Much Ado About Christmas

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It’s the longest night of the year and the first day of the winter season. I reflect on the world’s long night as I sit here, contemplating the Christmas celebration that I will partake in with my family just a few days from now.

When I was a kid, everybody said Merry Christmas… or Happy holidays… or Seasons Greetings… those variations in phrasing are not new. They were just never political before. We left politics out of our personal lives as much as we could, especially on holidays. Couldn’t we take a page from 1972 and do that again? Could we just focus on the holidays, the family, the friends and the memories we will be making?

On Thursday evening, I got on an OC Transpo bus. That’s Ottawa’s public transit system, for those who come from away. On my way out the door, I thanked the obviously Muslim driver and he went out of his way to wish me a Merry Christmas. So I smiled and returned the greeting. I could see his earnestness and how important it was to him not to offend me and to acknowledge Christmas by name. I thought about that as I walked the block home.

The night before that, I had a celebration with my friend and took a cab ride home because it was late and the roads were icy. The cab driver, again a foreign man, went out of his way to help me up the steps with my packages. He almost gave me a hug – not lecherously – he was distressed that I was living at the YMCA and felt kindness for me. He knew he couldn’t hug me though and he shook my hand instead and made sure I made it indoors safely.

This has been my experience often. The media goes blah blah blah Muslims or blah blah blah Christians or blah blah blah insert ethnicity, religion or other description here. To be sure, there are some bad examples to blah blah blah about, but so many, once I speak with them, are just people trying to live their lives without unnecessarily colliding with mine. I mean, they aren’t trying to offend or harm me.

Here is my main point. Government institutions, schools and the media are propagating this war on Christmas. They tell us not to say Merry Christmas. They tell us that Muslims or atheists or whatever will be offended if we do that. Meanwhile, I get on a bus and one of those very folks is honouring a holiday that isn’t his while I get told he’s going to be offended. He isn’t offended.

I hate to burst their media bubble, but I see Muslim families in Canada (and also some Jewish and Hindu and other persuasions) going to the Christmas tree stand here at the YMCA and buying Christmas trees for their homes. They’ve told me. They like them. They find the lights and the tinsel pretty.

I see Muslim dads with sweet little grins on their faces combing through the toy store. My heart goes out to them and I want to say, ‘Yes! Enjoy some new traditions with your family. You are welcome to them with no obligation to dishonour your own culture.”

I confess that conflict rages within me. I will vehemently oppose harmful practices by any religion (even my own… women can so be in the pulpit!). I will not support the oppression of women or genital mutilation etc etc.

But what I see around me is a contrast. There are those who are all about rituals and crazy ideologies and then there are those who just want to live a peaceful life, not ticking off their neighbours and they carry on in the midst of all the media hype and craziness. I can relate to that. I’m a little Jesus freak and I hate it when certain Christians shout and scream at others, shaming them in God’s name. I don’t like it. It makes me look like a nutbar. It makes God sound like a crackpot.

So I can understand some of these folks who aren’t interested in jihad, who don’t lock their wives and daughters in the house, who don’t advocate for violence, who aren’t freaking out over Christmas. How awful it must be for them to see looneys ramming cars into pedestrians. They must cringe. They must fear the disapproving glares they get.

I’m trying to learn how to be the little debater that I have always been – pointing out injustices and all that – while not lumping everybody together in one basket. It isn’t fair to do that. In fact, I can tell you that one time, my daughter ran into these people handing out literature at the mall. Being a nice girl, she took the literature and this little piece of jewellery they gave her. I don’t remember if it was a key chain or a bracelet or a button. She took it. She didn’t understand what it said because it was in Arabic.

One of her coworkers – himself an Arab fellow – saw this piece of jewellery and asked her where she got it. She told him. This guy was classy. He did not translate the meaning of the words. He gently said, “You don’t need that.” Then, he took the item away and chucked it in the garbage can. He looked out for her… a kaffar, as it is written of non-Muslims… he always treated her with respect and watched out for her when she was in that job.

So Merry Christmas to you and yours. Happy holy-days. Seasons Greetings. No matter who you are and what your belief system, my heart wishes peace, good will, health and happiness to yours. I’m going to take a little tip from Christmas 1972 and leave the politics out of it for a few days. It’s time to vacation from that.

I’m going to see family and friends. I’m going to spoil me some grandkids. We will eat and drink together and remember just for a while that these moments are the good stuff. The media doesn’t deserve one more second of my attention for now. They’ll be there ranting  about something when I get back from Christmasing. Oh yeah. Did I mention? I think Christmas should be a verb. I’m going to go and do some Christmasing. Catch you later.

 

 

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Monsters in Plain Sight

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Back in the 1990s, a pretty and sweet lady with a kind smile and bright eyes worked at the Arnprior Town Hall. She always spoke so gently to me. She always treated me with respect and dignity. She shone her little light in that place and I was always happy to see her.

Glenda had a secret. She was separated from her husband and little did we know that she was in the most dangerous time in the life of a victim of domestic violence. One night while her children were out, her ex-husband came to their apartment and strangled her to death with his bare hands before running off to an isolated place and killing himself. In his selfishness, he snuffed out a precious life and orphaned two children.

Glenda’s first name now appears on a ragged highway marker near Petawawa, along with the names of 18 other women, all murdered by the hands of their own spouses, all treated like property or livestock instead of like human beings.

In this supposed modern age, one would think that a country like Canada would have made some progress on the issue of domestic abuse, but that is not the case. As December 6th draws closer, Canada’s national day to commemorate violence against women (that day is the anniversary of the shooting rampage at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique), the news this week reminds me that we still have far to go.

Basil Borutski was convicted this week of the murder of three women who had made the mistake of falling for his charms… or more accurately… his sob stories. He played the victim card so well. Men like that know that women are nurturers – that women care – that a man with a hard luck story and sugar-coated deceit can sucker a woman in faster than candy can seduce a child.

Borutski frightened them, terrorized them, and then took what was not his to take. As I stared at the photographs of the women he killed, I recognized one of the faces. I used to run into her from time to time. I don’t always remember a name, but a face burns on my memory like a brand. There is yet another woman that I personally know who has been murdered by a spouse. I know many survivors of abuse, but so far, only two of the ones I know personally have been homicide victims. Still, if you consider the small area that I come from, isn’t two too many?

What galls me the most about this is that is wasn’t unexpected. This wasn’t some monster jumping out of an alleyway, surprising his victim and committing a crime that no one could have foreseen. The police knew this guy. He had a rap sheet. He had been charged no less than 14 times with domestic violence related charges. He had done time. He had been ordered into counselling twice and refused to show up. He had been told to sign a document promising to stay away from these women and he refused to do so… and they released him from jail anyway.

One of the women was so frightened of him, she bought a gun. For my American friends, we don’t have legal handguns here, and I don’t know anybody who buys a gun for protection from a bad man. That same woman wore an alert badge on her neck so she could signal the police if Borutski showed up.

A fat lot of good that did her. Borutski went on a rampage and drove to the three women’s houses and murdered them all in sequence. One of them wasn’t even a girlfriend. She had simply refused his advances.Why was this man allowed out on the street? Why was he not listed as a dangerous offender? Canada has that law now. The courts had the power to prevent these murders, but the women in this case weren’t considered important enough to protect. When will it be enough? When will the laws reflect the severity of this type of crime?

The one crime that has not decreased in this nation is domestic violence. Other crimes have decreased. Even other homicide rates have decreased, but not this. It doesn’t have to. Apparently, the lives of wives and girlfriends and exes and mothers and daughters and sisters just aren’t that valuable.

A man like Basil Borutski should never have had the opportunity to do what he did. Had his charges and his record been taken seriously, I wouldn’t be looking at the photographs of three dead women in the newspaper. I wouldn’t be looking at one of those faces and gasping, hand over my mouth, saying, “I knew her.”

 

 

Goodbye Mrs. Campbell

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I’ve been writing stories, songs, plays and poetry since grade four. I’m not exaggerating. Ever since I could read and write, stories and rhymes would just float around in my head and I would write them. I’m still doing it. I have to do it or I get grumpy. Creative writing and music and all that jazz are important to me.

I had a flair for it too. Every time we had a creative writing assignment, teachers would single me out to read my work aloud. If it was a group assignment involving the writing of anything, kids would literally jump over their desks to get to mine. It was like being the star of the football team if the star of the football team was an awkward and clumsy nerd. I got picked last to be on anybody’s sports team, but stick me in my natural habitat and I was a different animal.

So it happened one morning in grade six, I arrived in Mrs. Doris Campbell’s English class. The night before, she had given us a writing assignment. We had to write a short story on any topic we wanted. I usually jumped at those opportunities, but something good was on TV that night. I did a naughty thing and ignored Mrs. Campbell’s homework so I could watch a show that I don’t even remember anymore.

“She called on me last time.” I thought. “Surely she won’t make me read out loud again. It’s somebody else’s turn.” Duh! I should have known better than that. Mrs. Campbell knew who her budding writer was. She wanted to know what my weird little brain was going to come up with and I had nothing written.

Cue scary music now. Mrs. Campbell called my name, expecting me to tell her the riveting story that I had written last night. My heart went boom-ba-boom-boom in my chest. Would I get a detention? A hundred lines to write? What would be my punishment? I didn’t want one, so I did another naughty thing.

I stood up, opened my notebook and made up a story in my head on the spot. “Once upon a time there was a little boy named something or other…” I don’t remember the name of the kid in my story. I remember that the kid took a walk in the woods and got lost. I remember that he ended up finding his way home because of his trusty dog named blah blah blah. I told that story in terror for a few minutes, throwing in dangerous twists and turns and then having a sappy happy ending. I clammed up and sat down.

Mrs. Campbell sat at her desk and looked at me for a minute. I waited for the verdict. Had I fooled her?

All of a sudden, she burst out laughing. I mean belly laughing. She grabbed her gut. The story wasn’t funny. What was going on? She said to me, “I ought to give you a detention for that.” Then she smiled. “But the story was good. I just can’t.”

I didn’t understand. If the story was good, how did she know?

She said. “You might have gotten away with that if you had remembered to turn pages.”

Well, I kind of did get away with it. That was the day I learned the meaning of the word grace in a new way. Mrs. Campbell had caught me red-handed. She knew I hadn’t done my homework, but her mercy won out over her justice. She recognized my gift. She let me know that she knew what I had done, but she wasn’t going to give me a consequence that I absolutely deserved to have.

She was a cheerleader for me all through elementary school. Then, just last winter, I went to the Braeside Cup hockey tournament. I don’t play hockey, but they were having a euchre match upstairs – a friendly competition with donated prizes.

Lo and behold, there was Mrs. Doris Campbell and her husband. She was pushing 80 years of age, but just as spry as she was when she taught me all those years ago. She smiled and was so glad to see me. She beat my socks off at euchre (maybe my detention consequence 40 years late!). Then, she asked me something and I teared up. She leaned over and said, “Tell me that you’re still writing.”

I was able to tell her yes and she beamed and laughed with that mad belly laugh that I heard in grade six after pulling off the literary crime of the century. I felt such gratitude for her and I looked at her, not with the eyes of a 12 year old, but with the eyes of a 50 year old. “Wow.” I thought. “You are a sweet lady. You really loved the children you taught.” As a child, I often interpreted her strictness as meanness, but looking at her that day, I didn’t see a mean bone in her.

I opened up a newspaper two weeks ago and my heart lurched when I saw her obituary. I cried like a baby.

Goodbye, Mrs. Campbell. Thank you for the amazing memories and for believing in me. You left a beautiful fragrance in your wake. When I get to Heaven and run into you, the first thing I’m going to do is grab a notebook, make up a story on the spot and tell it to you. This time, I’ll try to remember to turn the pages.

Me and Gord Downie

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Here is the story of my short and sweet encounter with Gord Downie, the late lead singer and incredible songwriter for The Tragically Hip. Gord was the quintessential Canadian. If Americans can be as American as Mom’s apple pie, Gord was as Canadian as Bobcaygeon and hockey.

It was June 1998. I wanted to go to the North by Northeast songwriting conference in Toronto, but it was going to cost me 200 bucks. I got a smart idea and applied for two press passes, which I received, and made a deal to go and cover the event as a journalist. I even brought my best friend along as my photographer.

I went to workshops, checked out the trade show and went to all kinds of venues in Kensington Market (during a garbage strike of all things… the fish smell was even worse!). There were so many artists and bands performing at various places. We had a map and a list of who was playing where.

Our car had been towed by a shady company earlier in the day. They waited behind our hotel, counting on us being dumb tourists who didn’t know not to park out front to check in. We had to pay 100 bucks to get the car out of impound, which we did. It cast a shadow over the fun weekend we were having, but we slugged it out and decided to take in the event anyway. I had an article to write (which I did and it was published).

I had never been to The Legendary Horseshoe in my life. We walked in there (that night in Toronto with its checkerboard floors… a line from The Tragically Hip song ‘Bobcaygeon’). There were those checkerboard floors, the bar stools in a row and it was packed. A nice man in a plaid flannel shirt and cowboy hat was there with his daughter and he must have seen how haggard we looked from the towing experience. He suddenly invites us to sit with them and says, “I just wanted you to know that not everybody in Toronto is an a**hole.” Wow… talk about good timing.

So the sting from the towing incident started to abate. We were enjoying the bands. I got up to go to the ladies’ room and started crossing that checkerboard floor. I’m short. I’m 5 feet tall… barely. I was walking along and suddenly bumped into somebody… literally… and some of his beer spilled onto my head.

I looked up to see who was spilling beer on me and… it was Gord Downie. Yes. You can’t mistake that face. He was baptizing me in barley hops. He said the most common word in every Canadian’s vocabulary… ‘sorry’. I was just… wowed. I have been a Hip fan since they first got airplay. The music and rhythms and riffs of their songs are amazing, but it’s those lyrics. A songwriter and poet like me was just drawn like a magnet to those beautiful, brazen and fearless lyrics.

Anyway, Gord carried on his way with his beer and we sat and enjoyed the same bands, though not together. Ha! That’s my really simple and not at all life-changing encounter with Gord Downie. Man, I wish I had said something other than “It’s ok. Excuse me.”

Godspeed, Gord. Say hello to Stompin’ Tom when you see him.

Me Too

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I like the current #metoo campaign going on on social media. It consists of women (and some men too) putting #metoo as a hashtag and then either detailing or not detailing sexual harassment and/or assault that they have suffered in the past.

Some balked at this campaign and claimed it was meant to instil fear, but that is not what it was about. The goal of the campaign was to show just how widespread the problem is, to get an idea of how many have been affected. In that regard, I think it succeeded. I read tearful commentary from some men, indicating that they had no idea that so many people that they knew were survivors.

The conversations should produce some helpful ideas on how to make sexual assault unacceptable, how to take away the stigma of coming forward and how to change society’s old attitudes toward this criminal epidemic.

How shocking to read some commentary, even from women, claiming that the Hollywood women who were victimized by Harvey Weinstein were asking for it because they were wearing short skirts. Really? Are we still dealing with stupid attitudes like that in 2017? Apparently, they still exist.

Newsflash: the only one to blame for a sexual assault is the person who committed the attack. Period. There is no caveat. There is no, “Oh, if only you had worn a potato sack. This never would have happened.” Even worse, there is no, “Well, why were you out after dark?” Excuse me. I used to work evening shifts that ended at 11 o’clock at night. I had to walk a block to a bus stop and then another block when I got off the bus. What was I supposed to do? Hire a bodyguard?

Attitudes are improving. As Bob Dylan wrote, “The times, they are a-changing.” I want to acknowledge how far we’ve come and how much progress we have made. Women from even 50 years ago would be amazed to see how much freedom we enjoy today. So in our zeal to expose the darkness, let’s not forget to applaud the good things.

One other thing I would like to say regarding the #metoo campaign. I have seen some almost rabid commentary, vilifying men and not always with evidence to back it up.

Yes, I believe in supporting the victim/survivor of an assault. I believe in backing women up, believing them and helping them to regain their confidence and worth. I have a warning bell going off in my head though.

I have also seen some disturbing trends. For example, there was a man who was accused of some kind of sexual misconduct by a woman. She never pressed charges. She just accused him and I saw comments indicating that that man should forever be banished, shunned and blocked from working at his job or basically living his life.

If he did the crime, there are penalties for that in the court system and that should be prosecuted, but this woman, in particular, offered no evidence and no detailed account. She just said, “He assaulted me”. That’s it.

In our rush to support women, a right and just cause, it is important to also give men some grace. What I mean is this. That man was judged guilty with no trial or concrete evidence. I realize that evidence can be difficult to get, but to simply shun him or harass him or destroy his life without giving him the opportunity that any other accused criminal would get… a trial… that alarms me.

Most women are honest and forthright, I’m sure, but just as some men are predators, some women can be dishonest and vindictive and cry ‘rape’ when there was no rape. This has been done on a number of proven occasions. So I don’t disbelieve her story, but I also can’t verify it. I can’t just write off a man – particularly a man with no priors on the books – without giving him opportunity to defend himself against these accusations.

We are in danger of turning into a mob with flaming torches and pitchforks, marching to lynch any man who is named by any woman regardless of truth or evidence or due process. That is just as serious an issue as the sexual assaults themselves. If it comes out that some women fabricated accusations, then that would make it look bad for the real victims who deserve to be heard and believed, their cases processed in our courts.

So yes… Harvey Weinstein has admitted to some things and I believe his victims wholeheartedly because there is mounting evidence against him. There are troubling stories now coming out about Ben Afleck, Matt Damon, David Blaine, Louis CK and on and on and on, but context is important. I am not going to rush to judgment until all the facts come to light – and I hope they do come to light. I want to see that evidence. I want to support real victims and true survivors because I, too, am a member of that club. I speak as a survivor myself.

We need to be careful not to be too harsh with some who had second hand stories about Harvey Weinstein’s conduct. I have read commentary reaming out people like Seth MacFarlane because he knew his friend had been targeted by Weinstein, but he didn’t go to the police. He couldn’t do that. His friend said she was unwilling to tell her story. So anything he had brought forward would have been hearsay and inadmissible. So instead, Seth chose to make a poignant and well-aimed joke about Weinstein when he hosted the Oscars a few years ago.

We need to be careful, World. It is just as unacceptable to demonize and destroy an innocent man’s life as it is to sexually assault a woman. We want the right criminals brought to justice and thrown off their self-made thrones, but we want to do that without some poor guy getting caught up in the wheels of this thing and crushed when he didn’t deserve it.

I’m calling out for us to take a deep breath and come at this with cool heads. There is too much vigilantism going on and it is not serving us well. It is putting the best of society in danger of being swallowed up by the worst. Take courage. The secrets are unravelling. The darkness is being exposed and the cockroaches are trying to scuttle under the furniture, but it’s too late for that.

An era of exploitation for women is about to end. Harvey Weinstein is just the tip of the iceberg. Next thing we target should be those preying on children. It’s time that artists were hired for their talent on screen and not for their willingness to gratify the lust of some old perverted jackass. I hope that when the dust settles on all of this that some industry and media people offer a well-deserved apology to Corey Feldman for claiming he was making up his horrific stories.

 

Nudges and Whispers

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After a ten month hiatus, I am back to blogging. It wasn’t a planned vacation, I just did not write blog entries. It’s time to get back in the swing.

Yesterday while I was having a nibble in the kitchen, a girl from the 14th floor came in and sat down to read a book. She’s young – no more than 30 – and she is as avid a reader as I am. I had not seen her all summer and she had crossed my mind a number of times. I wondered if she had moved out. I felt nudges and whispers to pray for her to be blessed and well.

Then, I finally saw her and I noticed that she was wincing in pain. Part of me wanted to offer to pray for her to be healed of the pain. I am shy though. I don’t like forcing my beliefs on people. I don’t mind talking about it, but I don’t like ambushing people with a ‘hey, I’m going to grab you and pray for you, okay?” I know there are some folks who do that and I’m not knocking it. It just really is hard for me.

Her pain was obvious though. So I decided to tread softly. I asked, “Are you in pain?” She says yes, hesitantly. I say, “I’m not trying to pry. I can just see it in your face.” She says, “Yes” again.

She sits down and tells me that the pain was so severe during the summer that she could barely walk. She was shut in and hardly went anywhere. That made me feel so sad for her.

So, I got a little bolder. I said, “I didn’t see you this summer and I kept getting this nagging little nudge that I should say a prayer for you because you needed it.” I was praying right then and there under my breath that she didn’t get offended or upset.

Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. Her eyes grew bigger and a huge smile spread across her face. “Really? You thought about me?”

I said, “I think I was getting little nudges…” I was hesitant to get too preachy.

She points up. “It was God.”

“Yes.” I said. “I’m not that amazing. He nudged me and I thought it might be just my imagination, but I said prayers for you.”

She calls God ‘the universe’. She said that, but then said, “Well, what I call the universe. I think that’s God.”

I didn’t make any hoopla over her word for it. I was just happy and relieved that she was open and not feeling preyed upon (pardon the pun) by me. I tread carefully because a lot of people in this program are abuse survivors or have various health issues and I don’t want to make them feel threatened in any way.

So then she says, “That must be why I’m feeling so much better. I still have some pain, but a lot of it’s gone.” And she was so happy that someone had prayed for her.

I said, “It’s cool because I just got encouraged because I wasn’t just imagining your need for prayer.”

She says yes and keeps on smiling.

“And…” I said. “God was watching out for you and caring about you.”

I could see that she was receiving that beautiful feeling of belonging and acceptance and I was glad I didn’t come on too strong. She doesn’t need that. She just needs to know how loved she is and she left the 8th floor kitchen lighter on her feet than when she came in.

Sometimes I brush off God’s nudges and whispers. I assume it’s just me, but I can give you story after story after story of how confirmations came showing that the nudge and whisper was completely accurate. You would think by now that I would learn to just trust that little voice, but no. Apparently I’ve got a thick skull and it takes a long time for me to learn these things.

Deck the Malls

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This Christmas Eve will mark 10 calendar years since my father went to Heaven. You would think after all this time that I would be used to his absence. Sometimes I am. I mean, the grief is not raw and oozing like it was during those first couple of years.

So I thought I was free and clear. I miss him. I wish I could call him, but it’s all under control now… isn’t it?

I went to Walmart with to get some groceries and Christmas shop. There I was in the aisle picking out soup and crackers to eat for lunch this week. That’s a pretty harmless activity. The problem was… that cheesy stupid piped in Christmas music!

I can’t explain why or how. I’m fine singing Christmas songs at home, but there I was standing in front of the Chunky soup cans while that stupid music floated to my ears from the crappy speakers they have there. The tears hit my eyes like Gretzky hitting a puck (back in the day).

I recovered quickly. That is, I bit my lip and swallowed it back. Yes, my Father died on Christmas Eve in 2006. Yes, he was buried on my birthday that same year. It sounds like a badly written Hallmark movie, but it is one of the many weird things that have happened in my life.

Maybe he was watching me at that moment and thinking of me. He is in a happy place where pain will never touch him again. I can’t begrudge him that.

It was almost a green Christmas the year he passed away. A few small patches of snow lay on the ground, but there had been a big melt. As the hearse drove us through the village of Braeside, stopping one last time for a moment below the hill leading up to the house, it was December 28th. The 28th! What is so strange about that? The water was clear and blue on the Ottawa River. That’s what!

That was the first time in my entire life that I ever saw deep blue water on the river on my birthday. The same waters that my father fished (he got his commercial licence so he could sell the fish we did not eat) were not white, uninviting and frozen in 2006. The sun shone brightly as we stood in the cemetery and bid Clarence farewell.

My acute grief spells have happened in the mall at Christmastime before. That is not new, but it was understandable during those first couple of Christmases. Why it is still hitting me in the same weird way 10 years on is a mystery to me. I’m not angry that my father isn’t here. I’m not happy about it either, but I have come to terms with it. So why is it triggered by Mariah Carey singing on a rotten PA system? (Maybe I just hate her singing? Newsflash… I really do.)

Maybe I need to just give myself permission to let it be what it is. It doesn’t hover over the entire season for me. In fact, this season is far less stressful and foreboding as last year’s was. My daughter is in a new apartment. My granddaughter is so strong now and her prognosis much improved. I have so much to thank God for… and I am thankful.

Meanwhile, I’m off to shop again this week. I guess I’ll just… bring tissues.