“While I live” vs. “Before I die”

Every now and then my world-view takes a sharp and unexpected turn.

It happened yesterday afternoon, as I listened to a respected younger friend talk about his ambitious life goals, a to-do list that he is committed to knocking off before he…well, before he himself knocks off.

“I know I’m going to die,” he said (earnestly and without a hint of irony), “and there are some big things I want to get done before that happens.”

I understood his urgency. I too have spent a lot of time–decades, in fact–obsessing over what I need to accomplish before I leave the planet.

But as I listened to my friend heap expectation after expectation upon his formidable shoulders, I suddenly realized the flaw in my own thinking.

By concentrating on the finish line–a date in the future I certainly can’t control–I consistently overlook the only thing that is truly knowable: this moment right now.

I woke up this morning to a single clear thought: from now on, I am going to shorten my depth of field.

I will aim to think less about what I must do before I die, and more about what I will do while I live.

So while I still live, I will strive to remember to smile at strangers.

I will say “thank you” sincerely and often.

I will let little children push the button for my floor in the elevator.

I will pay attention to the first buds on trees and the last words spoken between family and friends.

But that’s just for starters. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself…

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Losing things

I was moving too fast: I had just 10 minutes to catch my coach to London from Bristol and I decided I had just enough time to try on a tunic top that was on display in the Debenham’s window.

Tried it on, bought it, made the bus with seconds to spare…and realized I’d left my favourite gloves–a pair of hand-cut, hand-stitched leather ones made in Newfoundland especially for my small hands–in the dressing room. Sigh.

But now, on the long drive back to the city I find myself thinking about all the things I’ve lost before–small things of little value except for the memories they hold.

Earrings. Watches. Once, a purse. Even a special umbrella.

And in the moments after they were lost, each became somehow more precious to me than it had been when it was actually in my custody. I took them for granted, or at least, didn’t cherish them sufficiently, when I actually had them in hand.

And then they are gone, usually by my own stupid negligence, and suddenly it’s as if someone has ripped the locks off my memory vault and the circumstances surrounding the original acquisition of said object come pouring out.

My gloves were bought for $110 at a time many years ago when I was perennially short of money.

They were an extravagance that made me feel sick after I left the shop–a family-run tannery in rural Newfoundland. But I had felt a connection with the young owners who were trying to make a go of it with a young family and a small business in a little-travelled corner of the world.

My husband and I were in a similar position in our lives. My husband ran a critically, but not financially, successful restaurant on a small island in western Canada. I wanted them to succeed as much as I wanted us to succeed.

I think their business, Neptune Leatherworks, may be gone now, but I hope their marriage and family bonds are still strong. Mine are.

I may get the gloves back; I’ll get in touch with the store and see if they can send them back to Canada. And if not, then I hope whoever acquires them senses that they are special and should be treated with respect.

I will buy new gloves in London–it’s colder here than I was prepared for–and I will no doubt take them for granted. Unless I lose them too.

And then I will remember this bus ride and the slant of golden light on the copses in the distance near Oxford where my child-dad once traded gifts with Italian prisoners-of-war. And that’s a memory worth the price of a new pair of gloves.

How about you? Have you ever lost something that became more precious after you lost it?

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Better than we know ourselves

“Because the truth is, we never know for sure about ourselves. Who we’ll sleep with if given the opportunity, who we’ll betray in the right circumstance, whose faith and love we will reward with our own….Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, “I know you, Al. You’re not the kind of man who.”

-from Straight Man, by Richard Russo

I have worked at a university for more than a decade and have come to see the dark humour in Henry Kissinger’s alleged observation that the reason university politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so small.

It’s a funny little world, not unlike the small island I lived on for more than 20 years, with its own etiquette and intrigues.

And whenever I start to take it too seriously, I find it therapeutic to dip into a novel by, say, David Lodge, or  Jane Smiley, or most recently, Richard Russo — that is, authors who can be relied upon to gently and humorously skewer the very academies that employ them.

Anyway, Russo’s 1997 book, Straight Man, about an English professor’s mid-life reckoning in the middle of a university down-sizing, was this month’s tonic.

(It was in fact recommended to me by my president, who has a terrific sense of humour about the ivory tower and its inmates.)

It’s a terribly funny book, which the quote above might not suggest.

But it’s not Russo’s smart-alecky (and sometimes downright snide) commentary on blustering and blister-less academics that lingers, but rather this small tribute to friendship, compassion, and forgiveness.

In the story, a colleague and sometime enemy of the narrator, Hank, has struck Hank’s dog and desperately seeks reassurance from the English prof that he knows it was not intentional.

Hank absolves his colleague in the passage above, defaulting to a technique he uses with his creative writing students to help them develop their written characters more fully: he is not the kind of man who.

The distraught colleague is not the kind of man who would hit a dog on purpose and then sit around and wait patiently for the owner to return.

I like Russo’s — or rather, Hank’s — notion that our true natures, so opaque to us, are so clearly revealed by the tiniest of our actions to those who orbit around us.

I like the idea that we can and must rely on and trust our nearest and dearest to alert us to our essential selves — for better or for worse.

It’s an interesting thought experiment.

Try it.

Think about someone who has recently pleased you — or pissed you off. Your boss. Your spouse. Your neighbour. Your child.

What do you understand about them better than they understand about themselves?

And what might they be able to tell you about yourself that would be truer than you might ever care to know or admit?

You’re the kind of person who.

You’re not the kind of person who.

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Tears, beers or babies

When it comes to online relationships, it’s too easy to confuse the fact that you once chatted with someone in the other bathroom stall at a conference with actual friendship.

So I have devised a simple formula to determine whether I can reasonably accept your friend request on Facebook or LinkedIn or whatever.

Tears, beers or babies. Simple as that.

If we haven’t cried over marriage or mortality together; if we haven’t hoisted one (too many) high at some unpretentious local; if we haven’t laughed or boasted or worried together about the fruit of our respective loins…well then, I’m probably not that into you.

But hey, be honest: without a couple of encounters based on any of the above scenarios, you’re probably not that smitten with me either.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally game to make new friends. In fact, I never want to stop making new friends.

But let’s do each other a favour and get to know each other a little better IRL before we start swearing blood oaths online, ok?

If you want to get started, I favour a craft-brewed IPA…;-)


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Bring back the black armband

Several times as a child I heard the story of how my father had returned from military service to discover that his mother had died and been buried in his absence.

This story fascinated me on so many levels.

At a time when I was just beginning to understand that families were complicated, and that not all children loved their parents equally–or vice versa–the hard facts of this story spoke volumes about my dad’s difficult relationship with his own father.

That my grandfather had waited, in an age of telegrams and trans-Atlantic telephone cables, until my father stepped ashore in England to tell him that his beloved mother had died just a few days before and was now in the ground…well, I understood that there was something very wrong and probably eternally damaging about that scenario.

Beyond that, there was always the mention of the black armband my father wore for months after his mother passed.

I had only ever seen such things in books and movies, and found the notion of betraying one’s grief and loss as oddly embarrassing. Thank goodness, I thought as a youngster, that we didn’t have to do that any more.

But now I am grown up.

And I am starting to lose my family in bits and pieces.

And I wish I had a black armband to tell the world, “I am bereaved and sad and a little emotionally unstable right now. Cut me some slack, will you? You’ll understand soon enough, if you don’t already.”

There have been several deaths in my life this year, beginning with the loss of my dear dad-in-law, Bob, last November 28th. I am just emerging from the deep first-year funk of grief.

I now understand why the Jewish tradition teaches that you shouldn’t make any big changes in the first 12 months after a death in the family. You aren’t in your right mind.

I’m feeling like I’m back to my right mind now.

I am ready again to socialize and can trust myself (more or less; see the Raffi post) not to burst into tears at the sight of Bob’s old camera sitting on the table, or my Aunt Donna’s elegant script adorning a birthday card.

But for the past several months, it would have been nice to have had the shield of a black armband. Something that served as an early warning system for unassuming friends and colleagues. Something that screamed: Caution! 

I say: let’s bring back the black armband, the badge of broken hearts.

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Blind-sided by Raffi in the morning

So there I was early last Friday morning, pleased as punch to have the car for once instead of schlepping to work by SkyTrain, when CBC blind-sided me with a Raffi song.

I hadn’t realized it was him, the singer of Baby Beluga and Bananaphone and all those other chirpy kid songs that were implanted in my brain in the early ’90s when my own two children started roaming the planet.

I’d turned on the radio mid-interview, and was only half-listening to the friendly back-and-forth between Rick Cluff and the earnest guy who was talking about his Child Honouring Centre on Saltspring Island.

Child Honouring of any sort before 9 am, when caffeine levels are not yet stabilized, is more than I can really handle, so I kind of checked out of the interview.

And then suddenly it was over and the earnest guy was now singing and it was Raffi reminding me that “all I really need is a song in my heart, and love in my family.”

And to my list of 34 symptoms of menopause, I added a 35th: crying uncontrollably in the car to Raffi songs that remind me of how good it was to sing about little whales to toddlers on potties, and how intensely I miss the messy and creative business of day-to-day mothering.

Thanks Raffi. I’m glad I managed to pull over before I killed anyone. I’ve been singing that damn song all weekend.

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