Monday, December 24, 2007

Slipping Away at Christmas

City streets are piled with snow and sidewalks slick with ice as I make my way to the nursing home. I learn that another resident has passed away just before Christmas. I did not know him very well but certainly saw him around. This seems to happen every year, people checking out of this life before the holidays. Maybe celebrations on the Other Side are more fun… and maybe there are others there who beckon.

My mother manages to eat her lunch today, chewing slowly. She opens her eyes for a split second and recognizes me. The rest of my visit, she remains with eyes closed, unable to process the images around her. All the same, she makes the effort to answer my questions with a "Yeah" or a "No." She tells me she is okay.

Part of her has slipped away – I can see it on her face. Peaceful now. As long as she is not in pain, I am glad to be with her. Seeing her lose all her functioning has been the most difficult thing in my life. Yet she is 88 years old, has lived with Alzheimer’s Disease for the last 9 and it is almost time to go.

I have never found goodbyes easy but there is a finality to physical death that makes it twice as hard. I believe she will continue to exist in another dimension and will probably try to let me know that she is okay. That’s all the reassurance I need.

Right now every moment is precious because I never know which breath will be her last. And Christmas songs, with all the nostalgia they bring, have never sounded so bittersweet.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Footprints in the Sand

The sun has barely risen over rooftops on the beach – yet several footprints are already scattered across the sand. Some run in the same direction as mine as I walk south.

The crashing of the surf and the cries of gulls fill my senses. A small white tern dives into the waves for breakfast as a rosy glow steals across the sky.

I’m glad for every day on the Gulf, where it’s warm and sunny. St. Pete Beach in winter is one of my favourite spots. The evening news brings more stories of snow and ice storms lashing across Canada and the USA. Apart from a tropical escape, what brings me here this time around is setting research for my novel. Today I catalogue names and descriptions of hotels and other landmarks along the beach. A grueling task but I’m up to the challenge!

By noon the footprints have multiplied, crisscrossing the sand at random. The tide rushes in now and obliterates many of them.

It strikes me that our lives are just as fleeting. How many have gone before us? How many will follow? The only lasting impression we can make, it seems, is in the hearts and minds of those we leave behind.

(written Dec. 7, 2007)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Brick by Brick

A few months ago I awakened to the sound of bulldozers and tractors. A condo building, three storeys high, is going up across the street from me. This morning I listen to the tap-tapping of hammers as brick layers work on an entire side of the building. The process involves precision tools, bricks, mortar, heaters and plastic sheeting to keep out the cold. A wall the colour of faded autumn leaves is starting to emerge. In future I will see this wall when I look out my living room window, along with the faces of my new neighbours.

I have been dreading the construction, expecting to be inconvenienced by the noise and the mess. Yet every day I feel a tinge of excitement as I witness the progress. It is growing into a pretty structure with gables, white French doors and windows, and balconies which will be a tight squeeze for even two.

My novel, too, is progressing now beyond the first draft. A whole new dimension is pushing the story outwards, giving my main characters challenges which I have not foreseen. I look forward to writing out the scenes in my next draft and letting the story deepen. Not unlike the brick layers with their careful measurements, I am testing plot lines for balance and fit before laying down words.

I find it interesting how outside events often parallel what is going on in our lives. All we need to do is pay attention!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bursting Walls Between Us

On my way home from an author reading, I follow a patch-work path of dry autumn leaves. The leaves crumble beneath my feet. Soon they will scatter to the four winds. They remind me how fragile we really are.

The reading was from The Glass Seed by Eileen Delehanty Pearkes. Her title alludes to the growth that can take place when the walls encasing us are suddenly burst open. She experienced such a release when relating to her mother and nurturing her through a lengthy illness. My own mother has succumbed to the same disease, Alzheimer’s, over the last nine years. As painful as it’s been to witness her loss of autonomy and basic functioning, I appreciate the bonds we forged.

I walk briskly, anxious to escape the cold. The street is quiet at this hour; most people safe behind closed doors, in for the night. High above, a bulbous moon shines its ethereal light. The author’s words echo behind me, “When we could no longer speak to each other, we communicated through the heart.”

Perhaps this is the purest form of connection – being together in silence. Because when we get right down to it, love is much bigger than words.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Running Track

Early this morning, in the cold, I see a solitary figure doing laps around the track near my home. Nothing unusual about that. Except this is an elderly man using a cane as he walks at a steady clip.

Montreal has an aging population. Many people get around with the help of canes, walkers or electric chairs. What makes this man remarkable is his refusal to be hampered by his limitations. He’s out there doing laps while others are still in bed.

Our bodies love to move; it’s what they were designed for. Working out boosts our sense of well-being, reduces stress and promotes good health. It also keeps us mentally alert. The hardest part is getting started.

For years now I make exercise a priority. I satisfy my love of nature when I walk along the St. Lawrence River or cycle outdoors several hours a week. I also practice yoga for balance, flexibility and strength. I can’t avoid growing older but I CAN do something about the shape I’m in.

What about you?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Coffee, Anyone?

I sit in my favourite café in downtown Montreal, listening to the sound of bulldozers and tractors. The street is still under siege as construction workers lay new pipes and widen the sidewalks. I try to pick up the thread of music playing indoors but the singer is drowned out by the cacophony outside. Surprising that anyone else is here – but there are dozens of customers drinking lattés as they tap on keyboards or flip through papers. A few, like me, write in lined journals.

What you find here at 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon are usually students, the self-employed or the retired. We are each in our private worlds, focusing on the material in front of us as the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans wafts by. Our heads lift periodically to watch the human traffic streaming past the window.

The voices around me are a mixture of English, French, male and female - talking, laughing, telling stories. Friends meeting friends. A middle-aged woman wanders in alone, carrying a backpack. She heads straight for the desserts – an array of breads, cookies and cakes, mostly chocolate. I skirted temptation by ordering a blueberry scone with green tea. By the time I demolish the scone, my appetite is sated. The young dark-haired man across from me sips from his cup the same moment as me.

People aren’t so different from birds. We flock together. Even if we’re not connected, we like to observe, to be where the action is. As a writer I can’t afford to be isolated. I need to witness human behaviour first-hand – and hopefully to get inspired.

A fluffy flower seed twirls through the open window and past my table, air-borne by the breeze. It too seeks fertile ground. Maybe neither of us will find it in the remaining hours before sunset, but at least we’re here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Do You Believe in Love?

As I walk along the river this afternoon, enjoying the colourful autumn leaves, I see a white-haired couple. The man’s arm is thrown around the woman’s shoulders and they speak softly together. Laugh.

After feeding a horde of hungry ducks, I start back home. I meet the same two people, who have also reversed direction. They step aside to let me pass but instead I slow to their pace. They exude contentment and perfect ease with each other and the world. They are also in their 80s and have been married 65 years.

We chat as we stroll in the sunshine. Talking about the past, they tease each other. Flirt. The details of their lives seem ordinary enough – met at the YMCA, had three children, nine grandchildren. He supported her for twenty years as she raised a family; then she entered the workforce. “Everyone loved her,” he says, meaning her co-workers. “And who wouldn’t?” His eyes sparkle as he gazes at her.

She says she had nine brothers and sisters. I ask if they are still around. She says yes, looking confused as he gently reminds her that they have passed on.

In these days of soaring divorce rates and break ups, I find myself moved. Doug and Mary have the kind of love people yearn for when they mention “soul mates.” As a romance writer, I need to believe that love can endure. Today I have living proof.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Feeding the Ducks

As our days shorten and get cooler, our appetites sharpen. It’s no different for ducks. This morning I fed a few mallards in the park. They fought over the morsels – the bread was whole wheat, after all, not the cheap white imitation they normally receive. Bread in beak, they toddled over to the river bank to dunk their findings before gobbling them down. Then they scrambled over a mound of fallen leaves and came back for more. Greedy buggers. I had five thick slices but all went quickly.

I love birds – especially graceful blue herons and egrets (which unfortunately do not venture as far north as Montreal). It must be their sense of freedom. The closest I come to seeing the world from the air is in a plane and I have to first buy tickets and go to the airport. The birds just spread their wings and lift off.

Yesterday I saw a flock of ducks flying in formation, practicing for the long journey south. I admired their discipline. I have trouble getting out of bed some chilly mornings.

It feels good to feed them. By now they’ve grown accustomed to the sound of my voice and look out for me. They do not totally trust humans. It’s hunting season here and from the trees across the water comes the sound of guns.

I wish I could keep them all safe.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Truth about Happiness

It’s a rainy night – cold and wet – with autumn leaves tumbling from the sky. Fewer people walk the streets now, preferring the comfort and warmth of their homes. I too sit indoors, curled up on my couch as darkness falls.

I just spent a few hours with a dear friend, someone who can see into my soul and who offers words of wisdom which come from both insight and years of experience. In his eyes I see my best self reflected – strong and independent, yet thoughtful and considerate of others. I feel we have shared our concerns as well as communicated our high regard for each other. Our exchange satisfies me in a way that superficial conversation never can.

Some of us expect to find happiness by amassing “things” – whether the latest iPod or a new car. Yet the pleasure in acquiring things is fleeting at best. We become restless after awhile and then hunger for something else. By trying to impress others with what we have, we are really trying to impress ourselves.

To be happy I need to feel good about myself. To do this, I can take actions such as helping someone else or meeting a challenge. Both raise my self-esteem. I can also appreciate the give-and-take of a relationship. We all need to be understood and to express the love we hold inside. I find this is often what brings the greatest joy.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Dealing with What Is

A man in a wheelchair – can’t be more than 42 – tells me it was a car accident. Someone hit him from behind at a red light. And now he can’t feel his legs below the knee.

I think most of us take our mobility and good health for granted. It’s hard enough to age in this youth-oriented society without losing our autonomy as well. No one wants to be that man.

Some would say our destinies are mapped out before we’re even born. We may be slated for fame or riches, a difficult childhood or a series of failed relationships so that we can have that experience. The purpose, always, is to learn and grow.

Whenever we feel trapped in our limitations, what really helps, I find, is to appreciate the parts of our lives that still work. If we picture our basic needs as sections of a pie – e.g. finance, personal relationships, health, career and family – many of us have at least one or two missing pieces. Maybe we have a great romantic partnership, a thriving family life and good health – but we are unhappy at work and in debt. Or we have successful careers, along with broken family ties and on-going problems with our children. Some people have a serious health condition which is a life-long concern.

Those of us who seem to “have it all” are in the minority. Even if we are satisfied with all aspects of our lives, things can change. It’s best not to long for a perfect life, but to acknowledge what we already have. To savour it.

I carry around with me a small gratitude journal. Every day I jot down three things that I am grateful for – whether it’s lunch with a close friend, the smell of freshly-mown grass or the pleasure of a leisurely walk. No matter what happens to me tomorrow, I am absorbing the benefits of today.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Winds of Autumn

Tonight a cold wind rustles through the trees and puffs up women’s skirts on the street. I can almost hear it whistle. Now that summer’s nearly over, I feel it was far too short.

People walk faster outdoors, their minds working as hard as their legs. There’s a surplus of energy at this time of year. Even as I push forward, I find myself looking back. I work vigorously on the 2nd draft of my novel, making notes and scribbling out new chapters. When I pause, I often switch gears. Friends and acquaintances of years long past come to mind… and I wonder who will next cross my path.

The trees are only starting to lose their leaves. It saddens me to see branches stripped of their foliage, a harbinger of what lies ahead. Human life, like the seasons, suffers loss before renewal. The only thing that seems to help, once I am buried beneath snow and ice, is to keep a little spring in my heart.

For now I plan to enjoy the kaleidoscope of colours that comes with the first frost.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Saturday Night Blues

Everyone knows that Saturday night is for couples – dining out, dancing or ignoring each other on the living room couch. Like so many other singles I find myself alone. Instead of dozing in front of the TV set, I get dressed and head for “the Main.” In Montreal this is a busy boulevard (St. Laurent) that runs north to south in the center of the city. Crammed with shops, restaurants and cafés, it’s also a multicultural street. As I approach a well-lit area, I see people of all ethnicities, many of European stock such as Hungarian, Greek or Portuguese.

The outdoor terraces overflow with patrons eating or sipping wine. I smell moussaka and fried squid. From further down the street come the strains of a live band, a bluesy sound that could have been from New Orleans.

I enter my favourite café and order bottled water and a bite to eat. Then I sit, watching people and cars stream by. At this corner there are pedestrians of all ages - families, friends, lovers or singles like me. Some walk briskly, on their way somewhere; others step in tune with each other, chatting as they go. Several of them are leashed to Irish wolfhounds, poodles or Pekinese, the dogs as diverse as their owners. A middle-aged man strides by with two bouquets of flowers wrapped in cellophane. I wonder if he's booked two dates in case one doesn't work out.

I sink my teeth into the strawberry scone. It’s doughy and satisfying, not too sweet. Reminds me of the desserts my mother used to bake; recipes she has long forgotten.

The street is half-closed due to construction. Cars now edge past my café window, bumper to bumper. Everyone wants to be somewhere else.

For me it’s enough to be here, my senses absorbing what’s around me. I am at peace with the world, even on a busy Saturday night.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Little Things

These days I appreciate the little things – discovering a toothpaste (baking-soda-based) that actually whitens my teeth, crunching a crisp apple from the Fall harvest or gazing at the ghostly outline of the moon in the morning sky.

Like so many others in the working world, for much of my life I focused on making money and getting ahead. I was caught on a treadmill that seemed to roll faster with the passing years. Every now and then I paused to admire the scenery or do some serious reflecting but it frightened me how quickly the weeks and months sped by. I needed to get off the treadmill and schedule my time according to my own rhythm and priorities.

Before turning 50 I left the business world to pursue my interests in motivational speaking, article-writing and storytelling. It’s been quite an adventure and even five years later, I don’t know where this road will take me.

When I die, will I miss the money or possessions I might have accumulated? I doubt it. What I will certainly miss is the softness of the breeze upon my cheek, the stunning colours and intoxicating scent of flowers, or the grateful smile of someone I have encouraged.

All things that are perhaps NOT so little after all.

Friday, August 17, 2007

At the Café

The end table is large enough for four people, plain, but my eyes are drawn to the edge that has come unglued. It makes the table unsightly. I sit there anyway and place my things on its surface. I keep staring at the unruly edge. I am almost ashamed of it - a table that no longer looks good.

Is that what happens to people? We no longer fit the “norm” – the accepted standards our society has imposed. We get older, our appearance changes, and we become undesirable.

The table is solid, it supports all my stuff. Why do I care about its appearance? My friend is coming and I know she will notice the detached metal edge. I want everything to look perfect but life is not like that. What sticks out gets our attention.

We all want to create a good impression. Yet what we admire about others usually goes much deeper than the way they look.

Monday, August 13, 2007

What the Flowers Say

Before my neighbour goes on vacation, she asks me to look after her plants and garden. The weather turns hot and humid after she leaves. I dutifully find her hose and watering can.

Stepping into her gazebo is like entering an enchanted world. A profusion of flowering plants surrounds the table, dizzying in their colours and fragrances. As I water the marigolds and geraniums, I stop to remove dead blossoms. Then I approach the violets cascading down from a hanging pot. Marvelling at their unmarred beauty, I reach up to pour copious amounts of water into the container. With a sense of reverence I touch one of the mauve and white petals. Synthetic! I have just watered an artificial plant.

What is the moral of this story? When something looks too good to be true, it usually is.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Here Comes the Bus

As I wait for the bus, I notice that the missing glass panel in the shelter has finally been replaced. It's clearer than the other panels and very clean. I realize that in winter it will be warmer in here without an icy wind blowing through. But right now it is stiflingly hot.

I step outside to stand beneath the shade of a maple tree. In the distance I see the bus slowly winding its way towards me. I don't mind using public transit. It gives me time to think and I don't have to stress over paying and maintaining a car.

The new glass panel gives my spirits a lift. Someone has taken the time to replace it and that gives me a feeling of being cared for. These days I appreciate the good things in my life.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Look Twice

Passing through the mall, I stare at the display in a women's fashion boutique. My eyes barely register the slinky evening wear or the tight sweaters over impossibly high, tiny breasts. It's the mannequins themselves. Headless again!

Marketers must believe this allows different women to imagine themselves in those skimpy clothes regardless of their actual size. What I see are thin replicas of female bodies without brains - unable to decide anything for themselves, too mindless to even know they are being gawked at. Scores of people pass the display, unperturbed by what they see.

I find that I must walk away. If I glance at the mannequins any longer, I will start to question their missing hands and feet.