Thursday, October 01, 2015

Changing seasons: holding opposites together

It was 3 degrees C when we got up this morning -- a rude shock to the system! It may be a cliche (or just a coping mechanism) to say it, but it is nice to live in a country where there are distinct seasons. I don't think the green profusion of spring would seem quite so glorious if it didn't come after the long, cold, dormancy of winter. And it feels both bracing and comforting to snuggle up in a sweater and pull on warm socks in the fall, after the slothfulness of muggy summer weather.

Writer Parker Palmer has some interesting things to say about the cycle of changing seasons, and how they invite us to embrace, rather than fight against, extremes:

In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other – they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter, and the Faustian bargains we make fail to sustain our lives. When we so fear the dark that we demand light around the clock, there can be only one result: artificial light that is glaring and graceless and, beyond its borders, a darkness that grows ever more terrifying as we try to hold it off.  Split off from each other, neither darkness nor light is fit for human habitation.  But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing.  - Quoted from "Seasons: A Center for Renewal" (Parker Palmer)

I hadn't thought of the changing of seasons as an exercise in "holding opposites together," but it makes sense. It's also an exercise in embracing change. After all, the coldest winter day may be diametrically opposed to the hottest summer one, and bright noontime sun is opposite to middle-of-the-night darkness -- but in fact the transition from day to night, season to season, doesn't happen instantly. It's a gradual process.

I don't really like change; I like what's familiar and comfortable. But the cycle of seasons forces me -- or maybe invites me is a better phrase -- to embrace change. It also  reminds me I'm not in control (as if trying to make a little boy eat the breakfast he ordered and is now refusing didn't tell me that already). 

Seasons are one of the most significant signs of God's providence of "wholeness and health" in the world. So I guess the best thing to do is to embrace and enjoy them -- and keep the gloves handy.

(photo courtesy of

Monday, September 28, 2015

One year after my mom's death: walking on ahead

The calendar says that today marks the one-year anniversary of my mom's death, so it must be true. But the cliche "It seems like only yesterday" is also true.  The details of the hours, days, and weeks before she died are still so clear, and I replay them in my mind so often, that it does seem like a very short time since we lived through them.

Here is the verse Dad chose for the memoriam to be placed in the newspaper today:

You've just walked on ahead of me, and I've got to understand,
We must release the ones we love and let go of their  hand.
I try and cope the best I can, but I'm missing you so much;
If only I could see you and once more feel your touch.
You just walked on ahead of me: don't worry, I'll be fine.
But now and then, I swear I feel your hand slip into mine.

This little poem is kind of sentimental, but I can see why Dad chose it. He and Mom were married for 55 years and knew each other pretty much since they were born, growing up only a mile away from each other.  I remember once when I was a kid, completing some questionnaire for school, and one of the questions we had to ask our parents was "How did you meet?" Dad answered, "We never met -- we were always together." To let go after a lifetime together is not easy.

My sister-in-law Carolyn is in the same place today that I was one year ago: watching and waiting.   Her mom is making the transition from this life to the next, saying goodbye to people she loves, and being released by them. It's hard. Nothing really prepares you for the experience of being there by the bedside, saying final words and knowing every breath the person takes could be the last. I can only imagine what Mom herself experienced as she crossed over.

Thinking of her as "just walking on ahead" is comforting. Mom was not a trend-setter or a risk-taker by any means, but she set out on her final journey with courage. Dad is facing his path bravely, too. I admire them both.

Missing you today, Mom. Someday we'll join you where you are. Don't worry about what's in the cupboard or whether the beds are made. Although we wouldn't mind a fresh batch of scones...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Our life in 34 seconds (with video!)


Last week Richard made this little video of Jonathan playing with his ball in the driveway while I was out for a walk.  It's pretty cute.

Here's a complete transcript of their conversation:

Jonathan: Where's Jonathan?  Dad...?  Dad... ?

Dad: Yeah?

J: How are you?

D: Good, Jon-Jon. How are you?

J: Jonathan walk.

D: Mom's gone for a walk.

J: Dad's coming walk.

D: Mom's gone for a walk.

J: Mommy ... Mommy ... Mommy walk.  Mommy coming walk.

D: Yeah, Mom's gone for a walk, hon.

J: Mommy coming walk.

D: Yes, sir.

J: Mommy's coming.

D: Mom's coming, hon, yeah.

J: Dad?

D: Yes?

This video captures Jonathan's true self perfectly.  He's so comfortable with a ball, flipping it up through the net several times and catching it effortlessly.

In case you missed it: he's also very repetitive.

This is just one example of what our life is like most of the time. Jonathan needs constant verbal feedback and reassurance about what's happening and what's coming next. A single "Mom's gone for a walk" doesn't end the questioning; he just keeps asking. And this one is a pretty happy example in comparison to some. Sometimes his questions and repetitions are angry and whiny and seemingly meaningless. Sometimes even when we give him the exact answer he seems to be seeking, he screams.

It can get slightly unbearable at times.

It's tempting to package this into an object lesson, something like 

"He's persistent, and God wants us to be persistent when we pray to Him."

"At least he's turning to the source of comfort -- his parents -- just like we should do with God."

But those just sound fake. 

I guess I'm just sharing this because it's a 34-second slice of our family's day-to-day experience. It's the truth of what we hear and see every day. It's sweet and annoying, delightful and mind-numbing, all at once.

It's real life.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

September "Quick Lit"

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's Quick Lit post to share what I've been reading. In the past two months I've read three novels and three nonfiction books, all of which were very good.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I just love Morton's writing. She's published four novels, and I've now read all of them. She has a new one coming out next month, though. (Next month!!?? How can we be expected to wait that long?)

At the beginning of The Secret Keeper, 16-year-old Laurel witnesses a crime involving her mother Dorothy and a strange man, but it gets hushed up and isn't mentioned again until fifty years later, when Dorothy is dying and her children come home to care for her.  Laurel's desire to find out what really happened between her mother and the stranger leads her even deeper into the past; Laurel discovers shocking truths about Dorothy's wartime relationship with her photographer boyfriend Jimmy and with her beautiful, aloof neighbour Vivien. Morton is brilliant at weaving a suspenseful plot that keeps you guessing right up until the final pages -- this book has a huge surprise that I don't think any reader could possibly see coming! --  while at the same time recreating the historical period in vivid detail and bringing to life characters that the reader can really care about.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. This novel is told from the viewpoints of Sarah, James, and Mrs. Hill, who all work as servants for the Bennet family from Pride & Prejudice. It's not a sequel, nor is it an attempt to reproduce Jane Austen's style; it's just an excellent stand-alone novel that imagines a possible back-story for P&P and that shows what life in domestic service in the 19th century would really have been like.

A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay is about Norma Joyce, an odd little girl growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1930's, and how her life and that of her sister and father are changed by the appearance of Maurice, a young botanist who comes to town.  At times Hay can be a bit "Hello, here I am being an accomplished writer!" but I was completely drawn into this story, mainly because Norma Joyce is such an interesting and unique character. Hay is great at plumbing the significance of small conversations and moments, and there's lots of beautiful writing, especially toward the end. Well worth reading.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson describes his attempt to hike the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail with his eccentric friend Katz.  It's very funny (for instance, after describing different opinions about whether one should run or play dead when confronted with a bear, he settles on run because "It will give you something to do with the last seven seconds of your life"); but it also gives fascinating information about parks and trail development, environmentalism, mining, and other issues in the United States. If you've read Cheryl Strayed's Wild, this book is very different:  Strayed's hike of the Pacific Crest Trail was a deliberate attempt to deal with her personal demons, whereas it's hard to imagine Bryson having any demons to deal with.

(I didn't know until after I'd finished the book that a movie version was coming out this month.  I'm not sure a movie could fully do justice to this book's delightful mix of humour, personal journey, and social commentary. Also, considering that Bryson and Katz were in their 40's when they did this hike, it seems weird to have their roles played by Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, who are in their 70's.)

Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary Writing by Julie Brown. Brown, a professor of literature, discusses several famous authors including Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, and Lewis Carroll: in each instance she gives convincing evidence for the possibility that the writer was on the autism spectrum, and then explores how that fact affected the writer's genre choices, subject matter, themes, and style. Then in a final chapter she looks at several autobiographies by people with autism or Asperger's, including Temple Grandin.

Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet.  Tammet is one of the people Brown (above) includes in her chapter on autism autobiographies. He is an English man in his 30's who has Asperger Syndrome and is also a savant with incredible memory and mathematical abilities. He experiences numbers as having colour and texture, and he can do complex calculations and recite Pi to over 22,000 digits. He also has an incredible facility with languages and was able to learn Icelandic (an extremely difficult language) in a week. Tammet tells of his struggles and triumphs in a clear, engaging style.

What have you been reading lately?

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Teen scene: happy birthday, Jonathan

Jonathan is thirteen years old today.

How is it possible that this cheerful, chunky-cheeked six-month-old

-- or this angel-faced four-year-old --

is now this teenager who is nearly as tall as I am?

When Jonathan was born, he was a big, plump butterball.  He was an extremely fussy baby much of the time -- especially at bedtime -- but he could also be very placid. I remember when Jonathan was just a few months old, a couple from our church brought a young man to church with them; he was an Asian graduate student who struggled with depression. We would give Jonathan to him to hold, and Jonathan would lie in his arms in total serenity. It seemed to make this young man feel serene and peaceful too. The wife of the couple commented to me at that time, "Jonathan has a ministry."

Thirteen years later, I can say that that's still true. I wouldn't use "placid" to describe Jonathan anymore; in fact, living with him is challenging (exhausting? infuriating?) in a lot of ways. But that's not what I'm focusing on today. The fact is, Jonathan has a gift of making people happy.

- Everyone he meets is a friend.

- He spreads encouragement, calling out "Excellent job!" to the recycling-truck guy, the McDonald's employee putting trash in the garbage bin, and the total stranger shoveling snow.

- His pleasure in the things he sees around him -- airplanes in the sky, laundry on the line, wind turbines, garbage trucks -- makes other people stop and smile.  

- He has some amazing skills that are impressive to everyone who observes them. For instance, he has always had remarkable ball-handling and basketball-shooting skills.  (Doing "yellow-blue-red" -- see photo -->

every day for the past five years or more must have something to do with that.)  He's phenomenal at doing jigsaw puzzles.  He's also got extremely acute senses: he can see the tiniest, most distant airplane in the sky; he hears a helicopter about ten seconds before anyone else does; and he has a very accurate sense of smell. He can even identify what he smells on your breath: "Smell yogurt" or "Smell wine." (There has to be some way to channel these abilities into lucrative careers: Harlem Globetrotter? Sommelier?)

- A primary teacher at his school (whose class Jonathan has never been in) told me, "Jonathan is such a gift to our school. When we talk about people who are special or different and how much we can learn from them, the kids will say 'Just like Jonathan' and 'That's right, we have Jonathan.'"

The world is a funnier, happier, and more interesting place because Jonathan is in it. If that's what "having a ministry" means, then I guess he does.

Happy birthday, Jonathan. And yes, we'll be having cake.

... and candles. 

... and presents.