Memories help, even when they hurt

Lighthouse painting - Dad

“Lighthouse” (unfinished) By Arnold Butler

If you’re a Facebook user, you will likely be familiar with the “memories” that pop up on your feed from time to time, with an option to share them if you choose. Mostly, I find these surprises bring a smile or chuckle. But today was different.

Today, Facebook reminded me that it’s my Dad’s birthday. It’s not that this isn’t true. The problem is that Dad is no longer here to share this milestone. He died last October, after a struggle with melanoma and its related complications. The Facebook reminder was like a punch in the gut.

I don’t blame Facebook, of course. I don’t blame anyone. I just wasn’t ready for it.

Today, Dad would have turned 83. More than anything, I would love to celebrate his birthday with him. I can imagine us chatting about life over a big pot of Bewley’s tea. Of course, we’d discuss politics, one of his favourite topics. Instead, though, I am spending the day looking through old photos and reflecting on Dad’s impact on my life.

Dad had a wonderful sense of humour. The knack for saying just the right thing drew people to him. What I loved most is that he never made a joke at someone else’s expense. His sense of humour was rooted in deep respect and love for people. Dad valued honesty, tolerance, and integrity. He was open-minded, non-judgmental, and inclusive. These values shone through his life in countless ways. I hope that I reflect these values too.

He had many interests. Besides cooking and gathering people around his table, Dad loved the arts. In his younger days, he played 12-string guitar. Visits to my grandparents’ cottage always included enthusiastic sing-alongs led by Dad around a bonfire. He had a massive repertoire.

When I was in my early twenties, Dad and I took painting classes together at Danforth Tech. I wasn’t very good at it, but Dad was. He continued watercolour painting off and on for many years until the combination of arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome made it hard for him to hold his brushes.

After Dad died, my step-mom invited me to select one of his paintings to bring home. It was a hard choice, but I eventually decided on the unfinished painting of a lighthouse I’ve included in this post. I love that it’s incomplete because I feel that Dad’s story isn’t over. Not only does he live on in the memories of all who loved him, I am certain I will see him again one day.

So, while I am missing my Dad particularly keenly today, I cherish the countless memories I have of him. They are his most beautiful gift to me.

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When Jury Duty calls

a duty dodgedWhen the summons for jury duty landed in my mailbox in June, I have to admit my first response was a groan. I thought about the negative impact serving on a jury might have on my life: disruption to my plans, the inconvenience of travelling to the courthouse every day, and the potential distress (especially if I was selected for a horrible criminal case).

I read the jury duty summons carefully and then went online to learn how to get out of it! It turns out I had no valid reason to be excused. Jury duty wouldn’t cause me undue hardship, or affect my income, travel plans, or schooling. My English comprehension is good and so is my hearing. I have no health issues that would make it impossible for me to be in the courtroom.

I resigned myself to attending the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in late July.

As my jury duty date grew closer however, my negative attitude began to change. My curiosity got the better of me! What would the experience be like? Who would I meet? What would I learn? Granted, I was still apprehensive about the type of case I might face as a juror. But I began to think that it might not be such a bad thing to serve on a jury.

When called as a potential juror, you go to the courthouse and spend many hours (usually a few days) sitting in a room with hundreds of other people who also received a summons. Each potential juror has an assigned individual and jury panel number. (A jury panel is a large group of people from whom a jury is selected.) Then, as the first day unfolds, jury selection begins. I won’t go into the details of the process, but here’s a good overview from the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.

All potential jurors receive the opportunity to go before the judge to ask that they be deferred or excused from jury duty. I was fascinated by the variety of reasons people gave! The judge listened carefully, asked questions, and then made a decision about each potential juror.

Before this step however, the judge addressed us.

He reminded us that Canada has the best justice system in the world. The opportunity to be tried by a “jury of peers” is one of its central principles. He urged us to carefully consider our role as a juror – helping to ensure that people accused of crimes receive a fair trial. He also remarked that jurors usually describe the experience as one of the most meaningful of their lives.

The judge’s comments reminded me once again of how lucky I am. I have the great good fortune to be Canadian.

As an aside, it was interesting to observe and interact with the people who work at the courthouse, especially those whose job it is to staff the room where potential jurors wait for many hours. Imagine going to work knowing that the majority of people you encounter are ticked off about being there? There is much complaining, grumbling, and groaning. Through it all the courthouse staff members kept their cool, provided information as soon as it was available, and were generally good humoured. I’m not sure I would be if I were in their shoes! Kudos to them.

 My number came up twice during the selection process for two separate juries. While I wasn’t chosen, I did get to see some of the inner workings of our justice system. I came away with a fresh appreciation for its many moving parts.

If you receive a jury duty summons, please do everything possible to make yourself available. The system isn’t perfect, but it would be much diminished without you.

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Passing on long-ago greetings

A fGuest bookew weeks back I was searching through a box of items that belonged to my mother, who passed away in 2007.

Nestled at the bottom of the box was an old guestbook. I remembered seeing it at the time I was clearing out mom’s home. However, as I didn’t recognize it, I set it aside in a box of items to deal with at a later date.

Unfortunately the “later date” was years later.

The covers of the guestbook were made of wood and the pages inside were yellowed and brittle. But the warmth of the faded greetings, most of them from the 1930s to ‘50s, spoke across the long span of years.

The guestbook had never really belonged to my mom, but rather to her late husband, Len, who had passed away several years before her. They had met and married while I was in my twenties. I guess my mom had packed the guestbook away in a box to deal with “later”.

Judging by the dates of the greetings, I think the guestbook had belonged to Len’s parents, or possibly an aunt and uncle. Regardless, I wanted to somehow get it back into the hands of his family. I know I would want someone to do the same for me in similar circumstances.

I was thrilled to be able to track down Len’s daughter and make arrangements to pass on the guestbook, along with a few other items I had found. She was deeply grateful to receive them, as she told me that she and her sisters have very few of her dad’s belongings. What a blessing to pass on those few momentos. I’m confident they will be treasured always.

The experience reminded me once again of how actions, even if seemingly minor ones, can have a positive impact. And maybe that impact will last for generations to come.

Do you have an action you’ve been putting off until “later”? Perhaps it’s returning something, or making a phone call, or visiting someone, or making a long put-off decision.

Really, it’s time to move it to the top of your To Do list!

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The hard work of a mother-to-be!

Mother robin crop

There she sits, patiently incubating her clutch of eggs.

I noticed the nest a few days ago when I went out to the deck to fire up the barbecue. Our deck is quite high, so I had a clear view of the nest tucked between our neighbour’s eavestrough and siding, about eight feet up.

That morning there had been snow on the ground, which may have accounted in part for her annoyed look. It was chilly and the wind was cold.

The nest is about seven inches across, made of twigs, mud and grass. I notice the mother robin has also incorporated a piece of blue string. It’s a close match for the eggs I imagine are lying at the bottom of the nest. (I can’t see them from my vantage point and I don’t want to get any closer. Usually, however, there are about four eggs in the first clutch.)

I’ve been keeping a close watch on mother robin and have been amazed at her tenacity and patience. (Yes, I know I’m anthropomorphizing here, but I can’t help myself.)

Since making my discovery, I’ve been reading up on the nesting habits of robins. Seems there’s quite a bit I didn’t know!

For instance, did you know that the female robin has a brood patch on the underside of her belly? It’s a section of exposed skin (i.e. featherless) that has blood vessels near the surface, enabling her to easily transfer heat to her incubating eggs. She is uniquely suited for this important job.

Also, do you know how much work goes into incubating robin eggs? The mother robin sits on her nest for about 50 minutes of each hour. The other 10 minutes she is hunting for food. To keep the eggs at the same temperature (so they all hatch together) she must turn them several times each day, using her bill to roll them in the nest. Turning the eggs also prevents the babies from sticking to the inside of the shell.

I am hoping to see the babies appear within the next week or so. The eggs will hatch a day apart, in the order they were laid. Then begins the full-time job for both parents to find food, feed the babies and protect the nest from predators until the babies leave the nest, usually nine to 16 days after hatching. Once the fledglings leave the nest, the mother robin will start building a new nest for her next brood!

How wonderful to have a ring-side seat on this amazing process. I am rooting for this robin family!

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Spring – the promise of rebirth and renewal

Tulip and Atwood quote 2

© Glenn Mcgloughlin | Dreamstime Stock Photos. Used by permission.

Well, technically it’s Spring, although it sure doesn’t feel like it. With Easter less than two weeks away, I am used to seeing a bit of life in the garden. But even the snowdrops, those early harbingers of Spring, have barely broken the soil’s surface. It looks like it will be a few more weeks before I get my knees dirty in the garden. (Although I suppose I could at least pick up the litter scattered throughout the yard.)

Even though the flowers aren’t out yet, the great thing is that I know they are coming. Crouched beneath the soil, the bulbs and seeds are getting ready to spring to life. But they are already full of life, aren’t they?

Within each bulb and seed in the garden lies everything they need to become something quite amazing — food for the birds, home for insects, a balm for winter-weary hearts, and more. Their capacity for growth astounds me every Spring!

Ah Spring! For me, it’s about promise, renewal and new life.

Growth and renewal require the right conditions, however. The plants in my garden need water, the sun’s warmth and light, and nutrients from the soil. I can help things along with a garden hose, mulch and fertilizer. Then I need to continually tend the garden by keeping the weeds at bay (something I am not good at doing, but at least the mulch helps), removing spent flowers, pruning where needed, and fighting off harmful pests. Frankly, it’s a lot of work.

I see gardening as a metaphor for my own life. For me to flourish like the plants in the garden, I also need the right conditions and careful tending. I’m so thankful for everyone in my life who is helping with this hard work. When I see the Spring flowers come into bloom and listen once more to the Easter story, I’ll be reminded that it is absolutely worth it.

Happy Spring!

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Something funny happened on the way . . .

For many years I had a gift subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine. When each issue arrived, I immediately tore off the plastic cover and turned to the funny features such as Life’s Like That, and Laughter, the Best Medicine. There was always a joke or anecdote to make me giggle. There’s nothing like a good laugh!

I love to laugh, don’t you? When I’m having a bad day, laughter lifts my spirits. When I’m with friends and family, laughing together connects us in a way that very little else can. A funny passage in a book can reduce me to helpless guffaws and streaming tears, even in public among strangers. (This actually happened to me on the Toronto subway while I was reading The Best Laid Plans by Toronto writer Terry Fallis. I was a bit embarrassed, but sympathetic to those craning their necks to see the title of the book. And yes, I’ve read every one of Terry’s books since and eagerly await the publication of Poles Apart in October 2015.)

Whether it’s a little chuckle or howls of mirth, laughter somehow changes us.

Of course, what we find amusing is highly subjective. What tickles our funny bone may leave someone else with a frown on their face. Humour comes in many forms and styles. Just a few include slapstick, dry/deadpan, off-colour, satirical, self-deprecating, ironic, juvenile/sophomoric, and farcical.

Here’s an example from the old Carol Burnett show that’s intended to be deadpan humour, but the players lose it halfway through:

Did you know that there’s a field of scientific study dedicated to laughter and its physiological and psychological effects? It’s called gelotology, from the Greek root gelos (to laugh), and was coined in 1964 by Dr. William F. Fry and Dr. Edith Trager. There are even academic journals dedicated to humour, including HUMOR (International Journal of Humor Research) and Studies in American Humor.

Increasingly, humour is being used in healthcare settings and beyond to help people cope in difficult situations. At two of the hospitals at which I have worked, humour is brought to the bedside of young patients through the innovative and effective therapy of therapeutic clowning. At Sick Kids Hospital and on the paediatric unit of Credit Valley Hospital, therapeutic clowns visit children and families to offer emotional support by using humour and gentle play. The clown becomes a playmate, friend and confidante who helps minimize stress during hospitalization and treatment. It’s absolutely wonderful to see in action!

Here’s another example of humour that makes me laugh:

Holmes and Watson are on a camping trip. In the middle of the night Holmes wakes up and gives Dr. Watson a nudge. “Watson,” he says. “Look up in the sky and tell me what you see.”

“I see millions of stars, Holmes,” says Watson.

“And what do you conclude from that, Watson?”

Watson thinks for a moment. “Well,” he says, “astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorlogically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I see that God is all-powerful, and we are small and insignificant. Uh, what does it tell you, Holmes?”

“Watson, you idiot! Someone has stolen our tent!”

Ha ha ha!

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Why counting sheep is good for your brain

Pillow with text

Photo © Ng | Dreamstime Stock Photos. Used by permission.

Well it seems I snoozed through World Sleep Day on March 13th. However, as the World Congress on Sleep Medicine is currently going on in Seoul, Korea, it’s not too late to talk about something many of us don’t get enough of: sleep. (Not that it’s ever too late to talk about sleep!)

These days the second most common answer I get when asking people how they are doing is, “I’m tired.” (The most common answer is, “Busy!) It seems that sleep deprivation is a big problem.

In 2013 the National Sleep Foundation in the United States conducted their International Bedroom Poll to explore sleep habits in six countries (US, Canada, Japan, Germany, UK, and Mexico). It found that generally less than one half of people are sleeping well every night.

Poor quality sleep impacts every area of our lives. It also affects our brain’s ability to do some vital clean-up work.

An interesting study by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center revealed that it is primarily during sleep that cerebral spinal fluid flushes harmful toxins from our brain. These toxins are the by-product of neural activity during waking hours and are associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

For years I suffered with sleep deprivation. I was usually getting enough hours of sleep (i.e. 7-8 per night), but the quality of my sleep was poor. It really began in earnest after the birth of my son, who didn’t sleep through the night until after age two. Those two years of constantly interrupted sleep was more than enough time to establish a poor sleep pattern that was extremely difficult to change. But the good news is that it’s possible!

Having healthy sleep habits is often referred to as having good “sleep hygiene”. It involves everything from what you eat before bed, the amount of light in your bedroom, room temperature, the use of electronics and so much more.

Here are some tips that help me get a good night’s sleep:

Limit caffeine intake. It’s a stimulant that blocks sleep-inducing chemicals in your brain and increases adrenaline production. (Easy to understand why a morning coffee is so popular!) However, it takes about six hours for just half of the caffeine in your body to be eliminated. So, if you are ingesting caffeine after lunchtime, it’s going to impact your sleep. And don’t forget that caffeine comes in many forms, including coffee, tea, chocolate, colas, cocoa and some medications.

Sleep in the dark. Use heavy curtains or blinds on your windows, eliminate the night light and turn the glowing green display of your clock-radio away so you can’t see it from bed. (I’ve found this last tip to be particularly helpful, as it helped me stop obsessing about how much sleep time I was losing in the middle of the night.) Once you wake up though, throw open your blinds or curtains to get a dose of morning light and help you get going.

Don’t eat too late. While there are some foods that appear to be sleep inducing (turkey comes to mind), our body works hard to digest food. Try to eat dinner at about the same time each day. Eat no later than two to three hours before bed to give your body time to digest.

Be consistent with your bedtime and wake-up time. This helps regulate your body clock. It may be tempting to sleep in for hours on weekends and vacation, but going to bed and waking up at about the same time each day makes it easier to maintain a healthy sleep schedule.

Check out the National Sleep Foundation website for some other good tips on establishing good sleep habits.

Sweet dreams!

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Embracing learning as a way of life

Proust quote smallLately I’ve been thinking about the notion of lifelong learning. Perhaps it’s because I’m on the tail-end of a digital communications course at the University of Toronto that is stretching me in new ways. (This blog is a product of the course!)

The Collins English Dictionary defines lifelong learning as, “the provision or use of both formal and informal learning opportunities throughout people’s lives in order to foster the continuous development and improvement of the knowledge and skills needed for employment and personal fulfilment.”

I really like this definition because it says that learning can take place anywhere and at any time in our lives. It’s not reserved solely for formal school settings. To quote American novelist Mark Twain, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Lifelong learning provides amazing benefits.

In our working years, learning is often focused on acquiring skills and knowledge to advance our careers. Whether through courses, workshops, conferences, reading and more, we can derive an economic benefit from our learning. It can help us land a new job, switch careers, or simply grow in our current work.

Lifelong learning can also keep us healthier, longer.

There’s a growing body of evidence that stimulating and challenging our brain can help us maintain cognitive functions such as memory, decision making, attention and problem solving. Mental stimulation, along with exercise and healthy eating may be the key to a long and productive life.

There are distinct social and societal benefits to lifelong learning as well. By exploring new activities, taking up new hobbies (or rediscovering old ones), undertaking educational travel, and the like, we connect with others, make new friends, and maintain healthy relationships. Through volunteering, we can offer the knowledge and expertise gained through a lifetime of learning to contribute to our community. And because our world is in a constant state of flux, lifelong learning helps us adapt to change too.

It’s important to remember, however, that lifelong learning is both a deliberate and voluntary act. We have to embrace it as a way of life, intentionally and actively seeking out opportunities to learn and stretch.

What are some of the ways you are embracing lifelong learning?

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What singing in a quartet is teaching me about life!

musical notes I love to sing.

In fact, my mom once told me that I actually sang my first words. I was a late talker, which worried my parents. However, the doctor assured them I was okay and as soon as I had something to say I would start talking. This proved true when one afternoon my mom heard an unfamiliar noise coming from my room. Turned out it was me in my crib, singing a lullaby to myself.

It was a relief for my parents and the birth of a lifelong passion for me.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed opportunities to sing in various formats and venues. But I think none is more interesting or challenging than singing in a quartet; four different voices — soprano, mezzo-soprano (also known as alto), tenor and bass — coming together to make music.

Last fall at church we began planning for Christmas and the season of Advent. (It seems strange to be writing about this in March!) While a group of us were brainstorming, we landed on the idea of singing Christmas carols in the church lobby before the start of each service in December. My husband and I took on the challenge of organizing this activity.

We decided to form a quartet and asked two friends to join us. Together we selected about a dozen carols and set about learning the four-part harmony to sing them a cappella. It was a great experience and people coming to the services really seemed to enjoy the opportunity to listen and join in. (If you are on Facebook, you can watch a short video clip on the Trinity Church Streetsville page, posted on December 21.)

Well, Christmas was months ago but Easter is coming! Our quartet (we’re now trying to come up with a name) has decided to get together again to sing at the Good Friday and Easter services. We are in full rehearsal mode.

As we continue to sing together, it’s occurred to me that I am learning some important life lessons in the process. Here are some of them:

  1.  Listening to each other is absolutely vital! The notes are meant to work together, not clash (except in certain brief instances where it’s intended to create some interesting musical tension). To stay on key, we have to be able to hear each other. No one part should drown out the others.
  2. Interdependency is a good thing. None of us can do everything. We need to rely on each other.
  3. Everyone’s part is important. If one part is missing, the result just isn’t as good. Our alto has been sick this week and while we are continuing to rehearse, she is keenly missed!
  4. There’s strength (and courage) in numbers. I don’t particularly like to sing solo, as I can get really nervous and forget to breathe. But it’s different when I’m adding my voice to others.

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The power and lessons of teamwork

Have you ever been faced with a task that you just couldn’t manage on your own? Perhaps it was simply because of the volume of work involved. Or maybe you were faced with an extremely tight deadline. Or, the task may have called for some skills you haven’t yet acquired. Whatever the reason, you realized you needed help to get it done. You needed a team.

A couple of weeks ago I had a school assignment that emphasized for me yet again the power and importance of teamwork.

I am working on a certificate in Digital Strategy and Communications Management at the University of Toronto. In my current course, we were required to work in groups of four to six people to conceive, write, shoot, edit and produce a short video. We were given just 90 minutes in class to do the shooting, editing and production part of the assignment. Talk about pressure!

As visual storytelling is a key tactic for building and engaging online communities, the assignment was intended to expand our skills in video creation. But it also turned out to be an excellent reminder of the benefits of working together as a team.

Virtually no one in my group of seven, myself included, had experience in end-to-end video production. Still, we found that each of us had unique gifts, skills and expertise to bring to the assignment. It was wonderful to brainstorm, building on each other’s suggestions until we arrived at a concept and plan we all liked. We were willing to learn from each other.

However, we quickly realized that individually we did not have the capacity to do all of the work required. The task was too large and the timeline too tight to manage on our own. There was only one approach that would get us across the finish line: teamwork!

Our concept was to create a video that provided some Do’s and Don’ts related to taking selfies. We wanted it to be informative and funny. It’s rough, but have a look:

There are (at least) two important things to remember about teamwork. First, the end product might not be exactly what you envisioned. Looking at our video, there are definitely things each group member would go back and change. But keep in mind that the process of getting to the finish line is also important. Besides, without teamwork, you might not have a product at all!

Second, teamwork can be messy. Team members all bring different approaches to an assignment. Disagreements will sometimes occur. Feathers may ruffle. Staying on track requires mutual respect and a good dose of humility.

Now that our video assignment is behind us, we’ve all breathed a sigh of relief. But hopefully the lessons we’ve learned will stay with us for a long time!

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