This week a group of friends, all working and/or retired teachers, celebrated our Christmas pot luck dinner. I drove almost two hours one way to see them, as I do every month, but I love this group of friends and am willing to do it. We always go to Anne and Bobby’s log cabin home set back off a country road, surrounded by forest and fields. Years ago, they built this beautiful log home mostly by themselves; they dug their own well and set themselves up to be as self-sufficient as possible. They have a deep sense of stewardship for the earth and live as simply as possible. Their home is cozy and warm and I always feel welcome.
The group, as a whole, is creative and fun. We always go for a hike before dinner, enjoy our meal and then often play board games or share photos and conversations of recent trips or events. This month we had a celebrative Christmas party.
I arrived a little late and found Bobby putting the finishing touches on a Christmas tree set up in the corner. I complimented him on his choice, assuming that he had cut down one of the many trees on his property. He invited me to come take a closer look. I was amazed! He had found a dead maple tree trunk, put it in a pot and using fresh spruce boughs and a drill and ingenuity, inserted the live boughs to create a truly beautiful little Christmas tree.
“Would you call this a fake live tree or a live fake tree?” he laughed.
We always pick a theme for our dinner. This month, because it was Christmas, we all made ‘ginger’ dishes. There was carrot ginger soup, cheese and ginger mini sandwiches, ginger flavoured cheese, a stirfry with ginger sauce and rice, ginger and cabbage salad, ginger molasses cookies, chocolate covered candied ginger, and a lemon grass/ginger bubbling beverage.
After dinner we constructed a gingerbread house that turned into a gingerbread stable when one of the walls collapsed. We had lots of laughter and fun as each of us contributed to the Christmas creche we spontaneously created with two gingerbread figures for Mary and Joseph. A bright candy wrapper became a swaddling blanket for the baby Jesus, a tiny toy figurine Anne found that looked more like a tiny alien than a baby, and we stuck him into a gingerbread molasses cookie cradle. A plastic toy giraffe became the ‘donkey’ that carried Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Lyn, with a huge amount of patience, finished off the final touches to the gingerbread stable with candies and chocolate.
We exchanged gifts and cards: Moraine had a friendship bracelet for each of us, brought back from her recent trip to Guatemala; Lyn had hand-made soaps and toothpaste she had made at a local workshop; I handed out my own photo Christmas cards and Anne and Bobby gave us each a copy of their annual “Egbert Courier” newsletter.
Kathy brought a Christmas trivia game and we had fun asking each other questions and trying to come up with the correct answers as a group. Many of the questions had to do with Christmas carols and each time one came up, we would stop the game and sing a Christmas song together with Anne playing piano and Bobby his violin.
At the end of the night, we dimmed the lights, and with musical accompaniment and two part harmony, we sang “Silent Night” in unison. With lots of hugs and kisses, we said our goodbyes and wished each other a Merry Christmas.
For me, this was a memorable evening that I will treasure for years to come. It was the simple things that counted the most: good friendships, a tasty meal, music, hand-made gifts, and lots of laughter and spontaneity.
Merry Christmas to all. I pray that you too will have a memory-filled, happy holiday season.
Yesterday my Snack ‘n Chat group that meets weekly had one of our potluck lunches. One of the women has been recently widowed after forty-seven years of marriage and she told us a beautiful story about the loss of her wedding ring in a local store shortly after her husband’s death and its miraculous recovery.
For two weeks after the loss of the ring, she returned to that store over and over again, asking in different departments and areas of the store if it had been found. No one had seen it.
Again this week, she asked a young clerk if the ring happened to be under the cash area on a shelf perhaps. It wasn’t. My friend moved on to do more shopping and the young girl went to talk to one of her friends in the store. The next thing my friend heard was her name being called over the P.A. system. She was to return to the same counter again.
“Now, I don’t want to get your hopes up,” the young girl said. “We have found a wedding ring. It may not be yours. Security is bringing it to us.”
They all watched with anticipation as a uniformed guard approached. He stood before them and pulled out a clear plastic bag from his pocket. Inside was the wedding ring!
My friend was overjoyed and broke out in loud squeals and a mixture of tears and laughter. The clerks and guard all joined her causing a joyful ruckus that could be heard throughout the store.
Where had the ring been all this time? No one was sure but my friend’s persistence and prayers paid off.
We each shared stories that day about miraculous events after the loss of a loved one. One woman felt her deceased husband had visited her in the night leaving a kiss on her lips. Another spoke of a knock at a door, and her deceased father entered the room, fully clothed, in the flesh. She felt he had returned so she could say a final goodbye to him. I shared my story of a medium’s message of eternal love and gratitude from my beloved Tom.
I found it quite amazing that four women had four stories about miraculous events after the loss of a loved one. We tend to not talk of these things in our society. I believe there are more stories out there. It appears that our loved ones do go on and can send us signs and symbols from eternity. Love lives on.
Sometimes I climb mountains and stand on snow-covered peaks and watch a rolling panorama of clouds drift by all around me. Down in the valley the world sits, a miniature grid of rivers and roads and towns, people busy in an existence that doesn’t involve me as I stand in heaven detached from it all. I stretch my arms wide open into a clear blue sky and inhale deeply the pure bliss of it all.
. . . But it’s not home.
Sometimes I swim in aquamarine oceans, floating, bobbing gently over waves and watch a world of colour bubble below me. Coral in rainbow hues, shapes and sizes that stretch the imagination with brain-like humps, tree-like projections and wispy tendrils sway in the ocean current in oranges, pinks, blues, and purples. Fish, hundreds of them in every shade ever created, swim in undulating schools around me. Clams, lying on the ocean floor, display their neon-blue interiors to a watery world. Larger waving creatures swim lazily by, leaving dark shadows in the distance. I think I could float forever in this wondrous world of mystery and beauty.
. . . But it’s not home.
Sometimes I wander the Garden of Eden, a tropical world of scented flowers, twisting vines and tall palm trees. The sun warms me as I close my eyes and let its rays penetrate my bones. I am unencumbered with loose, flowing clothes; the gentle breezes cool and lift my spirit. This is a world of turquoise, lime and pink, pastel colours that soften the soul. There is no rushing here, no hastiness to complete a day. Just quiet and gentleness that soothes and comforts and says, “Breathe. Relax. Rest in this tranquillity.”
. . . But it’s not home.
Sometimes I walk cobblestone lanes lined with thatched roof cottages. Patchwork fields, edged in hedgerows and cows, stretch over rolling hills. Herds of bleating sheep compete for space as I wander down dusty roads and across fields of grass. Ancient stories reside here in monolithic rocks, rising in circles that speak of ritual and magic. Fairies dance in the morning dew and the dark forests hide secrets of beastly denizens. History is told over pints of foaming brew and pots of steeped tea as smiling faces invite me in to sit by the fire. I am welcome here.
. . . But it’s not home.
My home is maple trees running thick with sap in the spring. It is flowers bravely peeping up through melting snow in bright slashes of colour. In the summer, I can float in a cool, clear lake and watch schools of fresh-water fish swim deep through underwater canyons. Here I stand in awe of a red, orange and gold vista that stretches across a countryside in autumn glory. Snowflakes fall gently on my hair and eyelashes, frozen icicles sparkle in the cool sun, blankets of purity coat a white world of winter wonder. Limestone escarpments, rushing waterfalls and towering pines compete with soaring skyscrapers and ribbons of highway that stretch from coast to coast. This is a big country, resplendent with natural wonders and a hard-working people comfortable in their own skins. This is where I belong, my birthplace. The cool waters run through my veins, granite and limestone form the bedrock of my soul. Canada.
This is home.
This day, as loved ones around me face loss and grief, I was reminded by Facebook Memories of a video I had posted three years ago, sent to me by my daughter Maegan. It’s about a 96-year old man named Fred Stobaugh, who had lost his wife after 75 years together.
Fred wrote the lyrics for a song about his beloved wife, Lorraine, and Green Shoe Studio helped him bring it to life. The song and video went viral as the world embraced Fred and his love story.
Now there are six videos on You Tube about Fred and his song “Oh Sweet Lorraine.” I am including the first video here. I had time to watch the other five videos and it is a beautiful story about love, and relationships, and the memories we cherish.
In the 4th video, a 7th grade student wrote in a letter to Fred about his song and his life with Lorraine and how it had impacted her. She wrote, “You should treasure what you have as long as you have it, and then treasure the memories you have of it.”
Some things in life we can’t change, we can only accept them, and accept them with deep gratitude and love. The simplest, most basic moments, shared with someone we love become the most valued as precious memories. As I felt with my Tom, it didn’t matter what we did, but that we did it together.
In my present research and writing for a book I will be a part of dealing with grief, I have read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it, he often quotes Nietzsche with “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW” as he explains that it is not the circumstances of life that give us meaning and purpose, it is our attitude and choices we make that give us meaning and purpose. We cannot stop suffering in our lives, but we can choose not to suffer. We can choose to be responsible for our lives, even in taxing circumstances, and seek out the beauty, the small moments, the sensory gifts, that make the moment not only bearable, but even glorious.
Dr. B. J. Miller, in this Ted Talk video, speaks of dying and death. We can’t stop dying. But we can choose how we spend our last days. We can’t solve for death, but we can design towards it by making the life we have left more wonderful, rather than less horrible, He states, “You can always find a shock of beauty or meaning in what life you have left. If we love such moments ferociously, then maybe we can learn to live well, not in spite of death, but because of it.”
Frankl and Miller speak of the same things. Living and dying well is our responsibility. Rather than becoming a victim to our circumstances, we can direct the quality and beauty of our lives to the very end. Frankl quotes the Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder with:
“If I do not do it – who else will do it. And if I do not do it now – then when?”
I stopped in front of the large photograph on the wall of the art gallery. It was a picture of a make-shift table, more a platform, pushed into the corner of a room. On the table was a simple place-setting: one plate, one fork, one knife, one cup. In the corner of the table was a book, partially read and marked with a bookmark. One chair was pulled up to the table, facing the corner. The wall behind the table was unadorned, devoid of any pictures that would draw the eye. That’s all. There was nothing more in the picture.
My friend said, “Now that’s an odd picture.” And moved on.
I lingered. I thought, This person lives alone. Or at least, the photographer knows what it’s like to live alone. The photo had a stark simplicity to it. Although it was in colour, it left me feeling black and white. It was a picture of life stripped down. But, therein, was its purity. It was a picture of the basic nature of a life when everything else is peeled away and someone is left alone. With no distractions other than that person’s own choosing. After all, there was a partially read book on the table.
Living alone isn’t necessarily a bad life. It has its benefits. I spread eagle my body across my queen size bed every night, taking all the pillows. I wake up when I want to and retire at night whenever I wish. I have total T.V. remote control power. If I want to cook an extravagant meal with garlic shrimp, roasted eggplant, and Portobello mushrooms, I do. Sometimes I eat Kraft dinner. I have the freedom to jump on a plane or hop in the car and head out to see the world whenever I wish to. Life centers round my own needs and interests and desires. The rhythm of life is my own to create and I beat my own drum, loudly and joyfully. Living alone, one needs not be lonely. Family and friends are only a mouse click or text or telephone call away. Or not.
So, Mr. Photographer (or is it Miss or Mrs. or Ms.), I see your photograph of a life lived alone. But I think my own photo would look a little different. There would be a table with at least four chairs in a corner of a room. I would have one place setting facing out, but there would be a stack of plates and placemats and silverware on the opposite corner, ready for meal-time sharing when the opportunity arose. I would have a vase of bright red tulips in the middle of the table and a crystal glass ready to be topped with sparkling wine. The wall behind me would be filled with framed pictures: my daughters, my grandson, laughing faces in tropical settings, kangaroos and cockatoos, snow-covered mountains, and sunsets over the ocean. The sun would be streaming in from an unseen window flooding my little dining corner with golden rays. There wouldn’t be a book on the table. Good food and private musings would be enough for mealtime contemplation. It would be a photograph full of colour and light, potential, and gratitude. It would be a picture of life lived alone, but never lonely.
At the recent wedding of my daughter and her new husband, the room seemed to be immersed in love and positive feelings. It was a room filled with large and close family groupings. One of the extended families consisted of 63 adults, another included five siblings and their parents and partners. All the guests seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely and there was a deep sense of community, family, and love among them. I knew that it was a room filled with people who had experienced pain and deep tragedy in their lives, but they didn’t come across as tragic figures or martyrs.
I watched with pleasure as six adult sisters dressed up in costumes and goofed around at the fun photo booth set up in a corner of the reception hall. I’m sure each one of them had experienced deep tragedy in their lives; they had lost their beloved mother in the past year, one of them I knew had lost a child at a young age, but there they were laughing, embracing and sharing the deep bond they obviously had for each other. At another table, a family member, who is dealing with cancer and is in active chemotherapy treatments, was there laughing uproariously with his large family as they shared stories and love. Most important of all, both families were having fun.
Life should be fun. When bad things happen or things make us unhappy, we can wrap ourselves up in it, cut the tragic figure, “Oh, woe is me!” Sometimes we can even take great pride in our tragedy: “Look at me. Look at how wonderfully I am handling my pain, my loss. Aren’t I wonderful?” We become the great martyr.
The sisters didn’t do that. The father, sick and weak with cancer, didn’t do that. We can’t stop the pain in our lives, but we don’t have to let it become our identity, the suffering martyr, the mourning tragic figure.
To live a life well-lived, let us remember that we are not grief itself. We experience grief. It is not my cancer. It is just the cancer. Don’t make pain your identity. Let it not define who you really are.