Found In Translation

I attended a birthday meal for a septuagenarian this evening. I wasn’t the cook so it was this side of better. It seemed a breeze was breathed on us continuously which was relief from the humidity I seemed to experience everywhere else I was present for the day. We were sitting talking before the meal which for me means listening to predominantly Chinese phrases. I am sometimes isolated by my vocabulary which consists of ‘xie xie’ or “thank you” and ‘dou bu qi’ which means “I’m sorry”. I have had a six year relationship with my Canadian Chinese fiancé knowing nothing more and needing not much else. There is some English when we visit her family which provides me the opportunity to put my foot in my mouth and say ‘dou bu qi’ and practice my Chinese.

Someone asked what time it was. My initial reaction was to suggest it was time to eat as BBQ almost everything was already on the table but something struck me. Someone reached into their pocket and siphoned the time from their cell phone while I turned my wrist and glanced at my watch. If I want to know the time I look at the microwave, the oven or my watch before I even think about the cell phone in my pocket. As far as I’m concerned cell phones are for music, EBay and confirming how few of you read this blog. I don’t even use mine to make calls as I have one of those old phones you have to travel half way across the house for. I would like to argue that I like the exercise but there are people I know who do read this blog and they could only laugh at such an argument.

Time means something different to each of us. To the 8 year old at the table it was an eternity until we cut the cake. The chef at the BBQ toiled for hours marinating and turning several forms of flesh and I ate most of it in a fraction of the time it took others. This slight failing falls squarely at the feet of my parents who birthed four hungry boys. Last one to the table scrapes the bowl. My swiftness to swallow was further fine tuned among inmates who would ask “are you going to eat that?” If it was on your tray you didn’t want it.

Like time, life experiences are subjective and subtle. Money for someone who experienced the Great Depression is something different from the 13 year old with the X-Box, IPod and Dr. Dre Headphones. Homelessness is a foreign concept to one and a reflection and reminder to the other. The 8 year old waiting for the cake will likely never fathom his grandmother passing her portion of rice to her children.

If you were to ask one about food, the stories, memories, impressions, meanings and experiences would be as far apart as the years themselves. I hope neither know hunger again or ever but there is nothing like it to add to appetite and to colour food with flavour and celebration. It becomes not something we do three times a day but something we are blessed with in the moment.

Birthday Beliefs

I wanted to thank my friends and family for the multitude of birthday wishes I received today mainly through Facebook. It was closer to a baker’s dozen but even the ostracised are prone to projecting popularity.

I received more wishes than on any of my other birthdays which is ironic considering that at 11:48 pm last night I became a Jehovah’s Witness. I was brushing my remaining teeth before bed and the mirror itself was a religious revelation I could not ignore. With hair poking far beyond my nose and much of my receding hairline coating the sink I saw a sudden flash. Possibly it was the bathroom light reflecting from my forehead or off the grey throughout my head and unkempt beard but I fell to my knees and converted. Like Lot’s wife I looked at the mirror and my age become a pillar of salt. I was and always will be 45.

God is good, God is great, thankfully I have a fiancé for I could never find a date.

It feels good to deny my life the opportunity to dip into another decade. I have found the fountain of youth in faith itself. For those who are alarmed at my new religion fear not. I did a little research and my “present” plan is to denounce my denomination on Christmas Eve. As devout as I am I am not stupid. Birthdays can be manipulated to manage my mortality but Christmas is a season of gifts more than Wi-Fi wishes and that I will endure.

All I wanted for my birthday was to sleep in but my “dumb”phone started dinging at 6:30 am to inform me I was 46. I smiled at the first few beeps but they soon conspired to penetrate my late night devotion of denial. “DING…you’re 46” is all I heard all morning. “No, I’m not damn it…I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. You heathens can age but I will not!”

Thanks for the birthday wishes and if any of you are more Jehovah than me I apologize for borrowing your beliefs and fashioning your faith into humour. I’ve already been to hell so save your breath.

Herstory

I was at a funeral this afternoon. I was there as a personal comforter and had never met the departed. One never knows what to say at a funeral and this opportunity was more so for me. I was sorry for their loss though I didn’t even know what they lost.

I learned the departed’s age, knew what she looked like as a young woman and saw the flower in her hair everyone seemed to be mentioning, in more recent photographs. I learned about her family history and stories from her life.

I met the departed in the voices of a daughter, a grandson, a granddaughter, a niece, a friend and a minister. Her spirit trembled in their words. She floated from their thoughts and hearts even into me; a stranger. If I could be touched without a real glance at her what might have she been like alive? There was no casket but she moved through the room and down the cheeks of several sitting in front of me.

The person I was accompanying had never been to a funeral and was a little unsure of herself. I didn’t give her any advice on what to say or where to sit. She figured it all out as she sat next to me wiping away tears as well. Tears are always appropriate and a funeral is a good opportunity to feel someone one last time or for the first.

Ten Cent Shoes

I recognize the fact that many of you have better things to do on Christmas Day, so I will speak out of turn. Experience has made me morose and more but I hope you can find some piece of truth or the heart of the Day in my musings.

Christmas in many jails is like any other day. The timing is impeccable as is the monotony. We tend to not watch the TV specials so it even echoes yesterday. There is nothing to signal what rattles your very soul. There are no funny Christmas presents and if orange is festive you would throw up on Easter.

The most painful part of incarceration for me was to surrender my fatherhood like it was as worthless as my watch and clothes. We are numbers and last names; nothing more.

On more than one occasion the flavour of the season was delivered by the Salvation Army. Bars prevented the hug I longed for but candies and such were a welcome amusement; humble gifts. I was more satiated by their presence. Who wants to go caroling in a jail? I listen to hours of music each day, it is my morning coffee but seared in my mind are the notes coming from the accordion on the other side of the bars. Strangers can help to mend a torn heart. I was a father without the whiff of my children and visions of them tearing into wrapping paper laid waste to my strength. I don’t know about most of you but I have many Christmas memories. Imagine letting them all loose when you’re in shackles that very day. There is only anguish at each passing vision. I was disinfected of any meaning despite what swirled in my mind. It was like being a Goldfish. There was all that stuff beyond but the best you could hope for was a sore nose.

The first Christmas I spent in jail was in the Stratford Gaol. It was built in the 1800’s with nothing much more than stone. The season was colder than I was accustomed to. We hooded ourselves with blankets as the stone shone cold on our bodies. Our frigid defence was rendered useless as we were ordered to leave blankets in our cells as they were a security issue. Fire with Fire.

I soon decided Christmas was going to be delivered even if compassion was held up with customs. I had a weakness for sweets while incarcerated. When I was in hospital I would waken in the night and eat a black licorice. I would waken in the morning with a piece or two on my pillow and lost half a tooth soon after but it was comfort. My family has a taste for black licorice and I must have found a connection when I was without them. Sweets were also a connection to the outside while in jail. A “snickers” tastes better than a “snickers” on the outside…trust me.

I always had a couple of chocolate bars either near me or in me. I would ration them. To eat a whole chocolate bar was like throwing away several moments of ecstasy. I ordered enough chocolate bars using the system used to procure street food and product on canteen. On Christmas Eve my cellmate turned into an Elf and ran diversion as we were being locked up. As he pretended to use the toilet I filled my pockets with chocolate bars and scurried from cell to cell and gave each man a chocolate bar. I shook hands with my own pain and glanced into the same infinitely sad eyes but there was a sparkle. It was Santa in an orange jumpsuit wearing ten cent shoes.

P.S. Thanks Mom for the canteen money.

My Neighbour’s Children

I’m not sure how it slipped by Mr. Harper but it seems one of his officers has put his foot in his mouth. Industry minister James Moore is quoted as saying:

“Is it the government’s job – my job to feed my neighbour’s children? I don’t think so; obviously nobody wants kids to go to school hungry…but is that always the government’s job? Empowering families with more power and resources so they can feed their own children is I think a good thing.”

Mr. Moore,

That may be a good thing but your dream doesn’t fill half our heads and less stomachs. While you’re making signs to tell us about your plan to empower families many of them are going hungry. If you guys can pass something between prorogues we would all be pleased. When there is no food in your stomach there’s a lot of grumbling between budgets. You sound confident in your plan but just to prove the earnestness with which this government is dealing with the issue we would like you to stop eating 3 meals a day till this all blows in. I think that’s a good thing. This power and these resources you speak of might be helpful if wrapped in a sandwich. We can’t eat your perspective or promises. This problem is like a sore thumb never to heal. How many more meals do these children have to go without while you dance this into a motion that brings food and more? It is not a simple economic principle when in fact many who use food banks are employed. Selling the country to create jobs doesn’t always end hunger.

The next time you walk to the refrigerator sir, I would have you pause. Go sit somewhere quiet. Wait until you start hearing your stomach rumbling. Now wait an hour and consider the number of times your thoughts turn to food. The rumbling and anguish you may sense is in fact a regular and often prolonged experience for some Canadian children. Children who have no voice, no vote and clearly from you sir, no compassion. Possibly you’re so smart because you had the privilege of growing up with nutrition. Imagine algebra with an empty stomach.

You may think it is not your job to feed your neighbour’s children but as a federal minister you represent each of the homeless and the many more who go without food. There are 30 000 homeless in Canada and 833 000 visit a food bank each month. When we see this sort of disaster in another country we are alarmed, recognize the need and take action. When these numbers happen slowly and are spread out, our empathy is diluted. Does hunger feel different in Canada than Cambodia? If a tornado hit Toronto and the numbers were the same, I doubt we could expect such callous and stupid statements. These numbers are a national disaster being administered to by charities in many cases. Why can the military be roused to assist another country but will not hand out food packets from the back of their trucks here in Canada unless their government declares it an emergency. This is an emergency. To not have a roof or to be hungry is not something we ignore or prorogue when it happens far away. I do think Mr. Moore that it falls on government to administer to something this serious.

From your words it would appear you have no problem passing the potatoes with the prime minister but to hell with those hungry kids next door. What specifically is the distinction you make?

It is interesting that you don’t consider it your job to feed your neighbour’s children but assuming your neighbour pays taxes it is their job to work and save for you to eat your parliamentary meals, a salary and even a pension. You sir would like to be fed by your countrymen with a silver spoon but you won’t commit a quarter for a hungry child.

I can swear like a drunken sailor but you sir are curse enough.

Mental Illness Is Next Semester

It was brought to my attention from a learned friend that the University here in London has run into some publicity. The University of Western Ontario newspaper, the gazette, published a cartoon with words to the effect “Why are you so happy?” “My brother was really depressed, but he finally hung himself.”

My neighbour hung himself as did his sister. I had a relative commit suicide. Two good friends from my hospital years killed themselves. There were more but I was less familiar with them. Therein lays the problem, familiarity.

I can recall coming out of my 30 hour coma and my brother saying quite the opposite.

One of my first thoughts to this was why this was not considered as offensive as the chants condoning non-consensual sex with a minor that we have come to know through other places of higher learning. Are there actually people on talk shows defending this cartoon and its publication?

The defense of or minimization of this cartoon is in fact stigma. We don’t condone sex with minors but we condone making fun of minors who commits suicide and therefore infer those who have similar thoughts are laughable at best.

I read a comment in response to the cartoon from someone claiming to have suffered from depression. They saw humour in it. It can be a blessing to have depression that does not involve suicidal ideation. It is also a blessing to be on the side of mental health that has you on a message board making opinions. We need to consider the student in her room. The one who although beautiful and bright is unable to see her place, success or happiness in this thing called university. To her friends seem to belong to others and her isolation is found in crowded hallways. This young woman needs our help not our laughter. When she sees a publication representing her peers and the university community in general making light of the very thoughts in her head, she can only hang it in shame. She keeps quite, she masks, she isolates and her wounds become infected by our very words.

Crazy, out of it, best let be, she internalizes our attitudes and they become fuel for an ever unfavourable opinion of self. She becomes slang, she becomes a put down, she becomes a joke.

For those who see no error; no foul, it may be constructive to self reflect. It is possible your attitude of indifference or acceptance is stigma itself. To not be offended about this cartoon raises more questions about the self than about any larger argument. A joke is not funny because someone calls it a joke. If it was a race, a sex or even a sexual orientation, students would have signs about the campus. Mental illness is next semester or an elective at best.

You can call me thin skinned but as likely we have grown thick in apathy. It was only a cartoon, there must be larger fights; maybe so but you have to stop the dog from digging before you can fill in the hole.

There was humour in the underage sex chants, no one meant any harm. A nation said no. An institution said no. If we are to combat one of the worst side effects of mental illness we must again say no.

We can be forgiving of all this. We are all learning, students more so. We need to impress on our students that the pages they write on are empty if not saturated by their humanity and the fine things they already know. To make grades is a worthy aim but if respect, love and compassion are left in lockers they are only ink on a page. We all make mistakes but if compassion, love and respect are woven into them, they can never be called failures.

I drive by the University of Western Ontario most days. Hope walks past my car when I wait at the light. The young men and women I see carry the cures, the solutions and they are being carved to make the decisions that will shape a future that I may reside in and surely my blood. We can be disappointed in what is instilled in a generation but the responsibility belongs to us all. How can we expect our children to have the discretion to not make light of the suffering of an illness when we laugh at the same jokes?

I suspect this news will not hit the funny bone of the roughly 4000 Canadian families who are affected by suicide each year. We can only hope they are too busy running fingers over old photographs to see this story.

It is not my place but it seems to me if resignations were in order at universities where chanting was heard, the same might be in order at a broader distribution of offensive utterances. As a solution to the very stigma they spread, those responsible should step aside. Your peers can only have respect at your active acknowledgement that mental health stigma is wrong; unacceptable.

Crackerjacks

When I was in primary school, part of my path was lined with huge old Horse Chestnut trees. Even before they fell to the ground I would stop and see if any nuts were ripe enough to knock down. It mattered not whether I was on my way to school or returning home; I would spend timeless minutes stomping on the prickly fruit, doing my best to expose the smooth, shiny nut within.

In some ways I am still the little boy. Through lessons learned I often watch trees and keep an eye for their fruit. Today it is often a discarded piece of wood for my lathe from something fallen. I don’t fill my pockets with chestnuts but I do carry three or four marbles. I see a similar currency now as I did then. My marbles and chestnuts are worthless but they have purchased hours of amusement for generations.

With my brothers and friends we devised or inherited a game. We would dig a hole in the center of the nut and knot a string through. They became war clubs and we would surrender each to the blows of another. The chestnut that didn’t crack was the victor. Sometimes it was the one laid on the ground and other times it was the one swung downwards. Resilience is a funny thing.

When I see chestnuts as an adult I am still drawn to pull the shiny nut from the prickly shell. Like the Crackerjacks I ate those days; the prize is on the inside.