d been waiting for him to come over for dinner and he never showed. Phil found him in his apartment, no sign of a struggle or pain, just random, comfortable signs of activity—him in his favourite chair, TV on to the news, a sketch pad nearby, and, most tellingly, his asthma inhaler balanced in his open hand. It was a devastating loss that is its own story of grief and mourning and recovery. But the memories he gave us were bright and shining and positive.

A few people received “signs”—Phil’s brother, half a world away and tinkering, oblivious, on his motorcycle, was swarmed by Raymond’s favourite bird––but for Phil it was all sadly necessary “business”: emptying his father's apartment, closing his accounts, tidying up loose ends.

And then, a few months after his death, something happened that we still talk about in amazed wonder. It was the middle of the night and we were all sound asleep when suddenly we heard a terrible crash. Phil and I flew out of bed—we were three floors above the main floor and higher up than Stefanie who slept on the second floor (this was one of those super-narrow semi-detacheds that you find in crowded urban neighbourhoods)––so you can imagine the speed and caution that we channeled going down those stairs (a big stick may have been wielded).

When we got to the ground floor, everything was still and quiet. Completely normal.

Yes, THE clock
And then we found a clock that Raymond had left us after he died lying prone on the floor. This clock is a large, beautiful copy of a classic Maltese clock. But it is a treasure in its own right: ornately carved, hand-painted, beautifully detailed. Somehow that night, apropos of nothing we could find, it had leapt from its hook (which was still firmly in place), unlatched its battery door, dispelled its battery, re-closed and re-latched the door, landed on the floor (several feet down) without splintering or chipping its wood or paint, and lay in one perfect piece with its time frozen.

Phil looked at the clock, then looked at me, pale and shaken. “The time,” he said, “look at the time.” I did, but still didn’t understand. Then it hit me—this was the eve of Michele’s first birthday. And the time that was frozen on the clock? It was the exact moment she had been born the year before.

Deb: I have heard this story before, but not as beautifully fleshed out as this. Barb, what a moment in your family history. I remember when we were just getting to know Phil on our first family ski trip together, he told this story of his Dad with all the pain and warm memories spilling out. I remember thinking how profound our parents’ deaths are for the rest of our lives, and how precious the memories for Phil. I will always think of Phil’s dad as supplying us with our first window into Phil’s soul. May he rest in peace.