Re: Border

I have donated to ‘Medicine Sans Frontier’. In English this band of brave men and women are called Doctors Without Borders. They believe bordered countries prevent medical equity. Some human issues are borderless. My wife loves to suggest: For the unity of all human kind we need an attitude of People Without Borders.

I’m fascinated by how borders are created. On the desktop map I had in my room as a youth, I would skate my finger through Germany, France and Spain on my way to Italy. My digits had no need for a passport as I straddled the 49th Parallel, testing the waters on the U.S. side of the continent. I’d love my family’s once a year camping trip to Maine as much for the thrill of crossing the border into New York State.

After one particular trip to the seaside we returned to Canada via the New Hampshire forests. It wasn’t our usual route since it took an extra day and Dad only had so much holiday time. It was Mom’s idea since she had always wanted to see Lake Champlain so a route was planned that included a night at White Mountain National Forest. While the camp was being set up I was told to monitor my younger sister as she rambled through the hardwoods. She found a turtle! It was about a quarter her size as I recall, so it took the two of us to carry it back to our site. Much oohing and aahing ensued. We constructed a sort of corral out of firewood for the hapless creature. I think my folks were suspecting Mr. Tortoise would be gone by morning but he had retreated into his shell so now what to do? My sister said, ‘please, please’ so arrangements were made for his transport accommodations: A bed of leaves inside our large metal Coleman cooler which was always placed in the middle of the back bench seat of our Plymouth to separate the siblings. As we came up to the border crossing Mom repeated the warnings to “Look straight ahead. Don’t say anything. Under no circumstances open the cooler.” At the customs gate I kept thinking the words, Turtle, Turtle, Turtle with such intensity that I was sure I was yelling them out loud. Fortunately, I didn’t speak (although several years later while at a similar checkpoint, family lore has it that I told the border guard my name was Mr. Wetsuit on account of the undeclared contraband I had bought with my life savings). Back at the apartment, Dad put the home made car-top carrier on one end of our balcony and filled it with leaves, fashioning a wee pond from an old metal basin and our Mr. Turtle seemed happy. Until the first winter frost came.

Natural or man-made borders exist and more boundaries are created every day in the belief that we can keep things out, or keep things more safe within. Yet here we are on a finite spinning ball bordered by a thin atmosphere surrounded by space.

Re: Excuse

English language words can be hard to teach. Some words may be spelled the same yet have different meanings depending on pronunciation. Take Excuse for example: I may be excused for certain behaviour yet I may decide to make no excuses. In the former there is the Canadian zed sound for the letter s and in the latter Excuse you hear the es sound clearly.

The mental shift that comes about as one hears the word in context can be confusing for an ESL student. I somewhat shamefully admit that the challenges inherent in learning another language frighten me. My other excuse, lame though it may be, is that I am lazy. Language, of course, is more than just vocabulary. Language is a force in communicating culture.

When I was growing up it would be pretty common for someone to say, ‘Excuse my French’. Maybe this xenophobic phrase is still used as someone’s less than polite way of excusing the four letter swear word that had just come out of their mouth. When we endeavour to excuse ourselves it is a way to rationalize our way of thinking and/or to seek forgiveness. There are some among us who would never consider the need to make an excuse, much less an apology. The current President of the United States, Donald Trump, is a daily example of inexcusable behaviour. He once infamously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. Many would say he is just speaking his mind. But that, in itself, is another excuse.

Dinnertime, when I was a young father, was pretty formal (for the mores of the 1980’s anyway). We observed as much as possible the 50’s Canadian tradition of all gathering around the table for a meal and conversation. Our excuse was that my wife and I wanted to hang on to customs that we thought were important for raising children. As my boys got older I remember giving permission for them to leave the table if they had finished and had an important place to go by saying, “You’re excused.” I wonder if anyone says that anymore. Reading this over makes me sound so nineteenth century!

Canadians are often dubbed as being over-the-top polite. We are branded as always saying such things as ‘excuse me’ in front of almost anything: Is that seat taken? Are you reading that? Would you pass the salt? I was here first! Often we ask, in our embarrassment, to be excused for sneezes, farts or burps. I haven’t met too many Canadians who wish to make excuses for poor behaviour. Generally we try to own up to our mistakes.

“Excuses, Excuses.” Would be an admonishment from one of my teachers for not following through on a project. If I failed to live up to my parents expectations I would be asked, “What’s your excuse?” My childhood explanations would rarely pass muster. In those cases, I was likely excused to go to my room.

Re: Enthusiasm

At this stage of my existence I refer to myself as a witness. I enjoy being that fly on the wall. It’s a safe vantage point, less messy than open engagement on the field of life. I show my enthusiasm for this role by sharing my opinions in a cheerleading fashion. There is a lot of the Rah, Rah in me still.

My enthusiastic side comes out at surprising moments. I once started exclaiming excitedly over a colourful bird while attending a lesson for a summer job. The instructor of the youth assembled gave me a disdainful look, saying dismissively that there were lots of that species in the area. Another time as a young father I rallied my son to hurry and see ‘the coolest car’ that had just parked near a store my wife was taking us to. My poor little guy got troubled when his mother didn’t share my interest and proceeded with her shopping, leaving our son not knowing where his loyalties should lie.

It’s a treat to see others go public with their enthusiasm. I once happened upon a colleague, new to our city, scampering about unashamedly in a small park within a busy intersection. She was fascinated to find cherry blossoms in the tree above her head and crocus bulbs bursting through green grass. This, on a February day while the rest of the country was still gripped in an icy grasp. I felt her joy.

Hope springing eternal will make me enthuse over what I’m seeing. First moments, signs of promise, a young person earnestly playing a musical instrument or actors skillfully inhabiting their characters may bring tears of rapture. My eagerness sometimes comes in a rush of emotion that can be startling. A few bars of music may stimulate me to remember a time gone by and I’ll want to share the memory with someone, anyone, and right now!

Based on these occasional inspired outbursts I might think of myself as an Enthusiast. What an exulted title! It would be fun to be introduced as such with appropriate fanfare at the entrance to a black tie event. Enthusiast implies you might be an expert in your chosen field or have exceptional talent, neither of which would be true for me. I know a few people who might be deemed bird enthusiasts, jogging enthusiasts or film enthusiasts. When I was a boy I maintained a stamp collection that earned me a scouting badge but like the character in the film Adaptation, I lost interest. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y410SQD2mz8

Thing is, my rhapsodies come in spurts. My passions never last long enough to acquire sporting trophies, fitness goals, artistic excellence or any sort of public acclaim. I just love feeling enthused, however long it lasts.

That’s the heart of the word for me: Enthusiasm is an expression of my love.

Re: Memory

My first thought when I think of this word is the song Memory from the hit Broadway musical Cats. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-L6rEm0rnY
I haven’t seen the staged play, yet the song haunts. I feel a yearning upon hearing the opening chords. The words in the verses take me on tangents as I relate them to moments in my life. I wonder if the tug of emotion comes from my own memories and the sentimentality that comes from travelling to my past. Christmas with all its familiarities makes it easy to stroll down memory lane. There are musical triggers, baking triggers, alcohol triggers, shopping triggers; all can lead you down a dark alley. Thank goodness for fairy lights to guide us safely home again!

The busy activity of holiday preparation acts to keep us cheerful. We can’t help but anticipate joyful reunions. Yet the temporal reality can get us feeling a bit maudlin can’t it? Some days seem so short that it feels like the sun has hardly made any effort to rise. On those occasions I have a struggle getting out of my bathrobe; morning coffee turns to breakfast, early lunch, supper feels right at 4pm and gosh it is night again. It’s easy to retreat to the comfort of bed, wishing some happy memory replays through REM sleep.

My memory confounds me. Sometimes while working on a crossword I’ll remember an answer from a clue, baffling myself as to how I could possibly recall something so obscure. Later I might forget where I set down my glasses. I dread the thought that dementia may come calling as I advance in years, erasing some of the memories that I cherish.

Yet sometimes there is joy in rediscovery.
As a youngster I was gripped by the brief television series about amnesia called Coronet Blue. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghkOAZjNFEU
Other films like Groundhog Day and Fifty First Dates have captured memory loss in a humorous way. Currently I chuckle at the JIF peanut butter ads. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjnM7PWQ-YE

Memory connects us to time. We take selfies with our mind’s eye every single second. Some shots are quickly discarded, some become blurred with time, while the best of the best are kept safe, like that Kodak or Polaroid snap from our youth. We bring these memories out when we need reminding of how much we have to be thankful for. The Christmas of 2006 contains some of my fondest remembrances: I had just retired from a career in teaching, extended family gathered for one last big hurrah at the homestead, stories of past and present were blended with hopes for the future.

I’ve just read an excellent biography of Buffy Saint Marie by Andrea Warner emphasizing Buffy ‘The Philosopher’. The author allows us to listen as this talented song writer and activist crystallizes her memories down to two personal keys of life: Gratitude and Wonder.

Your memoir, created from words and experiences only you know, awaits publication.