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It’s A Wonderful… River…

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Joy and Peace…

Sure, Joy and Peace, but you’d expect in this COVID year that isolation and loneliness might be prime themes too because we know that really, despite all the uplifting messages flooding radio and TV, that…

… Christmas has shadows of schizophrenic experience for many; the river of happiness melts into another counterpoint tributary of sadness, each river and tributary a personal journey of a life lived.

I love the bittersweet… the blend of jubilation and melancholy… the summary of life and living.

This week, while listening to beautiful seasonal music on the radio, one song sunk its teeth into me… Joni Mitchell’s bittersweet RIVER… a song I don’t even remember hearing until maybe 15 years ago, despite its release 49 years ago in 1971.

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

River, from Mitchell’s 1971 BLUE album, was never released as a single.

Derivative of Jingle Bells and set at Christmas time, its opening and closing melody is “Jingle Bells” in a minor key. Yes, those minor keys that pour a mist of sadness over us.

River is thought to be Mitchell’s lament over the loss of a relationship with her “best baby that I ever had”, the one who “made me weak in the knees”, singer Graham Nash… although Mitchell is a bit coy in letting that out.

And now, in the last 20 years, River has ascended to holiday-hit status as an antidote to all those “songs of joy and peace.” “We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we?” Mitchell said with a chuckle on National Public Radio in 2014. “In the ‘bah humbug’ of it all.”

Aside from the sumptuous richness of the production of the song (so lush you can feel the rubbing of your shoulders with Joni on the piano bench)… taking her message of loss and sorrow and turning that blueness into something of beauty is clearly one that rings true for many.

Just drown in the chilly airiness of her singing “fly” near the end of verses 2 and 3.

And River was never truly written as a Christmas song.

Listening to the song, this week before Christmas, I’m struck by thoughts of other creations from times-past that have unexpectedly ridden a tsunami wave of popularity…

Another example… this time a cinema case-in-point:

It’s A Wonderful Life… the Frank Capra produced, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed-acted Christmas masterpiece.

Released 74 (!) years ago in 1946, it barely caused a blip on the popular radar. The film had disappointing attendance and sales, and didn’t even return its cost of production ($6.3 million).

Nominated for Best Picture in 1947, it lost out to The Best Years Of Our Lives. Jimmy Stewart lost in the Best Actor category to Frederic March, also from The Best Years Of Our Lives.

Stewart had barely returned from a 4 year-long stint as an Army Air pilot who flew 20 combat missions over Germany when he took on the role of distraught son, brother, father George Bailey and turned the suicidal character into an emotional icon of film. Critics derided it as overly sentimental…

… it languished in the movie backwaters until the 1980’s when it was released royalty-free into the public domain. It’s A Wonderful Life is now ranked #20 on the top list of movies by the American Film Institute.

The rest is history, the film is a fixture of holiday watching. And today… we all know how an angel gets his wings, right?

My Christmas is best savoured with the bittersweet…

… the unloved Charlie Brown tree, sailing away on Joni’s long river, the recovered desperation of George Bailey…

In whatever way you find your journey through this COVID holiday season – whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or Kwanzaa (Habari Gani)…

… may you discover some Joy and Peace in your little corner of the world.

Pass The Christmas Cake and Remote Please…

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ME… preparing for Christmas!

Ah yes, Christmas in COVID times… a new life experience for all of us who live in the Christian world.

I’m gonna put down my TV remote now and share my guilt trip with you today.

If you can’t feel guilty at Christmas, check your pulse. A Charlie Brown Christmas will just have to wait (but I can listen to the music while writing).

This morning, I was having my twice weekly online 6:30 am tutoring session with my Syrian refugee friend (let’s call him Amir).

We sip coffee and latte together, and chat amiably (in English only – beyond hello, goodbye and thank you, my Arabic sucks big time… yup, more guilt) about our daily lives and the world, before diving into the day’s lesson.

Growing up, Amir barely glimpsed the inside of a classroom in Syria, and after 5 years in Canada, he still struggles hugely with the writing and reading parts of this silly English language we take for granted.

His literacy difficulties (Larry, have you thought that maybe it’s your teaching that is the problem?) hold him back in a major way from obtaining meaningful employment in this country.

The family of 5 (now 7) escaped the brutal Syrian/Russian troop incursions into their small agrarian town near the Jordan border, and arrived in this country having never uttered as much as HELLO in English, and never having felt the bitter chill of snow blowing past their faces. Difficult life? You bet.

Anyway, today – with his burgeoning bundle of English vocabulary – Amir told me the story of his friendly next door neighbour, a 50’ish year-old fellow with 2 young sons – one in Grade 7 and the other in Grade 2.

Amir’s 5 year-old son and the neighbour’s younger son play together often, racing their miniature RC cars in the driveways of the townhouse complex where they live. VROOM VROOM…

The man’s wife is in prison (reason unknown).

Just these tiny pieces of information tell you that the neighbour and his family, like Amir’s, must be in a difficult situation. Then…

Yesterday afternoon… a host of screaming emergency vehicles, blue and red lights flashing – police, fire department, ambulance… CORONER… descended on the neighbour’s house next door… a dozen responders in full uniform…

… an hour and a half later, the neighbour, the father, was declared dead, likely of a heart attack.

As the lifeless father was rolled out of the house in a shiny black, zippered bag, a family member arrived to whisk the 2 boys off to a new “home” in the local area. Merry Christmas little ones.

Even though I don’t truly count myself as a “Christian” today, I’ve lived my entire life in the cozy saturation of Christianity and the Christmas family; beautiful religious ceremony, music, and scents have filled me with nostalgia and warmth and an inclusive sense of belonging… a belonging to something weighty, magical and mysterious. It’s as much a part of me as my heart and lungs.

But with each passing year, and especially so at this time of year, I feel the burden of the discomfort of others (cue melancholy Sarah McLachlan song). This isn’t a bad thing, I don’t think.

It’s good because it tells me that I am experiencing a greater awareness of the whole.

No matter how young or old we are, the ability to unearth and display compassion for others is crucial, and whether it’s tied to a religion or deity doesn’t really matter. Empathy for others isn’t connected to Christianity or Islam or Judaism etc.

Those sounds of discomfort I’m hearing are emanating especially loud this year amongst many individuals and families who despair at the thought of little or no physical connection to family as they awake Christmas morning. It’s not part of our fabled Christmas scene.

Worse still is that Christmas will be even more challenging this year for so many who struggle on a daily basis in ordinary times. These aren’t ordinary times, you know it.

One example in my world: I can only faintly imagine the crushing hurt and thoughts of isolation surging up this year in many of the folks I’ve encountered over the years at the local soup kitchen… or those who can’t visit loved ones in hospitals and care institutions.

And it reminds me to my core of how fortunate I’ve been to have so many opportunities and so many creature comforts… you know… Peace on Earth and Comfort and Joy.

My challenges are infinitely smaller than a family of Syrian refugees living on this alien Canadian “planet”, or a pair of 2 young brothers who’ve lost their main parent and home, and will struggle through a Christmas season like no other.

You will likely find this hard to believe as you read along, but a few hours back I sat down to write this as a light, fluffy piece; a ditty of sorts about my guilty pleasure of watching The Great British Baking Show and this silly passion I hold for sweet food porn interlaced with lovely English, Irish, and Scottish lilts…

… but as so often happens, a tiny voice builds up to a crescendo inside me and crowds my space and finds a different message to write about (you know that speaking about these voices publicly could land you in a totally different space Larry?)

If you’re floundering with Christmas blues this year (and I hope you’re not, but if you or someone you know is struggling – Canada’s Crisis Hotline – 1-833-456-4566), my wish is that you can search your universe and find the positives, your Silver Linings Playbook to get you through …

Here’s my offering, a tiny token to help you along your peaceful trail… another country-style Christmas tune (written by my old bestie John Denver) I played and produced in my little home studio this week. HO HO HO…

Lost Christmas

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NYC Killing 2019

Like a straight-line, linear graph (this is my lab background rearing its ugly head) …

… emotional intensity rises as we inch closer to Christmas.

Must be all that Harking and Jingling and O Holy’ing

The good, the bad, the beautiful, the tragic. The amplification soars.

I feel this intensity every year… my emotional core was struck deeply this past week by the news of a senseless cold-blooded murder of a young woman – a daughter, a sister, a student, a musician – in a New York City park.

Any parent will tell you that likely the most gut-wrenching and worrisome part of bringing children INTO the world, is still being alive to usher them OUT OF the world.

Nothing can prepare us for this.

Although I once experienced a close call many years back, I can only pretend to understand the inner devastation that cuts into a mother or father for the remainder of their days, upon the loss of a child.

So, as a kind of catharsis, I’ve “penned” a set of lyrics this week leading up to Christmas, that attempts to capture a bit of the heartbreak in losing a child, like the family of Tessa Majors … the unexpected, the shock, the despair.

Crimson Christmas

CRIMSON CHRISTMAS   (A Parent’s Lament)

by Larry Green

INTRO:

If she wasn’t young and pretty
would they care?
If he wasn’t an agitated kid dressed out in civvies
would they care?
Are thoughts and prayers enough for us
to show they care… when
the past is our only gift left to unwrap

Verse 1

Silver bells and mistletoe laugh
why would she walk those steps
in darkness alone?
gaudy glittered trees and romantic chaff
frosty wreathes over blood-stained snow
our goodbye epitaph

Verse 2

What ghostly happenstance
brought her to this savage moment
this chain of devil’s chance
from a day of season’s fa-la-la’s
from a life crammed full of plans

CHORUS

Headlines rage
screen lines scathe
tears scorching scars
ripped into our hearts
who asked for this unwanted fraternity
lasting for eternity

Verse 3

Her jacket torn and gashed askew
down feathers fill the evening sky
her heart that lost its beat
her bro that’s lost his feet
her guitar left deathly quiet

Verse 4

There’s little left inside this shell
please god I’ll bare my chest with glee
slash me deep to spare her tears
Crush my face in gravelled snow
I’ll forgo life’s wine and years

Bridge

Our morning seems to never come
Snow angels turn your heads in shame… while…

CHORUS

Headlines rage
screen lines scathe
tears scorching scars
ripped into our hearts
who asked for this unwanted fraternity
lasting for eternity

… and the past is our only gift left to unwrap.

tessa guitar

majors family

What Language Will You Learn in 2019?

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Merry Xmas language.jpg

Son of a Moose!

It’s so simultaneously frustrating and delightful… I know you’re speaking English, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.

And it’s not only because I’ve been drinking myself into an every-waking-moment anti-Trump sh*thole – OK, guilty as charged… but…

I love languages…  a kaleidoscope of colour and nuance and beauty in the form of words and the way they’re strung together. The phrase-work of Venus and Shakespeare.

I guess that’s why I enjoy writing this blog so much.

How many languages do you speak?

No, not Punjabi or Portuguese or Cree. If you can speak any of these, I am super-impressed and orgasmically jealous, but…

No matter your answer because we’re all multilingual.

Let me explain.

Just to be Christian seasonal, I’m pretty fluently Christmaslingual, but not Hannukahlingual or Diwalilingual … in my laboratory working life I was Blood-cellslingual and Bacterialingual but not fluent at all in Orthopedicese or Oncologese.

Different languages… in each stage of our lives we learn new languages, the words and phrases and acronyms that are confusing to most, yet have meaning to others surrounding us with whom we share a common bond.

In my days of working in hospital labs in Yellowknife or Comox or William’s Lake I would be called to SURG125 to draw a CBC for a TUPR on a patient with BPH to be done STAT.

Got that? Makes perfect sense if you speak LABese, right? You’ve had the same experience in whatever field you’ve travelled en-route to your livelihood.

This year I’ve been a “life coach” to a Syrian refugee family that needs assistance with the discombobulated convolutions of government and institutional bureaucracy. It’s been a crash course in a new set of language skills.

No matter how much French I learned in the classrooms of high school or Spanish in a language school in Cusco, Peru, I’m unprepared yet exhilarated by the onslaught of vocabulary needed to be effective or even understood in this latest incarnation of my life.

So while learning and understanding national languages is wonderful, adding to the richness of our existence, so too is learning a new “language” within our own tongue.

The fine-tuning of our brains needs the stretch of unknown unknowns that later become the known knowns.

In 2018, in addition to bureaucracy language I dangled my tongue in the tepid new language waters of:

  • Vegan cooking
  • Music production and recording
  • Non-lab related medical issues
  • Different music styles and tastes
  • Skate-style Cross-country skiing
  • Tai Chi
  • Parachuting

Skate skiing.jpg

Some new words that graced my tongue in 2018: AUG Funding and Permanent Resident Card, TVP (Texturized Vegetable Protein) and Cashew Cream, EQ and Normalization, Fenestration and Intracystic Septation, Fragile Chords and Pentatonic Scales, Diagonal Skate and Double Pole, Pushing Hands, Reserve Handle and Canopy.

When you think over your own past year of activity and events, what new words were added to your vocabulary? What levels of understanding became a part of who you are? What were the stretches of language you encountered along your journey?

With only a few days left in 2018, I’m searching my mind, trying to foresee, like the Spirit of Christmas Yet-To-Come, the vocabulary that will define the year 2019 for me.

But honestly, I have no idea where the path will lead… which languages will find a place in my lexicon.

Perhaps I’ll merely live by the words of lovably cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge:

Ghost of the Future … But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.”

And finally, as we draw close to the day of Christmas and the sight of a new year, a new beginning:

And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!’’

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My Life As A Christian Fraudster

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closet atheist.jpg

Square peg in a round hole.

Am I a fraud? Am I usurping a zone where I don’t belong?

Or … am I merely a sign of the times… a modern zeitgeist where anyone is welcome anywhere so long as they don’t try to upend and smash the belief cart?

Like a reticent homosexual, I’ve climbed out of the closet in recent years, only my “reveal” is that I’m an atheist.

To be fair, I won’t pretend that the fears I felt in the past when people become aware of my non-belief, in any way compares to the traumas of others who’ve encountered much greater rejection related to their sexuality.

But fears and unease they were still.

For the past couple of centuries, Canada has been a “Christian” country. When I was born in 1957, more than 90% of the Canadian populace was Christian.

Of course today it’s a pastiche of religions, pseudo-religions, and non-religion. Barely 60% identify as Christian today.

I grew up in the United Church of Canada.

I hated the unending “preachy” sermons, but I really loved the hymns, the grape juice that I pretended was real wine (even while knowing that St. Eugene’s Catholic Church a few blocks away had the real stuff), the stained-glass windows.

I loved the warmth of the people always shaking hands and smiling. The warmth may have been put on temporarily like wearing your best Sunday suit, but it felt good nonetheless.

I’m comfortable now in my non-believing skin, but I can’t seem to shake a churchly connection to my past. Even though I proclaim myself an atheist, I’m in no hurry to cut the ties of my heritage.

We’re at the end of the first week of December in the Okanagan Valley, and I’m awaiting that true harbinger of Christmas, the first beautiful snowfall of the season. Nonetheless, the Christmas celebration is rushing headlong at us and Christmas says Christian, right?

Yet here I am, many years removed from my days of religious faith, and many thousands of kilometres away from my family’s church.

It’s music’s fault and I’m unapologetic. In fact, I’m thankful.

And on 4 occasions now, I’ve been asked to play my guitar and sing at the local United Church at their Monday night Community Dinners. When I told the vivacious woman in charge of these functions about my own belief system, she happily laughed it off and said, “so what?“…. WTH? … were they welcoming the Grinch into their little village?

 

Also, this year I’ve been asked to stand by the Salvation Army “kettles” to croon my John Denver version of Christmas for Cowboys and collect alms for the Christmas cheer of the less-favoured in the local area. I reflect back to the time when the folks standing by the kettles ringing the bells were outfitted in their authoritative “Army” uniforms, looking the well-starched Christian soldier part. Even their clunky black shoes looked God-fearing to me.

That was then. The volunteers I encounter standing by the Sally Ann kettles now come in jeans and wear Santa hats. That’s pretty inclusive.

In tutoring my Syrian Muslim friend, I’m acting as his interpreter of the Christmas season, just as he does the same for me during Ramadan. We enjoy learning about each other’s worlds. I’m just a non-Christian playing a small part in a world of Christians and Jews and Muslims and Atheists and on and on.

But I hope the feeling that I get by being around and enjoying others with different belief systems is a trend that continues to spread as our uneasy, uncomfortable world slowly… inexorably melds itself into a sphere of tolerance and acceptance.

If only I were a Christian… then I might suggest that “tolerance and acceptance” would be an excellent 11th Commandment… nobody needs religion to buy into that, right? Thank you… Thank you very much …

Sally Ann Elvis

 

 

Christmas Old and New

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That was then. This is now.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a Christian believer.

Maybe it’s because Don Draper and all the advertising Mad Men crawled inside me and wouldn’t stop ringing Christmas bells and playing the jingle-script of Kris Kringle perfection.

Maybe the Charlie Browns and Grinches and Rudolphs and Ebenezer Scrooges were like multiple-personality Sybil’s speaking at me in an unstoppable constant repeat.

Xmas TV

Yes Virginia, I like the modern tradition of Christmas gift-giving.

I love to spend hours watching others  – one by one – open a beautifully-wrapped present. A personal gift given to a loved and/or admired one is as close to my definition of “Christmas spirit” as the other “meanings” of Christmas.

But in days long gone, I’ve been panic-struck while Christmas shopping. If I was migraine-prone, I would have OD’d on opioids from the tension I layered over me like a searing winter duvet.

I can remember years where I drove the streets of my birth-city like a crazy man, battling snowstorms, madly seeking out some sense of Yuletide perfection that could never be possible. Always dangling but never attainable.

Ho Ho How will I ever send everyone – friends, relatives (large families are wonderful until you count up your two dozen nieces and nephews on December 1st) – to the pinnacle of joy unless I have the perfect gift?

Cheery-fluff snowflakes laughed at my misery as they drifted by my face beneath the streetlights.

Anxiety and anguish were my shopping companions. All to the accompaniment of joy and peace and good tidings shared with a thousand (hmmm… felt like a million) other crowded shoppers.

I was captive to my consumer culture.

That’s one hand. And as my good Fiddler friend Tevye says: “On the other hand…

… this old dog has found a new trick.

My culture, my time, has provided me with the greatest shopper’s gift called … the INTERNET.

BUY, BUY, BUY

Yes, I’m still a captive to the consumer culture. I buy. I buy more than my initial budget tells me to. I still agonize over what my peeps will tear open and beam at with delight.

But the anxious hours I used to spend uneasily traipsing the mobbed aisles of department stores and scented boutiques (I really do love the sweet scent in small boutique shops) are pared down to minutes now that I do my window shopping gazing through the windows of the menagerie of online stores.

Once I find the treasure I’m seeking in the “Internet Mall”, I’ll call or visit my local merchants. If they offer the same or similar item at a similar price (I’m always willing to pay a few dollars more to support the local), we have a sale!

Otherwise, Amazon or Hudson’s Bay or LL Bean or TicketMaster suck in my conspicuous consumption $$.

Either way… it’s… Relaxed … Easy … Anxiety-Free.

I love Christmas morning. It’s the same as every other morning, except it isn’t. Does that make sense?

Christmas awakening is a release of all the merry tautness, all of the mental and physical effort that pours out over a month of anticipation and sugar and alcohol.

Even for us non-believers, there’s a sense of spiritual awareness and warmth and a magical aura that comes with the harmony of hymns and cheerful “Merry Christmas“es. Joy to The World feels more real on Christmas Day.

When I was a child, Merry Christmas was all we had.

Today I can share the pleasures of the many cultures that surround me. There’s no need to toss aside the calling out of Merry Christmas, or Happy Hannukah, or Gung Hay Fat Choy or Happy Kwanzaa. And sure, even Happy Holidays…

We can all participate in the joy of each other’s celebrations.

That’s the gladness I find in this “new” Christmas that I want to share with my friends of all beliefs.

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Ghosts of Christmas 1957… God Save The Queen

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Christmas Singers

Sfffftttt pftttttttt clunnnkkk… The rambunctious sounds of children’s bare feet on chilly oakwood floors awoke Mom and Dad after their far-too-short sleep post-Santa preparations by the living room fireplace.

Wednesday, December 25, 1957.

Baby’s First Christmas… MY First Christmas…

My brothers and sisters rushed with visible excitement into the living room of our 2 storey brick-clad Pottruff Road house before the morning darkness had even considered dissipating.

Dreams of science books, 45 rpm records, meccano and train sets, transistor radios, and cushy borg-lined slippers around the Scotch Pine tree, ransacked the insides of my sibs’ young heads.

The skies outside that morn were sooty grey and misty; a cool, light rain drizzled down on our Hamilton, Ontario home. The red mercury-filled thermometer outside our backdoor teeter-tottered up and down around the freezing point throughout the day.

No, a soft, fluffy white Christmas wouldn’t grace our Steeltown this Christmas day.

Five months into my existence, I celebrated my first Christmas without teeth, without the use of words, without control over my bowels, without any idea of what the world I lived in would look like 60 years later.

My mother’s eyes were no doubt red-rimmed so early, her head groggy from Christmas gift buying and wrapping as she collapsed on the couch (we called it a chesterfield then) in the reflected light of the Christmas tree.

In her exhaustion from all the preparations for a family of 7, she still had yet to prepare the sage and onion-scented stuffing for the turkey.

Here she was a worn out 45 year old with a brood of 5, and one – ME – a newborn.

We were the standard WASP Canadian family of 1957 and the Queen’s Christmas message coming over our radio would have been a moment of collective calm.

queen 1957.jpg

Queen Elizabeth’s 1957 Christmas Message

I’m not a staunch monarchist.

I guess in a fashion similar to my religious tastes, I don’t really believe in it, but I happily accept its meaning and power to others.

I barely notice the rumblings of the folks who rummage around inside Buckingham or Kensington Palace.

I don’t dislike the Royal clan. I even truly admire the royal pageantry and regal trappings just as I admire the awe-inspiring beauty of the inside of an historic cathedral. Beauty is beauty regardless of the philosophy or circumstance that brought it to be.

Harkening back to my first Christmas reminds me that Queen Elizabeth II broadcast her very first TV Christmas message this day. It wasn’t her first Christmas missive but it was the first where she could be seen in the flesh as she spoke.

Here’s a sampling of the words she spoke (listen to it in her own voice here)  on Christmas day 60 years ago:

… But it is not the new inventions which are the difficulty. The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery. 
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They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honestly counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint. 
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At this critical moment in our history we will certainly lose the trust and respect of the world if we just abandon those fundamental principles which guided the men and women who built the greatness of this country and Commonwealth.
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Today we need a special kind of courage, not the kind needed in battle but a kind which makes us stand up for everything that we know is right, everything that is true and honest.
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We need the kind of courage that can withstand the subtle corruption of the cynics so that we can show the world that we are not afraid of the future. 
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It has always been easy to hate and destroy. To build and to cherish is much more difficult. That is why we can take a pride in the new Commonwealth we are building.
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Last October I opened the new Canadian Parliament, and as you know this was the first time that any Sovereign had done so in Ottawa. Once again I was overwhelmed by the loyalty and enthusiasm of my Canadian people. 
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Also during 1957 my husband and I paid visits to Portugal, France, Denmark and the United States of America… 

 

Really? 60 years ago? No way….

Over the years, I’ve rarely plunked down and listened to the Queen’s short talk where she opined on the state of the world.

It was my late father-in-law’s routine to insist on hearing her each year and I would smile at the tradition that meant a great deal to him and so little to me.

However, this Christmas season, as I nostalgically listen to Johnny Mathis sing I’ll Be Home For Christmas or the Muppets and John Denver sing The Twelve Days of Christmas where Fozzie Bear forgets his line (“Seven swans a-swimming”) and Miss Piggy over-emphasizes hers (“Five gold rings, ba-dum, bum, bum.)… or as I hum along to some of the actual hits of Christmas 1957 : Sam Cook You Send Me… Elvis Jailhouse Rock… Buddy Holly Peggy Sue… Everly Brothers Wake Up Little Susie

… I may settle into a warm chair with an eggnog latte and listen in with interest to a few moments of the Queen’s Christmas message, 2017.

I guess I’ve forgotten in the last while how invigorating it can be to listen in when a true statesman or stateswoman speaks of bright, positive opportunities and choices.

This year – more than any other year I can recall in my lifetime – the desire to listen to someone of substance say a few gentle, wise words about the goodness in the world, someone who attempts to speak to unity of disparate and desperate people of the world, someone who attempts to raise the bar of what humanity is and can be… well, my good friends… this is a part of the Christmas spirit I may need reminding of …

And in four short words… here are two institutions you’ll rarely hear me speak of in such tones of full, true reverence and admiration:

God Save The Queen…

… and yes … Merry Christmas To All …

Denver and muppets.jpg

Soup Kitchen Santa

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Today, a fictional short story based on a non-fictional person…

soup kitchen santa

If they had a chimney on this building, I could sneak in and bring us all out some warm cookies!”

John stood in line with the other early-comers in front of the plate-glass doors to the Soupateria. A few wispy snowflakes swirled and played in the morning’s light breeze.

His deep voice and laughter rang out over the quiet chatter of the others.

Looking at him, listening to him, you could become convinced in your ears and in your head – at least in the month of December – that Santa Claus himself had found his way south and joined the crowd waiting for some hot soup on a chilly Okanagan day, supping with those he had delivered special gifts to over many decades in their youth.

John hadn’t the stereotypical physique of Santa, he was fit and rode a bedraggled bicycle, no reindeer in the lead, on the chilliest of days.

He didn’t sport a rosy nose or chubby cheeks beneath the faded Santa hat that he wore today for the first time this year, instead of his usual Toronto Maple Leaf toque.

“You like cookies Betty Ann?”, he chuckledShe smiled a toothless grin and nodded.

What he did have was a fluffy grey-white beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a winsome, devilish smile and a charm in his speech that brought smiles to the faces of adults and children alike. You couldn’t be faulted for calling him jolly.

The tenor of his deep voice rang out loudly – like a low, rumbling avalanche in the distant hillside – as if he had a microphone hidden away in his woollen sweater or his old ski jacket.

John hadn’t worked a day in years even though he was probably 15 years short of normal retirement age.

His last job as a gardener ended with a soulless whimper one balmy day after lunch; he snuck in a nap while leaned against the tire of the boss’s work truck, and then just declined to get back up to mow the customer’s backyard lawn.

John was sweet and warm and jolly… and slightly deluded.

It wasn’t only you or I that might be fooled by his similarities to Saint Nick. Nope.

When John looked at himself in the mirror each day, the man staring back, he was convinced, was Saint Nicholas.

John believed in Santa Claus – John believed in himself. John is a current day Miracle on 34th Street.

After filing through the long lineup at the soup serving window, mischievously and with one eyebrow raised, he searched the dessert counter for a prized chocolate chip muffin.

Every day he prayed for chocolate chip muffins.

He’d chuckle when the serving person at the counter handed him his prize, then, solitary, he’d sit quietly at a far end table and munch away at his soup and sandwich with headphones wrapped over his toque and ears.

When he sipped the last dribs of hot chocolate and swallowed the final bite of his muffin, he turned his attention to the others lined up at the long tables and worked his way through the group, chatting in animation and laughter.

I don’t know John well other than our regular friendly small talk conversations outside the soup kitchen as he patiently waited for “door opening”.

A soup kitchen volunteer once told me that John had an older autistic brother that lived with him in a small basement apartment a block away from the beach.

For a long time, a couple of years at least, I’ve observed John and his gentle calm demeanour as he jabbered with the heavily tattooed; the itinerant fruit pickers from Quebec, Mexico, or France; those with pockmarked faces from meth abuse; and others indistinguishable from anyone else you know.

Last week, near the end of my dishwashing shift, a clatter arose in the dining hall behind me. No biggee. Just usual squabbling.

I finished off rinsing a bowl in the deep stainless-steel sink, popped it into the dish rack, then turned slowly to see what the din was about.

Often a minor kerfuffle breaks out amongst the Soupateria denizens over a toe clumsily stepped on or when someone gets deeply offended by a sandwich uneaten. Most arguments are worked out within seconds and calm settles back in like a duvet shaken over a bed.

This time was different. I looked out into the big room as a sizeable throng rushed out the front door as a smaller throng rushed back in. Hmmmm, that’s not typical.

The ones rushing in were signalling to us volunteers with crazed looks on their faces.

Man down!“, one woman yelled. The surreal scene began to take on the sheen of a movie set, I almost expected to hear another voice cry out… “CUT!

I had an immediate jolt of “this was happening“. For months, I had thought about this moment each time I came in to help out.

Fentanyl.

Linda, kitchen supervisor for the day, and I looked at each other with trepidation. We knew where the kit was located that we had hoped to never need to locate.  We also both knew that we were the only ones trained on site.

We were slightly stunned but our glances turned into reflex action; we both scurried towards the noise and activity.

Weaving through the crowded group, we exited the building onto the cement walkway out front where a human circle had formed like the ones kids make around a schoolyard fight.

There was no surprise in seeing a man’s body splayed on the hard ground, a few snowflakes resting on his dark blue ski jacket. Motionless and quiet. Still, with no breath.

The surprise arose when I saw the Santa hat on the victim’s head.

John.

Grey, lifeless, unsmiling John; his skin and beard colour not differing by many tonal shades.

The next few minutes – it might have been 5, maybe 10, maybe an hour, who knows –  were a blur as Linda and I went throughout the steps of administering naloxone as best we could remember.

Because of my previous lab experience in needle use, I did the injections into John while Linda made some attempts at artificial respiration. I drew up a cc of the drug into the syringe and plunged it into his now-exposed shoulder.

We waited and watched. One go round and we could see that John wasn’t responding. No movement, no breathing, no less grey.

There were sirens in the distant background. Linda said, “it’s been 3 minutes now, I think you should give him another shot.

I had the next needle deep beneath his skin when, oblivious to anything more than 12 inches away, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The EMT’s had arrived.

…………….

John… Santa… still ashen-grey, was whisked away with sirens blaring.

The crowd dispersed quietly as Linda and I gathered the detritus left on the sidewalk, the  plastic containers and latex gloves, the bits of paper and empty naloxone vials.

The last thing I picked up was John’s weathered Santa hat.

I carefully folded it and placed it into my apron pocket. I’d give it back to John after he recovered, next time I saw him riding his bike or at the soup kitchen window.

Later that evening, I received a phone call from Linda.

Quietly, haltingly, she said that John hadn’t made it. Street Santa was gone.

I hung up the phone and reflected. Our streets are replete with those who appear normal – well-adjusted – on the surface. And yet World War III has been waging all along in the background.

I guess I’ll track down John’s brother and return his Santa hat now.

Santa hat

 

 

 

 

The Sweetness of a Solstice Symphony

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Paris with the snow falling. Paris with the big charcoal braziers outside the cafes, glowing red. At the cafe tables, men huddled, their coat collars turned up, while they finger glasses of grog Americain and the newsboys shout the evening papers.
     The buses rumble like green juggernauts through the snow that sifts down in the dusk. White house wall rise through the dusky snow. Snow is never more beautiful than in the city. It is wonderful in Paris to stand on a bridge across the Seine looking up through the softly curtaining snow past the grey bulk of the Louvre, up the river spanned by many bridges and bordered by the grey houses of old Paris to where Notre Dame squats in the dusk.
     It is very beautiful in Paris and very lonely at Christmas time.”
Ernest Hemingway

………………………………..

Christmas. The Beauty and the Beast.

Merry Christmas. I mean that.

I’m a Godless atheist. But…

I look forward to Christmastime… perhaps more for the coming of Winter Solstice than the coming of a Jesus child.

Maybe that’s not true.

I loved Christmas as a kid when I awoke and dashed out to the living room and found Santa presents like electric car-racer sets and Slinky’s and ukuleles, and Mom sat, wearily exhausted on the couch from all the Christmas preparations but smiling through half-closed eyes, enjoying the excited sounds of her family gathered ’round a Scotch Pine tree in the living room.

I watch old 8 mm. home movies now and twinkle inside at the filmy dream of my family that shared warm cheer 50 years ago.

I love Christmas for the food. The ribbon salad and warm sage-scented stuffing. Chocolate and shortbread everywhere, gooey sweet rum caramel-sauce-laden Christmas pudding.

I love Christmas for the all-is-calm solemnity of a belief system that involves majestic pageantry and the echoing sounds of beautiful harmonious carol singing inside a high-arched church or cathedral.

I love Christmas for the little lights strung everywhere and the soothing warmth of a crackling fire.

I love Christmas because once, soldiers set down their killing weapons and stopped fighting; cold, worn-out men from both sides ventured into No Man’s land on Christmas Day to mingle, play football, and exchange food and souvenirs.

I love Christmas for the sappy movies and shows- Bing and Rosemary in White Christmas, Jimmy and Donna in It’s A Wonderful Life, Charlie and Lucy in Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch and Cindy Lou Who.

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I love Christmas for the positive feelings shared by the people I encounter in my life passages. “Merry Christmas“, we call out to anyone and everyone. It’s about the togetherness of people; Christmas makes people ruminate about love and doing nice things for others. A mild Chinook Yule-breeze changes peoples’ attitudes at Christmas.

Like a laboratory centrifuge (forgive me, old lab tech talk!), Christmas concentrates the emotions, the glad and the sad.

Joyous tears. Melancholy tears.

Christmas brings me a soul-seeping inner sadness and pain because I know others, who either by choice or by chance, have no connection to the spirit of togetherness on Christmas. Family either doesn’t exist or is estranged. I want everyone to feel good on Christmas Day and I can’t make it happen. I’m impotent in a way that no Viagra can resurrect.

My soup kitchen experiences have brought me into contact with dozens who have no place and no one to bring them warmth. Many – the dejected and lonely, even many of the volunteers – gather for lunch at the soup kitchen on Christmas day so they feel a connectedness to something and someone. Family.

I struggle with the bittersweetness of it all.

We invest so much of our lives in one day… one day that reminds us of the best and the worst in our lives.

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But, bear with my warped mind here… maybe a way – one strange way- to celebrate Christmas is to get naked like old-style pagans and pay tribute to the wonder of our own birth… how we began our lives as a billion to one long-shot chance on a blind date between an egg and a sperm (despite definitely knowing that OUR Mom and Dad never did that dirty horizontal dance!).

A 9-month prenatal courtship followed by that violent jettison from a wet and warm den down a slippery hallway. Surrounded by tired, sore and smiling parents. Our first words were cries, our first meal the rich milk of our mother. Swaddling clothes but no manger. Definitely no sheep or oxen.

A small elf [us] was unleashed on the world.

A new birth… the poetry and wonder of a life unwritten. It’s a Bach cantata, a Beethoven Moonlight Sonata written one harmonious note, one bar at a time.

Our own personal Christmas story… a rebirth, a new page turned in the next chapter, the next few bars in our grand symphony.

Christmas and Solstice are a Dickensian-like recall of spirits from our past, misty connections and ephemeral moments that slipped past but live on and breathe in our interior world.

May your days be merry and bright….

………………………………..

Anyone who believes that men are the equal of women has never seen a man trying to wrap a Christmas present.”

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The New Frontier… I Want A World…

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With apologies to Dickens, it’s… A Tale of Two Issues.

I’m repelled by Donald Trump – it’s as if some midnight jokester set a steamy bag of dog shit on my front doorstep – but dammit…

… That A-hole is making me money.

On paper, at least.

It irks me that I rub my hands together joyously in egocentric financial glee.

It’s a conundrum. I feel guilty.

It’s two-faced that I snort happily at the trough of increased wealth as my investments benefit, based almost solely on the market-swelling narcissistic tweets and ramblings of a Bah Humbug man, a man who points and yells out to adoring white-skinned (and white-hooded!) crowds spreading virulent hatred of immigrants and women and parents of dead soldiers.

Since Trump’s election to President last month, my stock holdings have soared skyward like an Olympic pole-vaulter that has finally discovered the tricky technique of gliding over the high bar.

Sure, I did my homework and carefully selected the stocks – the Apples and Aflacs, the L Brands and Royal Banks and 20 others. I chopped the vegetables and set out the spices for the monetary soup, but Trump mixed it together in the pot and magically cooked the soup to an unexpected, unnatural greatness… again, for the mainly white and wealthy.

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…………………

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

…………………

YES Virginia… we all have personal issues of hypocrisy and confusion that divide us internally. I wrestle and spar with my occult demons regularly.

You see, I want a world filled with leaders who respect and desire peace and accommodation and compassion for others.

…………………

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

…………………

I want a world where we hunger for everyone to do well, for all 7+ billion humans to have a standard of living that reflects a similar paycheque for similar work… in the affluent western world, we fret about women making the same wages as a man for the same work, and yet, we live in a world where we selfishly tolerate billions of men, women and children living in poverty despite working laboriously hard and very long hours.

…………………

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

…………………

I want a world where the air is comfortably breathable in Boston, Berlin, and Beijing; a world where fish aren’t thoughtlessly killed off by industrial toxins and oil spills, a world where animal habitat is as important as human housing.

…………………

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

…………………

I want a world where women are regarded with the same respect as men in every way, a world that doesn’t victimize and use girls as sexual chattel, prevent them from educating themselves, mere toys for the rich and famous to grab by the pussy.

…………………

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

…………………

I want a world where we can all enjoy the amazing richness of peace and wealth and understanding that a 21st century globe deserves.

Surely we’ve absorbed and learned countless lessons that millennia of missteps and hardships have taught us.

This is our new frontier.

We talk in glowing epithets of Christmas spirit, and births of new hope.

If the true Christmas spirit is what most of us truly long for… I hope… hope looking through my optimistic rose-coloured glasses… that we’ll continue to push and search and work towards a place where we gaze not only inwards, as I do with my investment portfolio – no Virginia, I’ll never be Mother Teresa or Ghandi or Mandela – but outwards too with a generous spirit and a desire of goodness for all.

My sugar-plum dreams are filled with a planet that cries out in unison…

Make The World Great For Everyone“…

… not only America… not only white men… not only Christians, Jews, Muslims, Bahá’ís, Hindus, Buddhists… an aspiration, an inspiration for better…

…………………

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

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