Re: Promise

“I’ll keep you posted.” A familiar promise heard as two people part ways. Like other promises that may or may not be kept, this one signals an intention. Politicians’ promises are really statements of policy. These promises are intentional too, at least to the extent that candidates want people to know where they stand on the issues. And then hopefully you will vote for them.

When I was a parent of young children my wife and I tried hard not to make promises to them. Any politician will tell you that situations change and decisions must be made with the currently available data. Tell that to a six year old who has been looking forward to going to the beach on Saturday. “But you promised!” Their tears matching the rain that started falling that same morning. Sometimes factors align in such a way that promises can’t be answered in the fashion we would have liked. Yet a promise spoken can also be a signal for hope, showing a direction we would like to go.

“Now that is a promising development.” Might be something said after countries align in their commitment to combat Global Warming. The climate crisis demands that we don’t settle for what looks promising. We must put words into measurable action. My cake making grandmother would comment that the proof will be in the pudding and if there is a failure to act then someone is going back on their promise: The time for ‘half-baked’ ideas is over.

When a promise isn’t kept I feel let down. At every meeting of my Boy Scout pack we promised to ‘do our best’ and I took that seriously. Repeated disappointments, causing erosion of trust, can lead to cynicism, anger or worse; apathy. Every election cycle I get excited (there’s the Charlie Brown in me). I hold out hope that policy & action will be seen. I’m careful to match the incumbent’s rhetoric with his/her record. I try to interpret the validity behind a candidate’s promises. My vote is a response to those promises, but it can’t end there. As a citizen I also promise that I will do what I can to support the programs designed to fulfill those promises.

Financially, a promise can be called an IOU. A contract has been made based on the funds being returned on a given schedule. Depending on who you borrowed the money from, there could be very severe penalties if you default. When it comes to money, I’ve tried hard to stick to the advice of Polonius, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’, with varying degrees of success.

On my wedding day I made one of the grandest of all promises. A promise so big it is called a vow. It’s a good thing that I wasn’t the only one making a solemn vow that day. With two lovers working to keep their promises, ideally each partner is committed to making the promise a continuous reality. Here is a true example of actions speaking louder than words.

Re: Hero

In a recent New York Times crossword I found the clue ‘Rescuer’ and it had me stumped for most of the puzzle. A four letter answer was required and it started with the letter H. Finally solving the other words forced me to see it was HERO. I spent the rest of that afternoon thinking about what a hero is to me.

Words are fascinating in that they require a definition. Discovering the meaning of a word can be tricky depending on context within a sentence, the tone of voice of the speaker, grammatical origins and even body language can be an important criterion for understanding. My first thought regarding the word Hero was not concerning rescuing, although I see it now. Perhaps it is because almost everyone these days is referred to as a hero. The term is so ubiquitous that it reminds me of the trend to present a Participation Award to anyone who shows up for an event.

If I was rescued from certain death I might refer to my saviour as a hero whether they be male or female (the feminized word heroine is simply awful). From childhood onward, people who have done heroic deeds have enthralled me. Boys of my age would have read tales of knights rescuing damsels, of sheriffs bringing justice to the American west, of explorers sailing the seven seas, or of ball players making baseball diamonds sparkle with their talent. As I got older my definition of an act of heroism became more philosophical and broader in scope to include those who challenged the status quo. These ‘idea heroes’ may not have been active in a physical sense, but their abstract thinking made them stand apart from the crowd.

Hero is an overused word and doesn’t belong with every expression of gratitude. Confusing fame or institutional power with heroism gets me in a bit of an anxious knot. Comic book heroes won’t save us. Some modern songs suggest we crave, even worship, the idea of a personal hero. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWcASV2sey0

Media personalities are often over quoted merely due to their celebrity. I wonder why the military profession is automatically tagged as being heroic. I’m not even sure bravery is a prerequisite for being a hero; determination certainly, and a sense of selflessness but most rescuers report they didn’t feel courageous at the time of the call for help.

I believe extraordinary constructive behaviour is heroic. Citizens who make an unselfish contribution to their communities are heroic. I would label some Olympic level athletes heroes just as I would someone who has devoted their life to an artistic passion. Folks might begin their personal list of heroes with Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, or Linus Pauling. Pick a professional discipline, set some criteria, define parameters and let the list making begin! The debate might get heated determining which of those named are either Noteworthy, Great, or Truly Heroic. Be prepared to be convinced when someone asserts, “My dad is my hero.”

Re: Lifetime

I went to a funeral gathering to honour a champion of our community. It was my first outing involving a collective in a long time due to Covid19 restrictions. The crowd spilled out from the community hall into the adjacent garden where extra chairs and a PA system had been set up so the speakers could be easily heard. It was an event of a lifetime.

The deceased was a lady who had become one of my first friends since retirement. My wife and I would often see her taking an active role in our city. She would always smile as she told her latest news and thoughts. Over my lifetime I have met few who have shown such grace and citizenship. She led by action and demonstrated how an individual can make a difference.

My young niece wants some tips regarding retirement plans. She is focussed on keeping her working lifetime as short as possible. Unlike many in my generation who have spent a lifetime waiting to finally do those dreamed of things, this hard working woman wants to build that future now.

Most of us give our labour with a hope that we can emerge in a better place, with a goal accomplished. Watching athletes compete at the Olympic Games this summer I’m reminded that sometimes the best laid plans sometimes must be deferred. These games were postponed for a year which disturbed the competitors’ schedules, likely causing angst over lifetime achievement plans. When earlier Olympics were boycotted by some countries I remember feeling empathy for those crushed by the reality of years spent training to get in peak form only to be thwarted by a government’s decree. Some may have lost lifesavings in the endeavour. I’m happy to see some of my tax dollars being used as a lifeline to support these determined individuals.

Somethings can be described as lifetime events such as the birth of a child, a death, a career achievement, a sporting medal or an election victory. Imagine the feeling you must have if you are credited with being someone’s lifesaver. We can claim responsibility for some singular lifetime moments yet not all momentous occasions are entirely in our hands. Recently a town close to me had a record breaking heat wave. It was reported as a ‘Once in a Lifetime’ weather event. As a kid these phenomenon might have been called a ‘freak of nature’. Now, as a people, we are realizing that many of these weather anomalies are very much of our own making.

An ad on television added to my train of thought. “Buy a lottery ticket and all your dreams may come true.” boasted the promoter. My niece wouldn’t rely on that advice. My deceased friend saw value in human currency to find a lifetime full of rewards. Luck or misfortune can sometimes sit beside you at life’s card table. Sometimes you’d be wise to walk away to play a different game. In the long game of a lifetime, a dream come true is a yearning that has been answered.

Re: I

I is a word and a single letter that carries a lot of punch. I is declarative: I was! I am! I will be! Translated to Latin: Ego eram, ego sum, I erit. Whenever bullying teachers asked rhetorically, “Just who do you think you are?” I always wanted, but lacked the courage, to respond with a preteen snarl, “Me, myself and I!”

There is a certain trinity to who we are. Christians are taught that Jesus was the father, son and holy ghost all rolled into one being. Sigmund Freud contended that all individuals are psychologically composed of an Id, an Ego and a Superego. I especially like the last term because it sounds and looks like a comic book hero. When I think of my responses to people and events I often consider whether it’s my inner child, my parent voice or my authentic adult self that is creating my thoughts.

In the context of the power of the word I, its homonyms are cool to think about too. Aye is something you shout with positivity when you are casting an oral vote or voicing agreement with your pirate captain.  Eye is the centre of things, as in a storm, calming, focussed. An eye is a body’s tool to gather information. William Shakespeare wrote that the eye is the window to the soul.

A single letter as a word with meaning is startling to ESL students. Only one other letter in our 26 word alphabet is a word unto itself. The letter A is what I used to call a helper when I taught early readers. Officially referred to as an indefinite article, the word A is important when distinguishing the difference between say, A baby and THE baby. Watching an episode of the British television series Call The Midwife, I was amused to hear the nurses refer to the newborns with the single word ‘Baby’. What a lovely declaration to start a wee one’s life!

During classes that I took to prepare myself for working as a Guidance Counsellor, I learned a lot about using the word I and I encouraged the students I worked with to use it when they started a sentence: ‘I don’t like what Johnny’s doing at recess.” “I feel bad when Jenny says that to me.” During these dialogues it became chaotic if most of the sentences began with the word You: You said!” “You took my things!”

In previous generations talking about yourself was discouraged, even frowned upon. It was thought that if you proclaimed that you were good at something then your head might swell. Whenever my mom thought I was getting too big for my britches she used the Biblical quote, ‘Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.’  She didn’t think a person could be an I, without being selfish.

Sir Paul McCartney, here in an interview with Stephen Colbert, speaks well about the reality of his fame while being aware of his kid self and the lazy adult persona, Paul. Let it be.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdGlGwlgxTk

Re: One

I never thought I would admit this in public, but I’ve been lonely. I have been separated from my one and only, my best friend, my lover, my wife for more than 200 days now. She is on an important mission and I am supporting her as best I can from afar. The oneness that I have experienced with her is not one sided as she too feels the great chasm that comes about when you are not with the one you love. We both endeavour to be strong while acknowledging that One is clearly the loneliest number. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYzY7-V5vxY

There are so many individual ones in the world: Close to 8 billion singular human entities. On the spectrum of ‘personalities who need another in their lives’ the range might be from hermit types to polyamorous groupies. I have felt more in common with the hermit; sequestering myself from the massive throngs of civilization. That is one of the reasons why my recent feelings of loneliness are somewhat confusing. I do really appreciate my own company, that was tested in me as a child. I know I can confidently go it alone but I also know I don’t want to. I am Stoic. I am Vulcan. I take pride in the notion that I can control my desire to be one with the collective. I am Adam yet I must have my Eve.

I have used the power of oneness many times in my life and have discovered that being One doesn’t necessarily mean that you are alone. I have had many glimpses of what it means to be one in the spirit. I have learned to trust. Those 8 billion collective consciouses can be a powerful support mechanism when most needed, like after trauma. Some believe that even dead souls can act as guides. So while loneliness may occasionally tear at my heart, I remind myself that I am never really alone.

I admit also to being a romantic and a great believer in finding ‘the one’. I was lucky to find my Juliet in university. She accepted my formal proposal of marriage. Her family gave their blessing. We had the wedding service where two candles were extinguished and one candle was lit. We had many adventures, raised three boys together and approached middle age with confidence in our bond. When she died I felt lost and alone. I was now one, where I had been two and I wondered just what I might do with the rest of my life. Imagine how blessed I felt when I found my Anne. She too had known loneliness and found ways to appreciate being alone. Our meeting was one for the ages. We couldn’t believe our luck. Now we two could design our own Green Gables.

My wife and I celebrate in the oneness of our combined families. Our grandchildren are learning to count and always start with One. It is the first number. It’s where we all begin and where we all end.

Re: Jim

I heard a knock on my front door. During Covid times contact with anyone is a rarity, so I answered, starving for connection. It was Jim Carrey standing there in living colour. He said, “Hi I’m Jim Carrey. I know it’s short notice but can I quarantine here?” He dropped his backpack in the hallway. “It’s a good thing you answered your door because I was just about to jimmy the lock.” My mouth was probably still open. “Just kidding!”he added.

I said I had a spare room, that he was welcome to stay since I was a big fan. I called him Mr. C. out of respect and a couple of times Captain Jim came out as I was jibber-jabbering wondering out loud why he would come here to the Saanich Peninsula. He told me a friend had said that Harry and Meaghan had spent time near here to get away from the paparazzi. I smiled at the way he contorted his face while saying, ‘paparazzi’.

I told him I had seen his last drawing posted on Twitter, Feb 11, 2021 and wondered if he was all right. I talked about being a fan, a fanboy, a Stan and the differences between the terms. My words were spilling out so fast, I began to wonder if he’d reconsider his request to stay. He pulled a Slim Jim from his jean jacket and asked, “You got anything to eat?” Luckily, I had been on a quick masked raid to my village grocer so I had plenty of food. I showed him the fridge. He grinned, “Alrighty then!”

Our time together went quickly. I told him my wife was away looking after her elder parents so I really appreciated having someone to talk to. We bonded like stereotypical Canadians, played crokinole, ate bacon and drank beer. He said it was good to be home. To celebrate Day Seven we ordered take-out food. Slurping udon noodles, Jimmy pretended to be a comically clichéd Asian woman. This made me cough and get red in the face.

One night we got into our jimmy jammies, watched a couple of old Star Trek episodes and got kind of drunk on craft beer. Jimbo started doing impersonations again. He’s silly that way. Famous characters named Jim appeared out of nowhere: Jimmy Durante, James Belushi, Jimmy Stewart, James T. Kirk, Jiminy Cricket, James Dean, James Coburn, Jimmy Cagney. He did a skit of Jimmy Carter on a roof hammering in shingles. I told him he nailed that one and we both rolled on the floor laughing.

On his last day with me, he told me how he had almost lost his sanity from the constant intrusion on his life. I shared how I had once suffered depression from trying to get things perfect. He said, “Life is hard man.” Before I was ready, Jim was at the front door. I stood feeling awed by the whole experience. He raised his arms in farewell, “In case I don’t see ya”.

And then he was gone.

Re: Heel

I like to keep one step ahead of things. This makes it hard on me when situations require that I heel, while others take the lead. I’m not saying I need a leash, but recent events surrounding Covid19 restrictions mean I have to hold back my urge to take charge. I like to be ahead of the pack, or at least off to the side minding my own business. These days I’m feeling I have to wait for my dinner, whine for a walk or watch expectantly by the front door. When I die, I’m not coming back as a dog.

Perhaps coincidentally, cracked heels run in my family. My nan’s chiropodist used to remove the callused skin on her heels with a device like a potato peeler. My mom would forecast, “So if you don’t wear socks more often, you’re going to end up just like her.” I was given many cautionary tales as a kid and sometimes I’d have to decipher the meanings. My mom would frequently bring me to heel. “Robert, come sit and talk with me.” She’d pronounce like a summons, while tempting me with a loaf of fresh baked bread. Our kitchen table was one of those chromed things with a stained formica top. Mom smoked while she talked, her monologues might last only one cigarette but sometimes she’d chain smoke, punctuating sentences by butting out into a perpetually dirty glass ashtray. I remember a story of a guy she used to work with being described as, ‘such a heel’. That’s the only part I remember; that he was a heel. The fun visual stuck, sort of like the image of a dickhead, with roughly the same connotation.

I’ve learned that heels can come in all shapes and sizes. Evangelical tent preachers can sometimes be heels, taking advantage of trusting people, as depicted in the great Burt Lancaster film Elmer Gantry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z73HAUbQNp4

My dad liked imitating a crazed religious healer we occasionally saw on Sunday morning television. He would playfully slap the heels of his hands on my forehead or both sides of my head while crying out, “Now! Rise and be Healed!”

I’m married to a legitimate healer. She practised nursing and complementary medicine in her working years. Now she brings this experience to our friends and family. Besides reminding me to put cream on my rough heels, my wife has provided her healing arts to all manner of damage I have done to myself; from falling out of trees, to stubbing toes, to traffic accidents, to convalescence after minor surgery.

Once, a friend of mine tried to show me the healing art of bread making. He demonstrated the correct way to knead the dough using the heels of his hands. Later, kitchen filled with intoxicating aroma, bread warm from the oven, I would ask for the heel of the loaf, just as I had enjoyed as a boy. I’d slice hard butter on it, then add a daub of peanut butter. Comfort food for a weary pilgrim.

Re: Kind

I’ve heard many authors at signing events respond to someone’s gushing praise of their work with a rote rendition of, “You are very kind.” The use of the word kind, in this context, devalues it. We are not being kind when we show someone how much they are appreciated, we are being grateful. I wish we could see acts of kindness more often. It is not something that is regularly practised, yet when we see someone helping another who has stumbled we recognize a kind heart. I believe in kindness as a form of love. If more readily applied in our behaviour it can improve life on earth. 

In University I studied Life Sciences, particularly wildlife biology. I became familiar with the work of Carl Linnaeus, a scientist who developed a system of classification of living things based on precise particulars of biological design. I had fun sorting specimens into well defined categories by kind, using observable physical characteristics. These days it is much easier and more conclusive to use DNA to sort living things. Consequently we have discovered that some species are closer kin than we could ever have imagined.

Some people say they have a kindred spirit, someone so close to their kind of thinking/feeling that they form a bond. The fictional character Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, talked a lot about this kind of friendship. While she gathered kindling for the wood stove she had thoughts of becoming less isolated as an orphan and more kin to the kindhearted community that would become her home. Author Lucy Maude Montgomery writes beautifully of a time where manners and kindness abound yet her stories are not all sweetness. She doesn’t shy away from issues found in a closed society. For example, she exposes Avonlea villagers who could be quick to tell outsiders to “Go home to your own kind!” Since the first printing of Ms. Montgomery’s widely popular stories, there has been numerous interpretations. The latest in Canada is ‘Anne with an E’. This television series is so charmingly sweet it could kill you with its kindness.

Babies, like birds, quickly show they prefer to flock together. Kiley Hamelin has done research work at the University of British Columbia showing that even young babies can sort puppet identifiers according to whether they are helpful or not. They can determine the kindness in others at a very early age, suggesting that figuring out who is kind among us may be a matter of survival and integral to forming bonds of friendship and family.

In British Columbia, Canada, residents have been lucky to have a Provincial Health Officer named Dr. Bonnie Henry. She is held in high regard for the work she is doing to control the spread of the COVID19 virus. At news briefings she is not afraid to show her humanity, often crying over grim news,. Her advisories and updates on the pandemic usually end with a familiar mantra, “Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe.” Indeed: Kindness comes first.

Re: Dignity

One of my Twitter friends, who uses the handle Black Mamba, posted a query about ‘Quiet dignity’ recently. That got me thinking about my dad. He was a fellow with a dignified bearing and when he went out wearing his heavy black camel hair coat he cut an impressive figure. Yet he was working class all the way, earning less annual salary when he retired than what I received in my first year of teaching. He valued honesty, harmony and quiet. He showed it in his behaviour. He did not aspire to dignity, but from my observations, he personified it. 

Some see the characteristics of dignity in a negative way equating it with arrogance, pomposity, prudery, and indifference to others. My father was often quick to make himself secondary in a gathering at his home in an effort to let his guests shine. Never hoity-toity and also never afraid to be the clown, I once saw him dress in an outlandish costume for a municipal function. It puzzled me that he would put himself out there in such a manner when it wasn’t even Halloween. One of my few regrets is feeling embarrassed by my father at that moment.

I think dignity is one of those things we are taught. Early on I was told to stand up straight and speak only when spoken to. The outfit I chose to wear was judged before I left for school. I was asked if I had clean underwear lest I be involved in an accident and had to be undressed in hospital. I recall hearing folks indicate that some behaviours or occupations were beneath their dignity. Others have told me that they would never dignify certain remarks with a comment of their own.

Some, like my dad, taught me the importance of giving others dignity by showing respect. I once sang in a choir with an elderly gentleman who had an air about him that I came to believe was a state of grace. Some church people called him refined. When he interacted socially I never saw him belittle anyone for a point of view, even if he disagreed with their perspective. Donald Trump is the antithesis of men such as these. His indignations abound and are public record. Heads of state can be faulted for false displays of dignity; that’s where pomposity is found. Yet The Donald seems to flaunt his indignity, even as he struts royally with tissues stuck to the heel of his shoe. My grandmother would have been mortified.

Dignity is not confined to nobility, though it is often equated to it. All humans deserve to be treated with dignity. All life is worthy. Animal activists claim that we must look harder at the way we treat other living things since they suffer huge indignities under our watch, as permitted by biblical edict,”…they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

We must do better.

Re: Guilt

“I don’t do guilt.” John, a teacher colleague of mine, said long ago. I can still picture his face as we discussed heaven knows what. I remember wishing that I could be so cavalier. The way the word ‘guilt’ came out of his mouth made me want to shed the strong feelings of responsibility that weighed on me at the time. I wondered how someone could honour their responsibilities to others and not feel guilty when they inevitably let another down. While I envied John for his stance I also felt such a position could only be held by someone selfish. After all, guilt came easily and could not be ignored by a stalwart individual such as myself. I still wish that I might find an easy way to let myself off the hook.

Feeling guilty is not a disease but unless it’s resolved it can make you feel sick. I have had periods where I have been rendered guilt-ridden. At the other end of this spectrum we have a label for people who don’t express remorse: Sociopath. Perhaps these individuals never resolved early feelings of guilt and so chose to tuck them away in the recesses of their mind.

These days, others named John may use a different word or phrase to easily absolve themselves of remorse: They might stand straight and utter, “Guilty as charged.” They may choose to feign humour, “Ooops! My bad.” Some may intellectualize their dilemma with the words, “Mea Culpa.” Saying sorry is difficult. Courts provide an opportunity to get things off your chest. An admission of guilt is often a precursor to a more lenient sentence after a verdict is passed. Witness impact statements can move those involved in a criminal act to feel remorse. In a perfect world, offenders and those offended can find ways of reconciliation beyond guilty/not-guilty definitions in order to create justice that lingers.

I always thought going to a Catholic confessional was an easy way out of dealing with the reality of guilty feelings. A few Hail Marys strikes me as not getting to the heart of why bad thoughts remain after committing an offence. Guilt thrives in the absence of forgiveness yet telling ourselves that it’s all right can be a hard thing to do. When my children made a mistake they were encouraged to apologize with an explanation of why they were sorry. The resulting dialogue helped everyone feel better because the act itself was acknowledged, feelings shared and understood, forgiveness provided. An emotional drive-thru experience: A happy meal.

I feel guilt just like I feel regret. There are times I say things that are unwarranted or do things I don’t really feel comfortable doing. I can’t blithely state that guilt doesn’t affect me. I’ve known some people who have responded to guilty feelings by seeking revenge on the very person who made them feel remorse. Deep feelings can be frightening. When I hurt someone else I feel the hurt too. Stopping the cycle of hurt is not easy, like most things in life, it starts with patient understanding.