The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

The World Economic Summit and Faith

Posted on January 22, 2019

As I compose these thoughts, hundreds of jets are on their way to Davos, Switzerland for the 2019 version of the World Economic Summit.  As always, those in attendance will include capitalist barons, politicians, celebrities, researchers, UN and NGO delegations, and past, present and future national leaders.

I write about the summit every year because, well, it is an important opportunity for the moral, anti-poverty, social justice and women’s movement leaders to speak to the elite and weigh in on the side of collective humanity.

But in the last two years there is one group that has been asked to partner with the Davos organizers that will come as a surprise to many – faith leaders from around the world. There are some key and sensible reasons for this (you can link to the entire paper here), but first let’s come to terms with the same realities that the summit organizers already know and which prompted their action.

For those believing that religion is on its way out as the world becomes more secularized, think again. At present, 84% of the global population claim to be religious – followers of one faith or another.  It’s a number that that has grown considerably in recent years, primarily in Asia and Africa, and represents a force to be reckoned with.  Most of these are young people and they are the driving force behind the increases.

Slightly over 2.3 billion of this number adhere to the Christian faith, while Muslims comprise 1.8 billion.  Though the Christian faith continues to grow, the Muslim faith is growing faster and will soon surpass those professing Christianity.  Rounding off the top four are Hinduism (1.1 billion) and Buddhism (500 million).  For those wondering, the Jewish faith is also growing, reaching 20 million in the next few years.

These are significant numbers and, as the Forum notes, can represent massive forces of good or ill. Nevertheless, their presence and ameliorating influence in regions like developing regions of the world have assisted in the rapid financial and civil-society expansion.  And because the majority of religious people are now young, they stand to hold a powerful effect on the Davos deliberations into the future.  The Economic Summit recognized as much in the opening paragraphs on its paper on the importance of faith:

“The power of faith to impact global issues and shape global perspectives is a fundamental reason why the Forum is engaging faith leaders and perspectives in our work.  As part of our efforts to incorporate an understanding of the impact of faith in our analysis of complex global trends and challenges, the Forum established the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith. Council members comprise the world’s foremost experts to provide thought leadership that furthers the faith agenda within Forum activities.”

The Davos gathering also recognized that faith adherents of all stripes are serving as doctors, nurses, development workers, nutritionists, peace workers, educators, disease and environmental specialists and gender champions on the front lines of some of the modern world’s greatest challenges.  And as with any form of belief system (capitalism, racism, democracy, socialism, political persuasions, feminism, sexism, and many others), extremists have the power to undo much of the more positive work being done in the world. That is why the great moderating forces must come together and work for sustainable and equitable progress.  It is clear that with 84+% of the global population adhering to one kind of faith or another, religious leaders must combine forces with their peers in commerce, finance, health, gender, climate change, and anti-poverty sectors to bring healing to the world.  And, as the Summit noted, many of these change makers in such areas are themselves motivated by personal faith.

Davos is interested in the faith component of world affairs applying itself to these key areas:

  • Food security and agriculture
  • Economic growth and social inclusion
  • Employment, skills and human capital
  • Environment and natural resource security
  • Future of the global financial system
  • Future of the Internet
  • Gender parity
  • International trade and investment
  • Long-term investing, infrastructure and development

Great strides have been made through religious influence in such components, but more is required, especially to overcome religious extremism, and the best way to harness the power of the global faith community is to engage it in the ongoing battle for progress, equality and humanity.  As the Summit’s introductory paper concluded:

“The world’s faith communities not only promote values that help address global systemic challenges but also carry out millions of social and economic projects that put to practice those values.  Indeed, faith groups not only have massive poverty alleviation projects worldwide, but they also have sophisticated think tanks and advocacy arms that take up causes related in one way or another to each of the global challenges.”

The burgeoning faith numbers on the global stage today must be harnessed, managed and empowered for the good of all.  Much of that is already being accomplished by religious adherent and Davos has now recognized its potential for human transformation.

Family generation green eyes genetics concept

Life Among the Stones – Alberta’s Wish (Chapter 13)

Posted on January 21, 2019

The older woman faced them directly. “There can often be milestones along the way, occasions when the caregivers, and sometimes the patient, can spot that they are entering a new stage.  Perhaps that’s what Edinburgh was all about.  You say she hasn’t been the same?”

Elizabeth Fairborough’s queries were professionally delivered, but behind the words was a shared sense of sadness between the doctor, Robin, and Jennifer.  Alberta was down the hall, undergoing a series of tests. With her in good and capable hands, the three had used the opportunity to have an intimate chat in Fairborough’s office.

“No, something’s different. She still gets around the house with no real problems, but she more frequently fades off into another world – sometimes right in front of us.  Her eyes light up and she’s obviously someplace enjoyable in her mind.”

Jennifer added to her brother’s observation: “In those moments, she sometimes forgets the steps going out into the garden, or to flush the toilet, or even to keep away from the stove if one of us isn’t right there.  Then she pops out of it, at times without our notice, and just carries on as the Mom of old.”

Fairborough shifted in her chair, at pains to know how to ask a complicated question.  “Can you go over with me, again, why you made the decision to let Alberta decide where she wanted to journey – in her mind, I mean? When we spoke in earlier sessions, I thought the literature and best practices were clear that a rigorous effort to keep an Alzheimer patient’s  thoughts in the present could actually slow down the decline somewhat.  Can you help me to understand?”

“Because it was her wish,” Robin answered simply.  “She perused all the research, just as we did, and she concluded that she would rather travel on her journey unfettered, even if it meant it would be easier for her to lose touch with us along the way.”

Fairborough wrestled with this, in part because she understood it well enough.  Alberta had been her best friend for decades, and in all that time had taken responsibility for her own directions and decisions.  That she would do the same with her disease made perfect sense.  But should they permit it? – this was the real question.  Ultimately, the choice belonged with the family who, in this case, were also the caregivers.  But the Alexander family had opted to let their mother prescribe her own treatment. For a professional doctor, dedicated to her craft, this was a difficult practice to accept, despite her knowing the patient as well as she did.

Sensing the strain on their friend, Jenny attempted to assuage it, somewhat.  “Elizabeth, Mom told me that she believes that aging is a lifelong process and must start in childhood and be understood as one goes through the stages of life.  And she believes that if it’s to be accomplished successfully, one must understand that doing it well is not about the avoidance of losing one’s mind.  It’s the adaptation to that process, how it’s handled, that really matters.”

Elizabeth nodded in understanding.  “But what of all the reams of research, and the life story of so many victims and their caregivers?  Surely, that counts for something.  And as a professional I’m trained to build any treatment on the basis of the evidence.”

Both Robin and Jenny could spot the turbulence in the physician’s mind at the moment.  Clearly, what she was being challenged by wasn’t their theories, but the considered opinion of her best friend.  Was hers not a life experience?  Wasn’t Alberta’s insight just as important as any other?  The journey was her journey, not theirs, and as long as she had considered all the options, was it not Alberta’s privilege and right to choose how the end of her journey would unfold?  There was no law against it, only years of research by principled people doing their best to provide information to patient and caregiver alike.

She looked up and smiled at her visitors, her friends.  “The delicious irony in all of this is that your mother challenged me about many things more than anyone else in my life.  And she is doing it now.  Alberta knows I carry the weight of science and research on my side, but she also understands that, in the end, it doesn’t really matter – it always closes out the same way, and the person is gone.  I’ve known her so well, and here she is, confronting me with other realities, just as she always has.”

Jennifer reached out and grabbed her hand.  “During all of our study about this disease we were repeatedly told that the person suffering from it is not really the person their loved one knew for most of their lives.  But the trip to Scotland got me thinking that nobody really knew Mom when she was a child. What we know is the adult version of those struck with the disease.  We think that they are drifting off, away from themselves, as the brain cells die off. But, really, as they move back through the years in their mind, they are only rediscovering who they have been all along, before the years of adulthood, relationships and responsibilities crowded it all out.  I realized in Edinburgh that the mother I thought was drifting away from herself was actually moving closer to who she was before any of us knew her.”

Elizabeth knew there was nothing really scientific in this, yet there was the element of the profound and real in Jenny’s observation.  The strong will and mind of Alberta herself was teaching all of them some new truths.

She grasped Jenny’s hand even more firmly and observed, “The desire to be our true selves when everyone around us thinks we have lost who we are abides in all of us.  We all need a safe space where we can go, as we are, and not be questioned.  But we still have to provide care based on what research tells us.  I’m not trying to dispose of Alberta’s journey; what I’m trying to do is create her well-being, give her a fighting chance for as long as she holds on.”

Jennifer and Robin sat silently, offering no response.

“What?” Elizabeth said.

“Well, suppose she’s not wanting to fight but wishes to go where she’s happiest,” said Robin.  “It is her life, right?  We aren’t trying to be difficult, but Mom seems to know what she’s about, even if it goes against the opinion of the experts.”  More silence ensued, so he added one more thing.  “I took some culinary training in Paris, at a place called Socrates Table.  Under the glass tops of the tables were quotes of his. I memorized what I could, but the one that stuck out the most, because of Mom’s situation was this: ‘I enjoy talking with very old people. They have gone before us on a road by which we, too, may have to travel, and I think we do well to learn from them what it is like.’ Perhaps that’s what Jenny discovered in Scotland.  If Mom hadn’t had dementia, we might never have learned of those early influences that crafted her into the marvellous woman she is.”

The physician leaned back in her desk chair and sighed quietly.  It was very rare to encounter caregivers such as these two.  They weren’t only open to their mother’s journey; they were highly eloquent and intelligent in defending it.  It was more clear to her now than ever that the intimacy between Alberta and her offspring wasn’t only deeply emotional.  It was also highly adaptable.  Her thoughts strayed to Sandy, and she realized so much of what she had been listening to in the past few moments could just as easily have come from him.  Alberta’s husband had enjoyed a very elastic sort of mind, bending it around problems or situations that others would merely run up against.  And he was curious about human nature, to the point where he could easily think outside the box.  Perhaps it was that very nature that was emerging from the two children he left behind. She smiled at her visitors.

“You know, it could be that healing is more about listening with an open heart and mind than always trying to fix people.”  The three smiled at the admission and whatever tension had permeated the office was gone.

“Wherever she goes from here, the fact is that her Alzheimer’s has entered a new stage in a quicker manner than I, frankly, expected.  I don’t know what it will all mean, and it will depend on the results of the tests she’s taking today.  But the speed of her decline will likely now be accelerated.  We can slow it down, somewhat, with medication, but it is meant to slow her mind down and keep her imagination from taking flight.”  She noted Jennifer was about to interrupt in protest, and added, “But I suspect, in this case, that Alberta’s flights of fancy are actually responsible for keeping her nature as pliant as it is.  It’s true what you say, that she is in a happy place, and it’s clear to me that you wish it to stay that way.  I can only concur because it is your choice and that of your mother.  But remember: at some point, it will become so serious that this approach will have to end, and more stringent human intervention must begin.  I hope that when that time comes, you will be as trusting of me as I am of you today.”

It was a kind thought and one amenable to Robin and Jenny.  It was as if all three caregivers understood that healthy lives begin to fray the day people become silent about those things that are most important to them all.

As she watched the two of them leave her office, she was struck with an overpowering thought: from the day we are born, we start to age.  We are all just old people in training.

Life Among the Stones – First Kiss (Chapter 12)

Posted on January 20, 2019

The morning began with a light rain that gave way to sparsely clouded skies before the lunch hour. Alberta slept in and, upon rising, commented, “O dear, what did I miss?” She was looking at the wrinkled clothes she had slept in for over 12 hours. She had no idea how it happened.
“You were exhausted following that walk, Mom. You didn’t even want dinner, only to sleep. Remember any of it?”
Her daughter’s question received only a confused stare in response. She watched as her mother thought hard, working her way back through the hours to that moment Jenny was referring to, but it was gone – likely permanently.
“I’m sorry if I caused you any difficulty … or embarrassment, Jen. O my, I feel like I should be a little embarrassed myself.” She looked in the mirror at her image and added, “I suppose this is something I have to get used to – we have to get used to.”
Jennifer came up behind her mother, placing her hands on her still strong shoulders. “No matter, Mrs. Alexander. What is before us is what matters and that would be Holyrood Castle. If you’re ready, that is?” They looked in the mirror and burst out laughing. Alberta looked as though she had been stuffed into a suitcase overnight, her clothing in various states of disarray and her hair beyond any semblance of style.
An hour later, they entered through the doors of Holyrood Palace – one of the summer escapes for the royal family. Situated at the lower end of the Royal Mile, it was built in the 16th century, constructed more for grandeur than protection. Unlike the other great elevated castle down the Royal Mile, its lower symmetrical profile suited the beautiful gardens and trees around the estate. It was ultimately to these grounds that Alberta was drawn when they first arrived in the mid-morning.
They weren’t so much expansive as they were the perfect setting for the castle itself. Though Alberta hadn’t walked the grounds in nearly eight decades, she moved through them with a practiced precision as opposed to merely wandering. She told Jennifer of how the gardens were the setting for tournaments, hunting, hawking, and archery. There was even a tennis court and a menagerie with a range of animals, including lions, tigers and bears.
“My aunt told me of how these grounds where we stand offered the right of sanctuary for those who could not pay their debts. They found shelter here and were able to avoid prison. At one point, there were over 6,000 debtors camped here, including some of the aristocracy who had fallen on hard times.”
Especially enchanting to Jennifer was her mother’s tale of how her aunt and uncle had brought her here for Queen Mary’s annual tea and garden party. “Apparently, I shook the Queen’s hand, but I’ve never had a recollection of it. But I did see Princess Elizabeth playing in the distance, though I never got to speak to her.”
Her mother’s eyes gazed skyward, and she appeared as lost in a dream. “It was on that day that a mixed squadron of Spitfires and Hurricanes flew over in salute of the royal presence. It must have been 1940 and the war was at its bleakest. I looked at my uncle, and then at all the people around, and they were all weeping. It was our darkest hour, and even as a young girl I knew the times were precarious.”
And then, suddenly, Alberta was off in the direction of a group of trees on the perimeter. Jennifer dutifully followed, at a loss as to what was happening. Alberta entered the overgrowth, clearly looking for something.
“Ah, yes, it was right here,” she said in exultation.
“What? What do you mean?” her daughter asked.
“Oh, I don’t know if I should say. It was highly provocative, even for an eight-year-old.” She started to leave until she saw the bewildered face of her daughter. “Okay, but it’s a secret, Jenny – not to be put in that journal of yours. Promise?”
Her daughter, drawn in to the magical world of children, nodded affirmatively and waited expectantly for whatever came next.
Suddenly, eyes filled with wonder, Alberta said, “This was the place of my first kiss – right here, under this tree. Tommy St. John was from Leeds, sent up, like me, to escape the war. He was two years older. O, my, it was wonderful.”
“He kissed you and you were only eight!” Jennifer exclaimed. It wasn’t a question.
“No, honey, not at all. I kissed him.”
In a moment of what could only be poignant ecstasy, the younger woman’s eyes were alight as if she had witnessed fairies darting through the trees. She now understood that her mother had been a flirt, a tease, and that realization filled her with respect and delight. Even she hadn’t done any such thing at that age, despite having grown up in a more permissive time.
She glanced up at her mother and saw a look that was more high-spirited than anything else. This is her, my mother, as she truly was, she thought to herself. No wonder Dad fell for her so hard.
Alberta was patting the bark of one of the trees with the palm of her hand. “It was right here that Tommy suggested we carve our initials, but I wouldn’t permit it. ‘This is the King’s land I said. You don’t do such things here.’”
And yet kissing was okay? Jennifer delighted herself in thinking. Here was another one of those great contradictions of her mother – a firebrand and a traditionalist at the same time. Jennifer was just too surprised to utter a word.
Later, they enjoyed salmon sandwiches and tea at the Café at the Palace, a quaint eatery on the grounds. Alberta continued, for over an hour, with her narrative of those earlier enchanted years. They were stories Jennifer had never known. It’s funny, she thought, how you think your parents’ lives only began when you were born. It was a kind of selfishness that could only be excused because of youth.
It was during this conversation that Jennifer learned that Alberta’s parents – her grandparents – had once come to Edinburgh to visit their daughter. Her father had been one of the key operators of an airbase in southern England, while her mother had worked at a munitions factory and also assisted in getting people to the bomb shelters whenever the German Heinkel bombers appeared overhead.
“I think it took them only a moment to realize that I had settled in well up here. They seemed relieved. On the second evening, just prior to their leaving, my father took me for a walk through these very grounds, He was testing me, I think, to see if I was truly okay. I told him of my adventures, though certainly not of Tommy St. John,” she said, with a mischievous grin. “He left satisfied that I had adapted, but he was wrong – so wrong.”
“Whatever do you mean?” asked Jennifer.
“I knew how difficult it must have been for both of them, so I lied, I prevaricated, I turned my face – anything to keep him from seeing that I missed them terribly. The moment I saw them again I became terribly homesick and life in Edinburgh was never the same after that. They were such wonderful people, but they were living in a world where the curtain could come down at any time. I knew then that I should have been with them, as a family, whatever the outcome. I had a role to play, too, regarding the defense of this wonderful country, and it was to be with my mother and father, giving them the joy that only I could offer as their only child, and helping in any way I could.
“I think that’s when I really grew up. It was the bigger world that was calling me – the one in the clutches of life and death. Who was I to play among these wonderful trees when not that many miles to the south, people, like my mother and father, were living, loving, fighting and praying as though the next day might be their last. Those were the kind of people I wanted to be with. And, from that point on, I wrote them every day, begging to be brought back to London. I was so relentless that they eventually gave in, and two months later at the end of the great Battle of Britain, I was placed on a train heading south.”
“And how was it?” Jenny asked.
“It was awful … and, O, so wonderful. We were bombed every night for months and months. People we knew were lost in the rubble, and, at times, we lived more in air raid shelters than we did at home. But we were together, and I was so emotionally ready to take my place in the adult world, along with those responsibilities that come with it.”
“But, Mom, you were only what … 10?”
“Nine, actually. But honestly, Jen, I had become an adult because a darkening world demanded it. And, in the end, I believe my parents were happier because of my presence.”
Alberta looked around at the ancient building they were nestled in. “This wonderful city, these two great palaces, formed my last innocent moments before a troubled world called for my participation. I had suddenly grown old enough, through my parents’ visit, to understand the concept of duty; I cherished it and I embraced it.”
This was truly precious to Jennifer. She knew nothing like this when she was the same age, but somehow a greater cause had turned her mother into a greater person, even as a child. It was remarkable. And that sense of duty, so much a part of Alberta’s generation, became an essential element of her life as she later married Sandy, had children, and led a successful career. She had never permitted herself to be defined by those things, however. Her mind and soul were too big to be held by anything other than a bigger life.
Later, they dined in the hotel’s famous restaurant. Alberta continued on with her revelations, pausing only to eat. Her mother spoke far more than normal, and Jennifer understood that it was, at least partially, the dementia that was causing the proliferation of accounts of Alberta’s young life.
Jennifer had ordered the lamb, while her mother heartily ate a Scottish meat pie. They were sharing a bowl of traditional bread pudding for dessert when Jenny noticed something quite odd. Her mother just sat erect, her hand having placed the spoon down on the table. All conversation had ceased.
“Mom, you okay? Mom?”
It was then that the older woman shed silent tears, refusing to wipe them away with her hand or the napkin. Jennifer rose and came to her. It took only a second for her to understand what had happened – the smell of urine was unmistakable. Alberta had been wearing one of her favourite fashionable dresses – a coral-coloured garment with patterning. It effectively masked any stain that might have been obvious otherwise.
Jenny went to the waitress and explained the situation. The young woman, red-haired and deeply freckled, told Jenny to leave everything with her. Then, as unobtrusively as possible, the two women proceeded to the elevator and directly to their room.
Thirty minutes later, Alberta was in her bed, properly cleaned and outfitted in her dressing gown. Her eyes wide open, they nevertheless conveyed a saddening portrait of personal shame and embarrassment. Jennifer had tried all she could to improve the mood, but to no avail.
A short while later, there was a knock on the heavy wooden door. When Jennifer quietly answered it, she saw that it was the red-haired girl from the restaurant. “This is silly, I know, but my Mom endures a similar condition. I just thought this might help.” She handed Jennifer a plastic hot water bottle, the kind Alberta would have known so well from youth. Jen moved forward and kissed the girl lightly on the cheek.
“I don’t know what to say but thank you. That is one of the most thoughtful things I have ever seen.” The girl merely bowed slightly, and was gone.
When the bottle was handed to Alberta, she appeared not to notice, so Jennifer left it on the bed beside her. Five minutes later, the older woman reached out and brought the plastic container to her abdomen and wrapped herself around it in the fetal position. Eventually the soft sounds of singing came from Alberta. They were war tunes, Jenny knew. Her mother was as a child. The hot water bottle had done the trick.
Jennifer brought out her journal to write, but the sounds of her mother’s melodious voice were somewhat soothing to her as well. She closed the book, changed into her nightclothes, and crawled in beside Alberta, spooning her and caressing her hair. It was time to go home, she knew – to cut the trip short by two days. Jenny understood that something had altered, and that her mother was entering a new phase of her disease. Alberta knew it too, and part of the shame she was experiencing was the knowledge that she hadn’t been able to prevent this moment, for all her efforts.
Yet, as she hugged the warm bottle and felt someone’s fingers run through her hair, Alberta sang The White Cliffs of Dover in memory of her mother and father. And as she did so, Jennifer wept and sang along in memory of her very special mother.

Stitched Panorama

Life Among the Stones – To the Castle and Beyond (Chapter 11)

Posted on January 19, 2019

Alberta had wanted to walk from the Principal Hotel to the base of Edinburgh Castle and then along the winding road to the top of the great cliff.  It had been a mistake.  The ups and downs of the trek had tired Jennifer, but had exhausted her mother. The uneven conditions of the alleys and pathways had made for precarious walking, leaving Jennifer to reach for and steady her mother on more than a few occasions.

They talked frequently along the way but concentrated mostly on putting one foot in front of the other in order to get to the base of the great castle.  There were clouds coasting through the increasingly pale blue sky but mostly the sun was permitted to shine freely over the ancient city.  

At last, they made it to a tea room close to the roadway entrance that climbed, sometimes dangerously, up one side of the castle and down the other.  They both knew that a well-earned break was necessary, so they settled down to Earl Grey tea and a smattering of pastries and jams.  Jenny pined for her usual morning coffee but entered the spirit of the moment and ordered the same flavoured tea as her mother. Having departed early in the morning, they arrived at the shop shortly after it opened.  They had the place largely to themselves.  

The great castle itself towered over everything around it, a dark and looming presence.  Even the brilliant sun couldn’t wipe away the shadow of the cliffs or the reminder of a darker age when division, war, and conquest had placed a pall over the lives of ordinary people.

Recalling her thoughts of the previous evening regarding Alberta’s purposeful move into her past, Jennifer sought to pursue that past by asking: “Did your aunt and uncle live near the castle, or farther away?”

Drawn and slightly stooped from the lengthy walk, Alberta, nevertheless, perked up at the inquiry. “They lived on Chesser Avenue for a time, near the old Corn Exchange.  The smell from all the corn filled entire neighbourhoods, but we got used to it.  Then uncle Stanley got a wonderful job as a supervisor of some kind at Holyrood Palace. That came with a house on Princess Street, in the Old Town.  He had been a wounded officer from the Great War and the government at the time worked hard to find suitable employment for those maimed and mangled from all that carnage. He never talked about it, but always walked with a limp, and he was friendly to everyone.”

“Princess Street – that’s Edinburgh’s main avenue, isn’t it?” asked Jenny, warming to the subject.

“One of the most beautiful thoroughfares in the world, especially at this time of year.  We crossed it a couple of times this morning on the way here, but it was in the less busy, less touristy section.  We’re now in the thick of the most popular location in the city.”

“Do you remember much of it?”

“All of it.  I always have.  Those were the days when adults thought the world might be coming to an end, as the German forces threatened to invade at any moment.  They were always serious and full of a certain kind of dread. But, Jenny, they were marvellous in the way they just soldiered on, keeping life as normal as possible for the children.  I think it was us that gave them hope and kept focusing them on the future.  As children, far away from home, we were blithely unaware of all that – other than the distance that separated us from our families.”

The conversation went on for the better part of 90 minutes, during which time the air got warmer and the room filled with visitors.  For Jennifer, it was an education.  She learned things about her mother that a hectic life in Clerkenwell never allowed for. Too young to go to school, Alberta had journeyed over the fields of the Meadows and Holyrood itself.  Back then, there were no security issues, only the need for children to be careful that they didn’t fall or get lost.  Alberta knew all the alleys, shops, and famous landmarks.  She even knew if anyone from the Royal family was in town on a brief visit to build up national morale.   One moment, in particular, stood out.

“I encountered a young woman in a bakery on Royal Mile – the most famous part of Princess Street.  She was with her younger sister, and they were looking for some special kind of tarts, which the shop didn’t have because of rationing.  Instead, she bought some scones with raisins, and, as she was leaving, she reached into the bag and handed me one, which I downed without chewing.  She smiled at me, shook my hand, and then the two of them started walking towards Holyrood, where the Royal Family always vacationed every summer.  A man in uniform scolded me for the manner in which I devoured the scone and told me that I should have curtsied.  ‘For what?’ I said, rather too boldly, I think.  ‘Everyone is to curtsey when they speak to either Princess Elizabeth or Princess Margaret.’  That kind girl was about to become the Queen of England and I hadn’t thought anything of it.”  It was an amazing moment of serendipity that Jenny was determined to pen into her journal that evening.

In truth, Alberta’s fatigue eased her passage into the past.  It was a difficult thing for Jennifer to distinguish between what were the urgings of dementia and what were merely the fond memories of a remarkable older woman in her right mind.  What she was hearing in this quiet interlude were things she had never heard before. They memorably filled out aspects of her mother’s life, helping to explain what had contributed to her healthy personality and broader perspective.

Alberta Alexander had spent her earliest years away from home, in terrible seasons of war.  She had been gifted with a remarkable setting upon which to build her young life.  How tragic it is,Jenny thought, that here I am, almost 50, and I’m only learning some treasured things about my mother in the final eclipse of her life. Why is life always like this, always playing catch-up when it’s so late in the day?

Ten minutes later, they began their slow ascent.  Alberta’s years of walking prepared her, even better than her daughter, for the upward trek. They would stop every few minutes, always looking up at the massive stone structure that dwarfed everything around it.

What they were traversing was an 800 million-year-old extinct volcano, though few realized it. There had always been a royal castle on it since the 11thcentury, and it owned the distinction of being one of the most attacked castles in the world, enduring despite 26 different sieges.  It was truly impressive, becoming Scotland’s number one tourist attraction.

The sun had brought out other visitors, all making the same trek and rubbing the back of their necks after craning them upwards to look at the imposing structure.  Alberta and Jennifer  stopped for lemonade partway up, and peered below to the ancient city and its most famous street.

“They call this cliff Castle Rock,” her mother noted.  “As a wee girl, and if we were lucky enough, someone would give us long, cylindrical hard candies called Castle Rock and we devoured them.  I think the whole city knew we were separated from our families and they attempted to fill that vacuum with their own brand of generosity, which was immense but humble.  If you look off into the distance there, at the end of the Royal Mile, you’ll see Holyrood Castle, where Uncle Stanley worked.

Eventually, they made it to the top, but instead of touring the military buildings, Alberta asked that they just sit along the wall looking out over the massive cliffs and the entire city beyond.  Jennifer purchased sandwiches and tea from a vendor and joined her mother.

They were silent for some time until Alberta reflected: “Every evening, weather permitting, we gathered down there on the sidewalk closest to the castle and watched as a lone piper walked these battlements up here, dressed in full Scottish regalia, and playing soulful tunes.  We watched him walk from here to the far corner over there, and then back.  And we cried – O how we wept.  I think the adults broke down because of their history and their concern that there might not be a future.  We younger ones cried because everyone else was, I think, but also because we missed our parents.  But perhaps more than anything we collectively sighed at the sheer beauty of the tone and the notes.  Something primitive was calling us back because we needed that pull as we faced our own dark hour.”

Jenny had heard of the piper, but never in such beautiful language.  And then the allegory struck her.  Just as that previous generation had permitted themselves to be drawn back into the deep mysteries of their past so they could endure the present and hope for the future, so too her mother had permitted the dementia to tug at her memories and emotions as a way of holding on to who she essentially was.  Jennifer realized now that her mother likely had figured this out already and had let go of the mooring of her thoughts, permitting herself to be pulled along by the currents of a mystical past.  And just as the piper had consoled and given meaning to the residents of the great city, so Alberta discovered deep roots of strength from somewhere her family would never comprehend.

With the sun moving farther to the east, the air took on a distinct chill, and both women agreed it was best to hail one of the cabs from a station located partway down the descending road.  Alberta had a dream-like quality in her gaze as she stretched her neck around to look at the various sights drifting past her.  Jennifer considered asking questions but thought better of it once she realized what an eventful day they had shared.

Once back at the Principal, Alberta announced she would forego dinner and, instead, go straight to bed, even though the clock only showed 7:20.  As she started to undress, Alberta suddenly reversed her routine and proceeded to put the clothes back on, including her sweater.  Her daughter watched it all transpire, willing her mother to catch the error and get ready for bed.  After a few minutes, it was clear that intervention was needed and she rose to help her mother reverse the process.  With her jaw firmly clenched, Alberta, at first, merely stood ramrod straight, complicating the process for Jenny.  Then she crossed her arms, making the removal of the wool sweater impossible.

“Mom, come, it’s time for bed.  Let me help you.”

Alberta said nothing, not even indicating she had heard anything.  When Jenny tried again, she got the same response, only this time her mother looked prepared to start pushing back.  Jenny could see the confused expression on her face, and felt a surge of compassion.  This was the way it was going to be in the future, she realized, and instead of provoking a reaction, she lay on the far side of her mother’s bed and merely smiled at her.

Things remained this way for some time, the perplexity on Alberta’s features slowly fading.  At last, she smiled back at the prone form on the bed and simply laid down beside her daughter.  Jenny kissed her on the cheek.  “Good night, Mom.  I love you – very much.”

“And I love you more than I can possibly say, which is quite something coming from a journalist,” Alberta answered.  Her voice was assured, calm, and emotional.  She’s back,Jennifer thought – the spell has passed.  It was likely that her mother had no idea what had happened, but it was enough that they were reunited once more in the same time and with welcome clarity regarding their relationship.  They embraced until Alberta nodded off.

Two hours later, Jennifer rose and pulled her journal from her bag.  With a steady hand, she began putting down on the lined pages the rather stunning things she had discovered about her mother in the last few hours – Princess Elizabeth, Holyrood, the piper on the wall, and the Caste Rock candies. These would be treasures in later years. She found herself wishing she had children to pass them on to, but a failed early marriage had removed that from the possibilities of her life.  There was Trevor, from work.  She had been seeing him for six months, but who knew where that would lead. Regardless, all her energies right now needed to be placed on the sleeping form in front of her, and if that meant the romantic relationship with Trevor died from lack of attention, then there was no other choice.

But now, as she looked at Alberta, she was beginning to realize that a romance of another kind was emerging – the knowledge that the woman before her was not only amazing, but a person of great heritage with a rich past.  Jennifer was all in now, determined to see this to the end.  She had expected it to be brutal, as it is for every caregiver, but something about the depth and determination of her mother was pulling her into a broader and more meaningful kind of existence.  With a smile on her face, she understood that she was falling in love with Alberta Alexander all over again.

More Vulnerable Than We Think

Posted on January 18, 2019

Their stories weren’t of the tragic kind, but in listening to some of the 800,000 American government workers who have been living without a wage during the country’s longest government shutdown, one couldn’t help but feel for them.  They had done nothing to deserve such treatment, yet they are losing mortgages, selling their cars, prematurely dipping into their retirement savings, and, in some painful images, taking their kids out of college.  If there is a trait of tragedy about the entire thing, it is to be found in the partisan mess that is American politics at the moment and how political leaders have become so calloused to the plight of millions – even if those workers are the ones actually keeping the government going instead of the political masters.

But there is another lesson here.  Up until a month ago, most of these workers likely felt their lives were secure and their future promising.  Now, just in missing one or two paycheques, they feel like they are on the edge of a cliff, with virtually nothing they can do about it.  Such accounts play on our heart strings, but the reality is that millions and millions of citizens living in poverty have have to endure such indignities through every minute of every day.  Many can’t locate work.  Others have employment but it’s of the minimum wage/no benefits kind.  

The numbers of those living in low-income situations is increasing in most Western nations, yet when we see the tentacles of poverty reaching into society and affecting the average lives of government workers, we realize just how near our vulnerability is. It could be that 2019 could become the year of living in fragility.  It’s possible; we’re already partway there.  It gets infuriating because, as we noted in a previous blog post, the capitalism of the wealthy might be booming but the economy of the average family is frustratingly stagnant.  It all leaves most of us too close to the possibility that our way of life could suddenly drop into the cellar, just as happened to those government workers in America.

Our democracies are clearly fragile, as evidenced with Brexit, the tumult in France, and especially the flaunting of the rule of law in the United States.  The basic essentials of our collective life have been pummelled in recent years.  Those norms of integrity, goodness, equality, truthfulness and kindness have been kicked in the teeth, and though they are still present, they are diminished by our ongoing sense of collective anger, most frequently presented on social media.

The major natural events like hurricanes, flooding, drought and seasonal alteration came closer to us this year than in recent memory.  The economic effects are massive, but it is the feeling of vulnerability that they have left us with, and our inability to pull together as humanity to fend off the worst of climate change, that quietly terrify us.

We have learned in recent years that all these challenges we face are somehow connected.  Our political, social, economic, cultural and environmental situations affect one another in ways that teach us we are more unprotected than we once believed and that unless we pull together with solid policies and citizen action, the coming 12 months could be even more dangerous. 

These words are meant to scare us because, in reality, we’re worried enough already.  They are meant to call us together and to find in our need for one another a clear reason to change our fate and reduce our fear.  The government workers in America remind us that we are closer to ruin that we imagine.

Author Margaret Mitchell reminded us that life is under no obligation to give us what we would expect. We must do that ourselves, wrestling away from all that turbulence, chaos and vulnerabiity, societies that fight for justice, fairness, a place in the sun for all of us, and, ultimately, a belief that our interdependence on one another, is our greatest hope, not only for survival, but fulfillment.

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