The Child We Were

We cannot know where we are headed, only whence we have come.  It behooves us, then, to help those coming along behind us.

*  *  *  *  *

we’re never so tall

as when we bend down to help

a child who needs us

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*  *  *  *  *

the child is father

of the man, as wordsworth wrote—

so nurture the child

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*  *  *  *  *

to free your children,

hug them close, then let them go—

they’ll e’er be with you

hugs

*  *  *  *  *

those wee girls we raised—

grown now, married, mothers both—

never left our hearts

sisters

*  *  *  *  *

grandchildren, our hope

for the future—as we were

once upon a time

grandchildren

*  *  *  *  *

Learning the Game

As young parents so many years ago, my wife and I loved to watch our daughters play soccer with their local house-league teammates.  It was their first involvement with team sports of any sort, except for pickup-games at school, and we hoped they’d like it because the concepts of teamwork and sportsmanship are so important in later life.

Now, all this time later, it’s our grandchildren we get to watch—wondering how on earth the time passed so quickly.  Soccer and volleyball are their sports of choice, and they’ve embraced the team approach essential to both.

Having been involved with children’s sports in the past—not just as parents, but as teachers and coaches—my wife and I are still keen to see the atmosphere in which they play.  How competitive is it?  How do their coaches approach the playing of the sport—as games to win at all costs, or as opportunities for the kids to learn the skills of the games?  How encouraging or critical are the parents (and grandparents) on the sidelines?

Well, as it turns out, we’ve had no cause for worry.  The kids are playing for coaches who believe it’s as important to treat opponents with respect as it is to show them how to kick the ball accurately with either foot.  It’s just as important to teach them to shake hands with opposing players at the end of a match as it is to spike a ball past them.  For that we’re very grateful.

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However, we were witnesses recently to two situations that point out the difference between how it should be, and how it all-too-often is.

After a soccer game on an adjoining pitch, two parents were walking their son, perhaps seven years old, toward the parking lot.  The father was particularly vocal as he verbally assailed the boy, and we, watching our granddaughters play, couldn’t help but overhear him.

“What’re you supposed to do when the whistle blows, eh?” was the first question.

The boy’s reply was delivered with head down, inaudible to us.

“You know?” the father said next.  “You know?  Well, it sure didn’t look like you know.  You’re supposed to stop when the whistle blows!”

The boy plodded on, chin on his chest.

“And why were you chasing the ball all over the field, anyway?  What is it about staying in position that you don’t get?  You ever heard of passing the ball?”

By then, they were adjacent to the field where the girls were playing.

“Look!” the father directed his son.  “Look there.  These kids know what to do when the ball goes out of play.  They don’t need their coaches yelling at them to get in position.  And they’re only girls!”

The boy didn’t look, of course.  He just kept going—trailed by his irate father and embarrassed mother—head down, a picture of dejection and simmering shame.

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A number of us on the sidelines glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, silently shaking our heads.

On another occasion, by way of contrast, a friend of our daughter—out to watch her seven-year-old play volleyball—was shocked to see him refuse to shake hands at the end of a losing effort.  Rather than lining up at the net, he stomped to the bench, sulking at the score, and refused to mingle.  Despite her chagrin, she refrained from forcing him into the line-up, and she didn’t chastise him in front of the other boys.  But, as she later told our daughter, she spoke to him about his behaviour after they arrived home.

She asked him a number of questions, including, “How do you think the other kids felt when you wouldn’t shake hands with them?  How would you feel if they didn’t congratulate you if your team won?”

He resisted at first, naturally enough.  But she encouraged him, helping him to place himself in their shoes, a difficult task for a youngster that age.  He eventually acknowledged that being a good sport was important, whether his team won or lost the game.

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Together, they agreed—he somewhat more reluctantly than she, as she reflected later with a rueful smile—that if he couldn’t lose gracefully, he shouldn’t be playing at all.  Next, she had him talk to his coach on the phone, to tell him he must miss the upcoming game because of what he’d done.  The coach commended him for owning up to his mistake.

When that next game was played, the boy was sitting in uniform with his parents on the bleachers, watching and learning.  He didn’t play, but at game’s end, he joined his teammates in the line at the net.  Since then, there’s been no problem with his attitude, and he’s played in every game.  He’s often first in line now, I’m told, to shake hands with the other side, win or lose.

When I think about these two episodes, there seems no doubt as to which boy learned the most—the one who was accosted out of anger and frustration, or the one who was encouraged to talk about, and face, the consequences of his actions.  The one who was humiliated, or the one who was left with his dignity intact.

What was it that each boy learned from the exchanges?  And which boy has the best chance to grow into a mature, respectful young man?  A devoted husband?  A nurturing father?

Next to caring teachers and coaches, good parents are every child’s best friends.  Good parents lift their children high, hug them close, then let them go.

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Of course, I have to add that wise grandparents are pretty awesome, too!

 

Paragons of Truth

It is beyond difficult to be a paragon of virtue, one free of sin and avarice, a human being to be admired and emulated, a soul who rises far above the rest of poor mortals who can only watch in awe and wonder.

Or so I imagine it must be, for (as my friends will readily attest) that description does not fit me.

There are many who have been thus esteemed, however.  A partial list from my own lifetime might include Leyhma Gbowee, Mahatmas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, and Malala Yousafzai.  All but one of these worthies were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their character and accomplishments.

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There are others who could be added, as well—people who, for reasons varying by nationality, culture, religion, or political necessity, had bestowed upon them (even if only for a time) an aura of goodness and purity to which we might all have aspired.  They include Churchill (but not Chamberlain), Chang Kai-Shek (but not Mao Zedong), Ben-Gurion (but not Netanyahu), de Gaulle (but not Pétain), Graham (but not Bakker), Kennedy (but not Nixon), and Mulroney (but not Turner).

In truth, however, were all those so proclaimed really paragons of righteousness?  Or were they mere mortals like the rest of us—caught up in events largely beyond their control—but whose endeavours as they grappled with those events were in sync with our western-world point of view?

A close reading today of the historical record of those who have passed away, and of the contemporaneous reporting about those still with us, tells us that, in fact, all these heroes and heroines fall short of the near-mythical status granted them.

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The key to understanding history is knowing it was written by the victors.  But it is pretty much accepted that not everyone who reads that official history will agree with it.  We tend, as human beings, to see truth in accounts that reflect our pre-conceived opinions, and to disagree with reports that run counter to those.

One’s assessment of such historical figures as Columbus, Napoleon, Bismarck, Rhodes, Cochise, Lenin, Roosevelt, Castro, or Thatcher clearly depends upon one’s viewpoint with respect to their accomplishments.  Who among them was good?  Who was bad?

The history of our times that will one day be written will depend to a large extent upon contemporary reporting—by the press, the broadcast media, the social media, and the special interest groups—of the events now occurring in the world around us.  And many of the people who will read that history will have no first-hand knowledge of where the truth really lies—if there even is one truth.

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As a boy, I became an avid reader of the two daily newspapers that came into our home, especially the comics, the sports, and the weather forecasts.  Then, marking the example of my parents, I soon branched out into current events, and became able to identify the important people of the day, those gracing the pages I devoured.  I thought they were above us, those newsmakers, guiding the fate of the world on our behalf.  And I believed what I read about them.

Only later did I come to learn that many of my friends’ homes subscribed to other papers, and that their editorial biases were different from those we favoured.  I was shocked, truly, to realize that not everyone revered the same newsmakers I did—that, in fact, some people actually reviled them.  In an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies, I began to explore those other perspectives with a view to discerning what was true and what was misinformation.  With the advent of television newscasts, the sheer volume soon made that impossible.

But I did discover one thing, at least.  No one—not the most famous person found in the newspaper, nor the lowly paperboy delivering it (my status at the time)—was an unblemished paragon of purity.  All of us, no matter our station in life, had warts, even if those were not always readily seen.

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My mother used to encourage us to look for good in everyone—on the theory, I suppose, that if we didn’t at least look, we’d never find it.  She would remind us of the biblical admonition to mind the mote in our own eyes (I didn’t know for a long time what a mote was, but I dutifully tried to oblige), and the other about not casting stones, literally or figuratively, given our own shortcomings.  Good advice, if not always easy to follow.

So here I am, at the age of three-score-and-fifteen now, no longer believing there are any paragons of virtue in the world, but desperately wanting to believe there could be.  Here I am, not knowing what the real truth is, but desperately hoping there is one, still believing it will set us free.

As Abhijit Naskar has written, “It is a tragedy of modern life that the light of truth scares the society much more than the darkness of ignorance.”

So here I am, still reading, still listening, still exploring—still trying to figure it all out before my own time runs out.

Poetry and Song

Every child is an artist (Pablo Picasso).

In an era when the Arts are under attack in our schools, depriving young people of the opportunity to develop and nurture their creative wellspring—the very thing that will sustain them throughout their lives—it is a joy to be able to spread good words in poetry, pictures, and song.

ice on the water,

white sheets atop the blue deeps—

reflecting the sun

ice on lake

imagination—

like hot air balloons, slipping

bonds that tie me down

balloons

asleep together,

intertwined, we bind our souls

with each breath we take

asleep

impossible dream?

many might have thought so, but

you made it come true

in the rain

more yesterdays now

than tomorrows, but it’s the

tomorrows that count

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shoulder to shoulder,

a capella voices raised—

united in song

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves

at the same time (Thomas Merton).

 

He Can Trump That

Among my more liberal, left-leaning friends, especially those who reside for some portion of the year in the USA, there is a visceral, shuddering abhorrence for all that Donald Trump represents.  It is almost incomprehensible to these fine people that such a boor could ever have been elected president.

I also have friends who inhabit the right (or right-centre) side of the political spectrum, and many appreciate some of the man’s actions in office—such as tax cuts, immigration reform, and a more robust foreign policy.  Yet they, too, are repelled by his personal character.

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It has occurred to me, however, that I have a lot in common with the self-proclaimed saviour of the free world.  It gives me no satisfaction to admit this, but the commonalities are too numerous to ignore.  Let me list a few of them here.

Like the president, I have never had a sexual encounter with the porn star, Stormy Daniels.  Nor did I ever carry on an extra-marital affair with Karen McDougal, the former Playboy bunny.  And I know he didn’t either because he says so.

Not once, ever, have I grabbed a woman by the…..well, you know.  And neither have I ever chomped on tic-tacs to freshen my mouth before pressing myself against a woman and kissing her without her consent.  The president claims—despite a prior candid conversation with one Billy Bush, taped on a tour bus—that he’s never done those things, either.

He often boasts of the tremendous support he gets from women, and that is true of me, too.  In my case, those women are my mother, my sisters, my wife, my daughters, and some long-standing friends.  The president doesn’t really identify who his are, but it must be true, right?

I’ve never fired a director of the FBI because an investigation about my conduct was a witch hunt and total hoax.  Neither did the president do that, by his own admission.

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I’ve told everyone I know that the tax cuts enacted by the president won’t help me at all financially.  He has said that, too, about himself.

I have never publicly mocked a disabled person.  I never supported the American war in Iraq.  I have never made my income tax returns public.  Never did I mislead or defraud students through a fake, diploma-mill university.  He says he didn’t do any of those, either.

Like the president, until the news media made a big deal of it, I had never heard of WikiLeaks.  Nor did I know anything about David Duke and his KKK affiliation.

Neither have I ever stayed overnight in a Moscow hotel, or been entertained by Russian strippers.  I have never made money from business dealings with Russian interests.  Nor, so he says, has the president.

I have absolutely no pecuniary involvement in any Trump-related business, just like the president, who, as he has himself avowed, completely divested himself of his interests after his election.

None of the following people have ever played a major role in my life—George Papadopoulos, Rick Gates, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, or Steve Bannon.  Unlike me, the president does admit knowing them, but not to the point where they could exert a significant or lasting impact on his behaviour.

There are so many commonalities between us.

But, as you read through this list, one significant difference might have occurred to you.  Every one of the statements in the list pertaining to me is true.  The statements regarding the president are not.

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He lies.

Which brings me to a final similarity—somewhat embarrassing for me to admit.  I confess that, just like the president, I also tell lies.  These might include falsehoods about my weight, my golf score, my book sales, the number of followers of my blog, that sort of thing.  Not all the time, but sometimes.

The president makes me look like an amateur in this arena, however.  By some estimates, he has told more than three thousand lies since taking office fifteen months ago.  That’s an average of two hundred lies a month, almost seven a day.  Very few people ever hear my fabrications; but the president’s falsehoods are tweeted almost daily, and repeated endlessly by the mainstream media, social media, and self-serving political hacks and special interest groups.

And sadly, many people believe them.

I would characterize myself as an occasional liar—or, to put it more charitably, one who sometimes utters misleading statements, tenders alternative facts, or (in the president’s words), offers truthful hyperbole in lieu of the truth.  Nothing that really matters to anyone but me and my fragile ego.

As I tell my friends, I’m a writer of fiction.  I make stuff up.

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But the president can trump that.  A congenital characteristic is not something inherited, but rather a feature so ingrained, so strong, that we cannot imagine it changing.  The president is, I believe, a congenital liar, one who cannot help himself, one who believes in his own infallibility.  He doesn’t think he’s making stuff up; he just believes whatever he says.  So, if his lips are moving…

The old adage has it that there are lies, and there are damned lies!  Perhaps the same is true of liars.

[sigh]

 

Empress of the Garden

Very recently, I came upon some pictures of the neighbourhood where my parents purchased the last home they would ever own—a home where I spent the final ten years of my boyhood.  The pictures, old black-and-whites, had been taken before all the homes were built, and the streets were still dirt-tracks.  No one yet occupied any of the finished homes.  The cars and construction vehicles parked helter-skelter were like a virtual museum of 1950’s-era vehicles.

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It wasn’t long, however, before we and our new neighbours were moving in—into freshly-painted homes, with tidy lots of newly-laid grass, driveways of impossibly-white gravel, and (for the most part) no trees.

But my family was singularly fortunate in that, along our side of the rear property line, a row of mature trees stood, there for years before the developer arrived, perhaps marking the boundary between some long-ago farmer’s fields.

Our house was set amidst them—tall, ancestral trees, most of them, old enough that they could have known our grandparents’ names, and their parents before them.  To my young eyes, they seemed to reach endlessly to the sky, then bow over, protectively, to shield us from the world.

In short order, my parents established a garden around and beneath those trees.  Some were big trees, with trunks wide enough to hide behind, others were smaller, with branches dipping low enough to allow us to climb.

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On the hottest of summer days, my siblings and I could return from playing in nearby parks to collapse in the cool, welcoming shade.  In the crispness of autumn afternoons, we could jump and hide in (and scatter) the piles of fallen leaves my father had spent hours raking together.  He never seemed to mind.

At dusk on a cold winter’s evening, we could stare through frosted windows at the skeleton branches, stark against the darkling sky.  And in the rebirthing spring, we could search out budding maple-keys, housing seeds, peel them back, and stick them on our noses.

They were of many kinds, our trees.  The maple, which we tried to tap one spring to make syrup, but unsuccessfully.  An oak, scattering acorns on the ground for us to collect, and which brought the squirrels.  A beautiful beech, with its lovely bark and spreading foliage.  And a large, gnarled weeping willow that we used to hide under, its branches trailing snakily along the ground.

The oldest and most important of all our trees, however, was an elm.  Standing firmly on a small rise at the back of the garden, she reigned over the other trees (in my mind’s eye, anyway).  Encircling her base was a large rockery, broken in one spot by a narrow walkway of flagstone steps leading from the lawn up to the base.  At the top sat an old bench, which we always referred to as our throne.

But we rarely played our games in or around the elm tree, as we did with all the others.  At various times, we had swings attached to sturdy branches of some, and knotted ropes hanging from others.  For a while, we had a treehouse roosting in one of our trees, complete with a crude ladder nailed to the trunk.  And, of course, we climbed in as many of them as we could, playing at being pirates, or Tarzan of the Apes, or Robin Hood’s merry men.

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But, we didn’t play in the elm tree.  Somehow, she seemed too stately to suffer our nonsense gladly.  She rose, tall and columnar, to a great height, before spreading her branches, fan-like, over the trees around her.  They looked to be paying homage to her, perhaps because she’d been there forever.  For us, she made the yard a wonderful and safe place to be.

The empress of our garden.

But then, one sad summer, her leaves turned brittle and brown, and began to fall before their time.  During the other trees’ glory of autumn-colour, she was already bare.  When the following spring arrived, she budded only partially as disease spread through her limbs, and in the ensuing summer she shed her leaves early again.  When next the spring came with its hope of new life, she was dead.

For us, so young, her death seemed incomprehensible.

She remained standing for another year, maybe two, a haunting, spectral reminder of what she had been.  When her rotting branches began to break and fall off with increasing frequency, she had to be taken down.  And then, all that remained of her former grandeur was a large, wide stump on top of the small rise.

I still remember, quite clearly, sitting on the ground one day beside that forlorn nubbin.  I was simply looking at our garden, when it suddenly struck me just how small it really was.  Our trees no longer seemed so grand without their empress, nor so inviting.

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It was about that time, I think, that I began to put away my childhood games.

Something I Said?

It happens sometimes at a restaurant where three or four couples are dining together.  I look up from my soup to find myself alone at our table, the others at the salad bar or in the washroom, perhaps.

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Or it could be at a dance, nine or ten of us sharing a table, and I’m suddenly sitting by myself while the others are up dancing, or maybe table-hopping.

The tiresome jokes flow at these moments, naturally.  Some wise guy will ask in a loud voice if I’m dining tonight with all my friends.  Or some other wit will wonder if I did something to offend everyone in my party.

I laugh, of course, perfunctorily—but somewhat puzzled, too—for it is curious that this crops up with me so frequently.  Was it something I said?

It may happen to others, too, I suppose, but hardly ever when I’m around.  And although the jokes are stale from repetition, they do take my mind away from a somewhat more sombre realization—that someday, we know not when, one of us in our gang will, indeed, be left alone.

We’re at an age where many of the things we used to take for granted are likely not in the cards for us anymore.  How many of us will purchase a new house, for example, with a twenty-year mortgage?  Do we really care if the 2040 Olympic Games are held in this city or that?  Are hair transplants or facelifts really such an attractive option now?  How many more new cars will we buy?

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We’re not yet at the stage where we won’t buy green bananas (another old joke) or make plans for some holiday cruise two years from now.  But those days are coming.

Aging is a simple, yet so mysterious a process.  Simple, because it creeps up on us without any conscious intent on our parts.  We start school, we graduate, we marry and become parents.  We raise our children, sadly (or not) bid them adieu when they embark upon the world, and exult in the joys of grandparenthood when they begin their own families.  Eventually, we retire and reach out for new and exciting pastimes.

Granted, it took years for me to do all this, and the work was palpable while I was doing it.  But when it finally hit, my seventy-fifth birthday seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.  Getting there was a simple matter of waiting.

But aging is mysterious, too, because so many odd things transpire.  For instance, although I feel like the same person I always was, my friends are obviously getting older.  Occasionally, when I happen to spy one of them unexpectedly, I see first an old man or woman—only to realize belatedly it’s my friend.  I suspect the same thing might be true in reverse when they have a chance encounter with me.  We’re all too polite to tell each other that, though.

A lyric from the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, seems to capture it:  I don’t remember growing older, when did they?

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A few years ago, I underwent some serious surgeries, not necessarily age-related, and spent several months in follow-up visits with the medical people who treated me.  When reading my files one day, I was quite surprised to discover a letter from a referring physician to a specialist who had treated me.  After the usual introductory paragraph, the letter stated, “This elderly gentleman presents with symptoms congruent with…”

My attention was riveted on those first three words.  I thought I had opened someone else’s file!  Elderly?  Surely not I!  And yet, at the tender age of sixty-four, it was true—at least from the perspective of those young professionals.

And so, here we are, I and all my friends, firmly ensconced in our senior years.  None of us talks morbidly about the inevitable end of our lives; more likely, we’re comparing our golf scores, sharing the latest stock market activity, or showing off pictures of our grandchildren.  We’re a pretty happy lot, all told.

One of us, a retired funeral director, jokes that he used to sign his letters Yours eventually.  “They’re gonna get us in the end,” he says with a wink.

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I do think about the end-stages of life, however.  Like finding oneself left alone at the table in the restaurant, or at the dance.  A close friend from boyhood never got to experience that aloneness, dying before his time just over a year ago, surrounded by family and embraced in the thoughts of his many friends.

My parents, on the other hand, lived well into their nineties—not a guarantee of longevity for me, I grant you, but a pretty good genetic gift.  At the end of her life, my mother had outlived her husband, all her siblings, and all her friends.  Despite the visits from children and grandchildren, I know her final years were painfully lonely.

We cannot know the hour or manner of our own passing, so it’s futile to fret about it.  Yet I occasionally ponder whether it would be best to go first, before everyone else has passed, or be the last one standing (or sitting, or lying down…whatever).  So much of the joy of life comes from those around us, family and friends, and so much would be missing without them.

I’m unable to decide with any certainty which option I’d prefer.  I waver from one to the other, depending on my mood.  Vacillation can be a comfort.  Truth be told, there is no definitive answer to be found; what will be, will be.

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But honestly?  I don’t think I want to be the last one at the table, wondering in vain if it was something I said.