Saturday, March 28, 2015

Not just a scone: remembering, waiting, hoping

(photo courtesy of Dancing Goat Cafe, Margaree, NS - used by permission)

Today marks six months since my mom died.  Although this may seem like a strange way to commemorate this milestone, I'm posting a picture of a cranberry-almond scone from the Dancing Goat Cafe in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  Mom and Dad went to Cape Breton a couple of times in the past few years with their close friend Linda.  This cafe, and these scones in particular, were a special favourite of Mom's.

Last summer when Mom became sick, and before we knew just how sick she really was, one of her most significant symptoms was that she lost all interest in food.  We spent a lot of time trying to think of things she might like to eat, but with little success.  She would say wryly, "Dad thinks if I just start eating again everything will be fine."  And I guess he did think that.  We all did:  we thought -- hoped --  that Mom's illness was something relatively minor like an infection, or tiredness due to stress, and that when her appetite returned, so would her strength and health.

One day during that time Linda's daughter Deb, who is also a close friend of my parents, dropped by the house.  She had been in Cape Breton and brought back a box of cranberry-almond scones from the Dancing Goat Cafe.  We asked Mom if she'd like one, and she thought she might.  She ate a quarter of a scone, and we practically celebrated.  We defaulted to those scones many times over the next few days when no other food seemed to interest Mom; she would eat a few bites and seemed to enjoy it.

But her appetite never really returned.  Not long after this, she was hospitalized; a few days after that we received her cancer diagnosis; and she lived only six more weeks.

I spent the last week of Mom's life at the apartment with her and Dad.  Many other relatives and friends came in and out during that time.  One day Deb visited again with her friend Dorothy, whom Mom also knew.  Mom's face lit up enthusiastically when the girls came into her room, and she asked Dorothy how things were in Cape Breton; then she quickly drifted back into unresponsiveness.  I stepped out to let them have some time with her, and I marvelled at my almost-80-year-old mom being visited by two young women in their twenties, to whom she was a beloved friend.

Later that week I answered the door and there was Deb again, this time with another friend named Saskia.  (She had gone to my parents' church for several years, and her parents were friends of Mom and Dad's as well.)  Both girls were carrying two big white bakery boxes, and each box contained six cranberry-almond scones.

Mom couldn't eat anything more at that point, and she died just a couple of days later -- so she never did taste one of those scones. But really, that didn't matter.  What mattered was what they symbolized:  love.  Not just a stingy little crumb, but love in all its extravagance.  The message was, "You love these.  We love you.  So we'll bless you with them, lavishly, because we can.  While we can."

A famous quote by the writer Marcel Proust, in which he meditates on the memories that the mere taste and smell of a cookie evoke, says this:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.   

- Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time)

Having been through this experience with my mom, I've been reminded that the smallest thing can have great significance.  A scone can be more than just a scone.  It can be a symbol of love -- one that remains, persistent and faithful, long after the breaking and scattering.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Quick Lit" for March: great fiction and non-fiction

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly "Quick Lit" post to share what I've been reading.  I didn't participate last month, so this post contains two months' worth of books.

 All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr).  I was surprised and excited to receive this book as a gift from a generous, thoughtful online friend.  It's such a great book that I know I won't be able to do justice to it in a couple of paragraphs, but I'll try.  

The novel focuses on two young people:  Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl who flees to the walled citadel of St-Malo with her father (a locksmith at a natural history museum) to escape Nazi occupation; and Werner, a German boy who, because of his mechanical skills -- particularly with radios -- ends up in a brutal training school for Hitler youth.  Their parallel stories are told in short, alternating chapters that steadily build suspense.  Werner slowly succumbs to being a cog in the Nazi machine, and Marie-Laure is wrenched away from the safe world her father has shaped for her  -- until their two stories converge in 1944 and they each seize the opportunity to act with courage and heroism.  

Doerr is an amazing writer who can show us a scene and make us feel it using just a few words:  for example,  "A vault of stars hangs overhead; the collective breath of the cadets mingles slowly, nightmarishly above the courtyard."  Although there is dread and horror in both Werner's and Marie-Laure's stories, there is magic threaded through the whole book as well.  Part of that magic has to do with a myth about a rare and coveted jewel, but beyond that fairy-tale element there are also themes of music, science, adventure, and the power of radio to communicate and connect (something we may not be able to fully appreciate in 2015).  It's a sad book, yet it's also beautiful; and it uses an original style and two unique characters to give a fresh portrayal of a time period that's already been widely written about.


Fierce Convictions:  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More -- Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Karen Swallow Prior).  Although Hannah More's name is not well known today, this biography may change that.  In 18th/19th-century England, More was an influential writer, teacher, social reformer, and participant in the battle to end the slave trade.  Although her upbringing as a schoolmaster's daughter was modest, as an adult she moved in elite literary, social, and political circles and was a friend of William Wilberforce, Samuel Johnson, and John Newton, among others.  More had the ability not only to see a need but also to use her energy, connections, and other resources at her disposal to meet it.  It is inspiring to read how More, her sisters, and her friends mentored and exhorted one another in their efforts to do God's work in practical ways such as teaching the poor to read, writing edifying books and tracts to encourage virtuous living, and advocating for the humane treatment of animals.  Swallow Prior is an engaging writer, striking the perfect balance of scholarly detail and good storytelling to bring the "winsome" More to life for the reader.  And while the hilarious foreword by Eric Metaxas will make you want to  -- ahem -- "read more," Hannah More's life and accomplishments will keep you reading.


 Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers (Leslie Leyland Fields).  I won this book in a draw on the author's website.  While I don't identify directly with the specific issues it addresses, I read Fields' blog regularly and always appreciate her writing.  (I was also interested in the subject matter in more general terms, having read Fields' rebuttal of a particular aspect of Desmond Tutu's writings on forgiveness.)

Drawing on her own experience with an emotionally and physically distant father, and on the stories of others, Fields explores the process of forgiving parents and moving into healing and freedom.  The book focuses on themes like honouring the dishonourable, acknowledging our common humanity, and reclaiming the past.  I appreciate how honest Fields is in sharing the messiness and uncertainty of this process:  her anger and helplessness when visiting her father, her uncertainties about what to say and how, and her regrets around her father's death.  These admissions remind us that real life is rarely tidy like the movies.  Yet the book is also empowering because it shows us that even if "they didn't" or "she can't" or "he won't," maybe we can.  Maybe we can reach out, forgive, be present, and speak words of healing -- not just to free and heal ourselves, but also to help bring restoration and hope into seemingly hopeless situations.


The Center Cannot Hold:  My Journey Through Madness (Elyn R. Saks).  I saw this book mentioned in a post on Laura Droege's blog and was intrigued enough to get it from the library and read it.  Saks, a successful law and psychiatry professor, has lived with schizophrenia since she was about eight years old.  This engrossing memoir deals with her struggles to achieve academic and professional success, her experiences with therapists, her love-hate relationship with medication, and her social and personal challenges.  A tough book, but triumphant.


The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes).  The narrator, Tony, looks back on his youthful friendship with Adrian, whom he admired, and his relationship with Veronica, whom he could never figure out.  After his breakup with Veronica and the death of Adrian, Tony moves on and, in effect, writes them out of his life for over 40 years.  But then a lawyer's letter about an unexpected inheritance brings the past back, forcing Tony to look at who he was back then and who he has become.  This novel isn't totally satisfying in terms of how it ties up plot threads; many questions are left unanswered.  But how Tony reflects on the passage of time, guilt and remorse, and the imperfection of memory is fascinating.  I read this book for my book study group; it's an excellent novel for discussion.


Friday, March 06, 2015

Checkout-line encounter 3: smoke signals

This is the latest in my "Checkout-Line Encounters" series:  you can read the others here and here.

Last night I went grocery shopping at No Frills.  A man and woman about my age entered the store just after I did; I noticed that she seemed particularly smiley and enthusiastic, but I didn't pay them much more attention as I went ahead of them up and down the aisles.

When I finished my shopping and went to pay, they were at the next checkout.  I noticed that the woman did the bagging (with great efficiency) while the man paid.  That's the opposite of how Richard and I usually do it on the rare occasions that we shop together:  he'll load the bags and bins while I do the transaction.  In fact, in most cases when I see a couple shopping, I've observed that the man starts the packing process while the woman pays.  It's just one of those gender-role things that we're probably barely conscious of and that just happens without anyone saying, "This is how we should do it."

But then, having paid for the groceries, the man said, "I'll just go for a smoke while you load up, OK, honey?"  And before she could reply, he walked out of the store.

When I got home it was dark, and Richard and Jonathan were playing in the driveway.  I got out of the car and Richard said, "I'll carry the stuff inside; you go on in."

I said, "Rich, you are a prince compared to the guy I just saw at No Frills."

Up until the guy made the "smoke" comment, I'd observed the situation as if it were a bit of a gender-role reversal.  I'd even imagined reasons for his not doing the grocery-bagging: he's the only one with a credit card so he has to do that part; he's got a disability or injury and can't do any lifting; they're not actually a "couple" at all, they're co-workers picking up stuff for a work event.  It was as if there had to be some good reason for a man to let his female partner do the physical work.  I know, I know:  it sounds sexist and dated, but I confess that's what I thought.

But when he left the store to indulge in a smoke while she finished packing, it suddenly wasn't a gender issue at all.  If the opposite had happened -- if the woman had said to the man, "I'll just go for a smoke while you load up, OK, honey?" -- it wouldn't have made any difference.  I'd have thought she was selfish, inconsiderate, and immature.

I don't know what kind of relationship they have, but it didn't look like a nice one.  And that's not because he was a man letting a woman bag groceries; if a couple treat each other right, it doesn't really matter who does which task.

It's because he was a man acting like a jerk. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Proud and Humble -- Kanye tell the difference?

Lately Richard and I have noticed a common theme in news accounts of people receiving awards or accolades:  namely, the tendency of award recipients to express how "humbled" they are by the award or recognition they've received.

Both of us have wondered, "Why don't they just say they're proud?  That's what they really mean, isn't it?"

Isn't it?

If I'm a teacher, let's say, and I receive an award for teaching excellence, it would seem to make perfect sense for me to feel proud of myself.  I've received recognition that not everyone gets.  I've been singled out as special, perhaps even superior.   Pride appears to be an appropriate response.

But ... no one wants to appear proud.  After all, pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, isn't it?

Googling "define proud" leads to two definitions:

1.  feeling deep pleasure or satisfaction as a result of one's own achievements, qualities, or possessions or those of someone with whom one is closely associated.

2. having or showing a high or excessively high opinion of oneself or one's importance.

The first of the two doesn't sound so bad -- most of us wouldn't hesitate to say "I'm so pleased" when we receive acclaim --  but nobody wants to be accused of the second.  So I might conclude that I'd better not say "Thank you for this teaching award!  I feel so proud!" and risk being seen as having "an excessively high opinion" of myself.  Maybe some of my peers don't think I deserved the award, so if they hear me expressing pride at having won it, they'll think that I see myself as better than I truly am.

The Bible has a comment on that very problem, here in Galatians 6:3-4 (a passage I alluded to in a different context for a previous blog post):

If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.  Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.  (New International Version)

Heaven forbid that we should deceive ourselves by "thinking we're something when we're not," right?  We watch a celebrity like Kanye West strutting onstage at awards ceremonies to pontificate about who he thinks the truly deserving are, and we cringe at his oversized ego; we don't want to be like that, do we?

(At right, see Kanye telling award recipient Taylor Swift why Beyonce should in fact have won Swift's prize.  And observe Swift's totally bewildered expression.)

Notice, though, what the Galatians passage says in the sentences immediately following:  we should "test our own actions" and then we can "take pride in ourselves alone, without comparing ourselves to someone else."

How interesting:  pride is seen as something that's perfectly acceptable, even good, to feel, but in the proper context -- and that context has nothing to do with comparing ourselves to others.  Yet all the examples Richard and I noticed had to do with people receiving awards, which are inherently a form of comparison:  there's no significance in a Teaching Award or a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer if everyone gets it.  It's only meaningful if one person receives it and is therefore held up as better than the other nominees (and way better than the masses who weren't even nominated).

Where, then, does this leave those people who are "humbled" by the awards they've received?  After pondering it for a while, I actually think that their response is perfect.  In most cases, I assume, they're reluctant to express pride in a situation where they're being compared with other people.  They realize there are many other deserving recipients; they're grateful for, yet a little surprised by, the honour; and -- to their credit -- they want to keep a level head and not become Kanye-ized.

I still wonder about the Galatians reference to "taking pride in ourselves alone, without comparing," though.  I wonder what that pure type of pride would look like in real life.  

Maybe it's a childlike trait:  we've all seen kids eager to show off their dancing or the picture they drew or the race they ran, and they're bursting with a sense of accomplishment that has nothing to do with superiority/inferiority or better/worse.  Is it only in later life that the comparison aspect creeps in, so that instead of "testing our own actions" (keeping our eyes on our own exam paper, as our teacher tells us to do) we focus on how others are doing?  Does that explain why we can end up either showing off in order to feel good about ourselves, or resenting others' achievements because they make us feel bad about ourselves?

I'm not sure -- and I'd certainly welcome your thoughts in the comment section below, because there may be more to this humility/pride question, and I'd love to know what others think.  For now, I think the best approach is threefold:
  1. Try to view my own "achievements, qualities, and possessions" as gifts and enjoy them with gratitude and pleasure.
  2. Try to avoid comparing myself with others, regardless of whether the comparison puts me at an advantage or a disadvantage.
  3. In the face of our celebrity-obsessed society, try to maintain what the Google dictionary -- in its definition of "humble" -- calls "a modest sense of my own importance."


    (By the way, you may be interested to know that this is my blog's 500th post!  I'm not sure whether to be humble or proud about that.  I guess you can call me prumble.)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day - "Let us love one another"

Today I'm linking back to a Valentine's Day post that I wrote two years ago and re-posted again last year.  It still seems apt so I think it's worth repeating.


"Happy Valentine's Day to my family.  Lest you think this is going to be a rose-coloured description of our family's Waltons-esque perfection, I should confess..."