Re: Sandbox

For part of my childhood I lived with my parents and sister in a small two bedroom apartment. I spent a lot of time outside. In winter I would pretend to be Ernest Shackleton trekking across the vastness of Antarctica. In summer I would kill ants in the community rock garden or hang out at the large sandbox nearby.

With just two Dinky cars and a few plastic army men, I could occupy myself for hours sitting in that pile of sand. There were often several children playing in this simple rectangular structure. As I remember the apartment’s sandbox had four partially buried perimeter walls made of 2X10 lumber. Each corner was topped with a small triangle of plywood providing support for the structure and handy as a seat. To have a corner spot was a coveted position in what I came to learn as the hierarchy of the sandbox.

First child to arrive could claim a corner seat. If a parent came with their child, the adult got a seat. The centre of the sandbox usually had a small hill that kids who liked to play together occupied. If a parent was present things were quiet and order existed. I clearly recall being banished from the sandbox one day because I loudly said that a new kid had ‘big ears’ before realizing her mother was sitting nearby.

Without an adult, any group larger than two children required negotiations. Lines were drawn in the sand. What was learned in the sandbox never just stayed in the sandbox because the lessons remained with you for a lifetime. Allies were made. Bullies had to be dealt with. I learned kindness when someone uncovered one of my favourite Tonka trucks which I thought I had lost forever. I learned to share space with complete strangers. When no one was around I learned how to enjoy my own company.

When I bought my first house and was expecting my second child, I built a sandbox in anticipation. I chose a square shape to suggest the closeness I wished for my children. My wife insisted that I make a cover for it so that the neighbour’s cat wouldn’t think it was for his use only. I made the corner triangles a bit larger than I remembered to better accommodate my larger size. I loaded beach sand, which I raided from a nearby lake, into the back of my Chevy Blazer, making several trips before I was satisfied I had enough for my boys’ sandbox.

I became the father of three boys who, like their dad, learned how to take care of their toys, look after each other, use their imagination and value time alone. Eventually they helped me add to their backyard play area by constructing a ramshackle collection of wood bits, bicycle parts and lengths of rope they called ‘The Climbing Thing’. Jumping off the top of the structure into the soft security of the sandbox became their funnest activity.

Re: Expectations

My wife and I made our first Airbnb booking recently. We researched various sites on the internet, jotting down pros and cons as we went along. We had booked through VRBO before and were impressed with their consistent standard, but they had no properties listed in the travel area. The other option of a hotel just proved too costly for our length of stay. Knowing we would be doing some family entertaining we needed space so we picked a property listed as ‘An entire house!’ We had an expectation based on it being ‘An entire house!’

I find that people who say they never have expectations are lying. Everyone has expectations for themselves: Not many people refer to themselves as a total screw-up. Everybody expects to move through their day with most of their needs being met. We may not get all that we want but we expect we will not die trying. When someone tells us something, at first at least, we believe them. We expect that they are telling us the truth. Having an expectation for ourselves and of others leads to trust when that expectation is fulfilled on a consistent basis. For example when I visit a friend I have a simple expectation that I will be greeted with a welcoming gesture. If that is not forthcoming, over time, I will cease to visit.

A worry free philosophy isn’t realistic. If we say we don’t expect anything from anyone I wonder where that leads us as a community. I suspect a period of reduced expectations leads to stifling disappointment and chronic despair. At the other end of that spectrum is an obsession with fulfilling an expectation we have for ourselves. That can also be crippling: We must face each day feeling that we can ‘measure up’.

When we hear the declaration, “I’m expecting!”, all manner of expectant thoughts start to percolate. Hope is never greater than when we hear news of an impending birth. We wish the parent-to-be the very best because we expect the outcome will be practically perfect in every way. We want to believe in great expectations. Every life deserves an existence set to the highest standard. I’ve never heard a teacher say to her students on opening day, “I don’t expect much from you this year.” When I don’t live up to the expectations I have for myself, I let myself down and I feel I disappoint others around me. Having an expectation means you’re looking for the best.

Just as we have been instructed by our parents, we expect our children will behave for good reasons. We all have felt the sting of an elder suggesting that they felt disappointment in us after we had made a poor decision. The positive message being; I understand the value of standards.

Honesty is a value I hold to a high standard. The Airbnb ad was not accurate: It wasn’t a whole house. It wasn’t clean. It only had one closet! I was disappointed. I will learn from it.

Re: Resilience

If I am resilient I can survive change. I may not completely bounce back from the trauma nor will I necessarily become stronger simply by dodging a proverbial bullet. My experiences may make me better able to cope the next time a challenge arises. Trouble is, there may be enough difference in the new situation as to make my response difficult. I must rely on my belief that, given time and adequate support, things will get better.

One of the best things teachers, parents and coaches help us discover is our personal resilience. I can credit my years as a Boy Scout with teaching me a lot about resilience. I was instructed to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, to seek shelter when confronted with a storm, and to try one more time. I remember one portage in particular during a canoe trip through Algonquin Provincial Park. I had felt a head cold starting the morning of the third day into the trip. The paddling part was a blessing as the breeze cooled the fever my body was developing. Once out on the land and weighed down by packsack and canoe the going got tough. Biting insects could not be swatted and our path was through boot sucking mud. Each step was agony. I was young and wanted to cry. I faltered briefly and looked up as my Akela now stood near me. Quietly he asked, “Can you go to the next tree?” I repositioned my load and said yes I could. He walked beside me until the tree and said, “Can you make it to the next hill?” Somehow I could and just past the hill was the location of our camp for the night.

I recall having my meal that night in one metal bowl; a ground beef mixture, cookies and chocolate pudding. I tagged out of the next activity to get some rest in my tent, quickly falling asleep. Much to my surprise, my Sixer came to wake me for Mug-Up. My body still aching, I was persuaded by this familiar before-bedtime tradition of a warming tin mug of hot chocolate, so I rallied myself. The next morning I felt like I could canoe forever, no matter what might lay ahead on the trail. I was a modern day voyageur. I was invincible!

A resilient attitude is elastic. It bends like the marsh reed to the wind’s insistence. Rigidity can cause us to snap under pressure. Sometimes we can only respond to the change that blows our way. Other times we can make a change that will bring us closer to who we want to be. We can build resilience in mind, body and spirit by being watchful for opportunities that test us to be better.

What Akela had taught me that day was that I had more resilience than I ever imagined. By shrinking my goal I could continue. By sometimes taking baby steps I wasn’t diminishing myself. By trying one-more-time I found I could discover something new about the person I was becoming.

Re: Principle

In grade school I remember being taught how to distinguish between the words principle and principal as a spelling lesson. Your school principal, presumably, was your ‘pal’. The other word was never clearly defined. Like so many things that one comes to learn, the use of the word Principle and its practical applications, depended on my gathering experience.

I remember being advised early on that to be ‘a man of principle’ was something to work towards. My mother would note when I was being ‘too wishy washy’ and suggest that I select a priority and ‘stick to it’. My father would provide examples of principled behaviour by focussing on completing a task before starting another. Coaches would intone that, ‘winning wasn’t everything’ and you must show good sportsmanship above all else. Teachers would insist on adherence to the principles of hard work, determination and following your dream.

My formal education regularly consisted of studying examples of individuals who never gave up no matter how hard the challenge. I was taught to show admiration for these achievers from history: The explorers who set forth to map our globe. The generals who vanquished the enemy. The politicians who created great nations. The scientists who unlocked the mysteries of our physical world. The artists who challenged our perceptions. The philosophers who provided the keys to help us understand ourselves.

It was only as I matured that I realized many of these men and women of principle had personal flaws. It was a jolt to my psyche to find out they were drinkers, womanizers, gamblers, racists, or just people with terrible party manners. Norman Bethune, as one example, has been revered as a man who followed his principles of justice, peace & unity for humanity. His personal life however was a shambles of sexual affairs, rude social scenes and arrogant social discourse. The authors of the biography ‘Phoenix’ suggest that Dr. Bethune’s ‘black sheep’ persona was politically manipulated on his death to create a ‘white knight’ iconography.

“It’s the Principle of the thing” is something I’ve often said or thought as I have waded into an argument. I’ve found that sticking exclusively to a principle can restrict my ability to listen effectively and yet I still feel the need to ‘stick to my guns’; which is a violently dramatic and threatening representation of what being rigid with principles might lead one to.

One of my favourite principled individuals of modern times is Noam Chomsky. He’s one of few people who dare to venture into the land of principles/morals/values these days. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-OEEC5FpJ0

When I listen to the wisdom of his words I feel anchored by the truth. I saw this request from his wife Valeria on my Twitter feed and will pass it on: 
@johannhari101 -It’s Noam Chomsky’s 90th birthday soon (Dec 7). I’m helping his wife, Valeria, gather tributes to him for a birthday book. If Chomsky’s work has affected you, pls write a message addressed to him explaining how & send to chasingthescream@gmail.com

Re: Tear

In the inner city elementary school where I was hired to provide Guidance programming there were many children with mental health issues. In one case, a grade two classroom teacher asked me if I would help reduce the amount of bullying that she had observed. I began by building awareness amongst the students by asking them to wear a tag, during recess, fastened to a chord around their necks. Every time they felt they were being bullied they were to tear a little piece off of their tag. When we met at the end of the first day we talked about the damage that had been done to their tags. Some students hadn’t torn any pieces off their tag. Others had a few pieces missing, while a few had most of the tag gone.

The focus throughout this exercise was not on the bully but on the response to a feeling of being torn.I recorded these results, using the data to design an appropriate program. By the end of the month the majority of the students were talking freely about their feelings and were sharing with their teacher how they were standing up for themselves.

Every teacher will tell you that they learn from their students. In this particular case I was shocked to learn how many people (young or old) can feel that pieces of themselves are lost by the end of each and every day. As we tear around trying; to get what we need, to satisfy our wants, to please others whom we love, it’s no wonder we can feel shredded.

The youngsters in my school setting would often tear up as they told me their stories of being pushed around. At that age emotions rule. Everything HAS to be fair. Crying helped to a degree but then the tears would dry and a more constructive solution had to be found. I was pleased to see that, over time, many students understood that there were things they could do as individuals to protect their ‘tag’. If they didn’t reduce the tears, at least they could find ways to repair themselves to face another day.

Much later in my life, a friend of my wife introduced me to this wonderfully poignant song by Peter Mayer called Japanese Bowls. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOAzobTIGr8
The imagery is outstanding and relevant to the notion of our amazing ability to be resilient to the soul tears each life can experience. As I have come to feel the full understanding of this song I often cry. The tears that fall are from the joy of my personal healing.

Whether in early stages of personality development, in relationships that fall apart or in end of life considerations, assessing our tears helps us to decide what to do next. The data we have collected on ourselves is not always pretty. Our experiences may have left scars.

But I believe we can always come around again to the beauty of life.