The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: grief

Summer’s Hidden Messages

As we move into the dog days of August we are mindful that summer is moving towards the exit and we long for it to tarry just a while longer. It’s like an old acquaintance we haven’t seen for a year but with whom we can pick things up naturally where we left off.

It’s a season for the young, with its tans, endless round of activities, the food, drink, and the partying. But it is perhaps the most poignant time of year for those who reflect and “feel” the intimacies of life – like author Tony Morrison when she noted, “I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer.” Something about that kind of intuitiveness is best felt in the long days of the season.

I have encountered many this summer who seem different than they were only a few short months ago. One woman who lost her husband to cancer and was battling on the front lines of grief told me that she has felt a sense of release in the warmth of the sun’s rays, the gentle rains, her abundant garden, and the quiet evenings when memories return of walking the neighbourhood hand in hand with the love of her life. “Grief hasn’t left,” she told me over coffee, “but what we had together becomes more meaningful as the sun brings a kind of healing.” As beautiful as that reflection is, it is being felt repeatedly by thousands in our city. It’s not so much a promise of new life but the deeper meaning of the old one that makes summer so restorative.

For many, of course, it is precisely the promise of newness that summer brings that makes this time of year a favourite. Along with the season comes that long-held belief that life can begin again, that something new can happen, and that our path may take a new direction. Why? Because summer brings with it, for many, a new sense of adventure in the midst of busy lives, or as Aimee Friedman once put it: “When people went on vacation, they shed their home skins, thought they could be a new person.”

For those of us who have lived some time on this earth there is a clear sense that life is moving increasingly into the fast lane. The sense of change is everywhere, but isn’t necessarily accompanied with an abiding sense of security. Time seems to pass like a movie seen in fast speed. Stress and an unknown future take their toll on everyone, regardless of their financial, social, emotional or physical state.

And then comes summer and the longer sun-kissed days fill us with equal measure of relaxation and resurgence of energies. The days settle lazily into to one another like there’s no big rush and we hearken back to those school days when summer never seemed to end and all we did was just live and explore.

As we grow older, the warmer seasons permit us the luxury of not having to meet the demands of everyone, of not always having to live up to the expectations of others. This is our limited time, our escape, away from all those responsibilities where we get the chance to watch flowers bloom, to read a book just for ourselves, to quietly retreat into that part of ourselves that we must preserve and deepen if we are to embrace the modern world once more with a sense of purpose and hope.

Something about the summer season makes us want to believe again – in romance, in the vital memory of those we have lost, in the renewing sense that the better angels of our nature have yet a role to play in our community and in our troubled world. Somehow, after the jumble of the past year, or years, summer give it all back to us with a semblance of order and purpose. To everything there is a season and right now it’s summer’s turn to shine. Our task is to let it do its healing and energizing work. The troubles and rigors of the world are still ahead of us but can only be overcome by a people who have permitted summer to provide its magical healing touch. And we must be at our most inspired, for great challenges lay ahead of us.

Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.

How Grief Defines and Ennobles Us

We all reach a stage in life when grief and a sense of loss go from being sudden events to our constant companions. In numerous conversations in the last few weeks, I have been struck by just how many people are moving through the various stages of grief and seeking to infuse their own lives with meaning as they have come face to face with their mortality.

It seems to be happening at every level – from the loss of celebrity figures like David Bowie or Stuart Maclean in recent months, to those losing hope for peace in a troubled world. An entire generation of Baby Boomers has reached the age where they are saying gentle and painful farewells to parents in their final days. Suddenly tears seem something sacred and heartbreak leads to a sense of closeness.

Every day throughout our community such experiences are played out in ways most of us will never know. Like some kind of institution, grief is ever-present among us but goes unnoticed. Occasionally it catches us unaware, as when we spot a funeral procession on its way to the cemetery or when we spot the sad crescendo of tears by someone incapacitated outside the emergency room. It is in the darkened face of one on the edge of losing their faith in humanity because of all the conflicts, or the person who looks at an old photo album they haven’t open for years. In most cases, such events never make the news or rise to public consciousness but they nevertheless define the daily life of citizens and are therefore important.

There is always the tendency to wish grief to end, to release its dismal hold on our emotions. Yet it endures because we must always be reminded that for a time we had something special in our lives and our crying out in pain is but a reflection of just how valued that presence was. The tears are the down payment we pay for the ongoing memory of what we have lost and still treasure. It is just as the old Jewish proverb reminds us: “We fear to love what death can touch.” But once we overcome that fear and begin a relationship with someone that we value then it is inevitable that the pain will strike us when she or he is gone. And yet we do it – we continue to reach out for what inspires us. When we are young we don’t think about what we could lose; when we are older we can’t forget it.

Recently I reached out to a friend in Britain who had suffered an unexplainable loss. Endeavouring to be supportive, I sent some words of encouragement. She wrote me back with an anonymous quote that spelled grief out for me in a fashion I will never forget:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

“Love with no place to go.” Most of us endure this each day and yet continue on because, really, what can we do? We can’t bring what we treasured back to us. We understand that grief loses some of its intensity over time, but we never overcome the longing. We feel the loss deeply because that person once stretched our minds and our spirits to new heights and depths. Our grief is a reminder that their memory is yet with us, stirring our emotions, and encouraging us to get on with life. Just as knowledge builds the mind and exercise strengthens the body, grief uniquely ennobles our soul and spirit.

All those who grieve are baptized into the fragility of all that is human. And yet the pain’s presence in our lives is but a reminder that, in some unexplainable way, what we have lost is yet with us. Our grief is the price we pay for the privilege of having that person still present within us even though they are gone. They yet whisper in our ear, arouse our spirits and not just our memories, reminding us that we not only loved them deeply but that we were capable of getting beyond ourselves and embracing a greater life. Their presence in our lives through grief means we can still perform that remarkable act of transformation.

Tom Gosnell: The Gift of Access

FOR MANY, FORMER LONDON MAYOR TOM GOSNELL’S passing came as a shock, but in truth he had been struggling for some time. In numerous coffee shops, offices, homes, over the telephone and online, people shared their thoughts of someone who led this city through some important years and left his mark.

So many tributes and memories have been shared in the media that leave a clear sense of the man and his gift for administration and leadership. He cut an imposing figure, but was never small in spirit. He loved the rough and tumble world of sports, but was repeatedly gentle with his colleagues and visitors. Though clearly good at building a team, he nevertheless could stand alone on difficult issues because it was his belief that London deserved a chance at whatever he was fighting for.

Tom became mayor in 1985, during the precarious few months when the London Food Bank was launched. We often forget how difficult those times were economically. A recession had gripped the province and London felt the weight of it.

I had never met him before that year, though we shared numerous friends on the fire department and police services. As the new mayor, I felt it was essential to get his read on whether the city truly required a food bank. He did his research before I even entered his office for that first time. Speaking in advance with numerous social agencies and his own economic team, he made it clear that he believed a food bank was essential and asked if there was any way he could be of help. It ended up being the first of numerous trips to his office over many years.

Look at the picture on this page. We were so young then, almost 30 years ago.  Even now the photo fills me with emotion and gratitude.  It was from our very first food drive in 1986 and Tom was everywhere during that event, even assisting with picking up food from the fire stations. On one occasion a couple of years later, he drew together some of the city’s key business leaders to gain their support for one of the food bank’s initiatives on getting people back to work.

The first food drive launch - 1986

The first food drive launch – 1986 (London Free Press)

He merely had to stand at the front of the room asking for their help and they gave it without question. I’ll never forget that meeting, or the way he kept in touch with them to keep them in the loop.

When he discovered that another social agency was experiencing difficulty, he called me in and asked how he could be of help. He followed up in every detail and that agency moved forward. When, on the other hand, he believed a certain sector of the city wasn’t pulling its weight, he listened intently as Jane and I presented evidence to the contrary and quickly changed his approach. And when he believed I was wrong about something, he let me know in no uncertain terms.

Jack Burghardt was deputy mayor and a friend. One day at lunch he told me of how Tom had approached him, asking that he take on the role of keeping the council team together, along with the management team in City Hall, and preparing them for votes and challenges ahead. “He reasoned that I was good with people and he gave me a role I cherish. I respect him for that willingness to share the leadership.” That was Tom’s style – share the load, share the credit. It is the memory of many that this was one of his great gifts.

In an age that preceded social media and large efforts at citizen engagement, Tom Gosnell had an office that was always open. If, in his journeys around the city, he encountered individuals or groups that required help, they inevitably ended up in his office, guided in by the mayor’s welcoming staff. It is vital that we don’t underestimate the importance of this in a time when so many Londoners were reeling from the economic downturn.

There are numerous organizations like the London Food Bank that owe so much of their success to this mayor who didn’t just show up at press conference, but who followed up with frequent calls and continual offers to help. Like few others, Tom Gosnell offered this community the gift of access – to his office, to city expertise, to his time, and ultimately to his willingness to be a politician who felt politics was not only about vision, but about the very people who would live it. He taught so many of us by his clear example that being mayor isn’t about rank or power, but responsibility to use both of these privileges for the sake of the people who elected him. He comprehended that if he didn’t live attentively today, then tomorrow wouldn’t matter.

Tom Gosnell’s life can never be counted merely by the things he did, but by the people he challenged and enabled to lead in the city. He was a gentle giant, yes, but with a firm grip on the need for politics to prove productive and collaborative. He did it well, so well, in fact, that even the grief at his death has drawn us together – just as did his life.

Christmas in Connecticut

child umbrellaWhat would Christmas be without a child? Would it fill us with such wonder, such pathos, such hope? Doubtful. According to the ancient scriptures, the moment God chose to take the form of a child humanity and God both took on new meaning. Divinity was approachable; humanity was suddenly capable of great elevation. The child is what makes Christmas, pure and simple.

Would the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut carry such deep pain within us if so many children hadn’t been killed? Would parents in Canada have rushed to school at the end of the day to usher their kids home with such a sense of intensity? Again, doubtful.

If author Carl Sandburg is correct, that a child, “is God’s opinion that the world should go on,” what happens to those parents as over 20 children’s voices go silent this weekend? How will they go on?

It remains one of the great ironies of humanity that people represent the best and the worst of it – its greatest hope and its ultimate danger. For the next few days thousands of Canadians will attempt to find some way of reaching out to a devastated community, either through prayer or through some gift of kindness. But in the end their ultimate motivation will be the overwhelming emotion of the loss of children. As they die, that portion of us still capable of a sense of wonder dies along with them. Children see magic because they look for it; we only rediscover it as we follow them. This is what Jesus meant when he reminded a generation that “even a child” would lead them in hope and faith.

In the famous movie Christmas in Connecticut, a well-known food writer, though single, attempts to convince others that she has children and leads a perfect kind of life. The movie is about how that falsehood is exposed but how she discovers love in the process. It’s a charming piece of cinema. Well, this Christmas in Connecticut, men and women who were real parents and who, like most of us, dedicated their lives for the betterment of their kids, have massive holes where their hearts used to be. Who of us can imagine the unbelievable sadness of it all – the unfilled stockings, the unopened presents, the lack of wonder on the faces on Christmas morning, the lack of joy at grandma and grandpa’s?

What transpired in Newtown will cause untold words to be written and said about why it happened. Gun control will be the big issue and it will be hotly debated. But this is life we are talking about here, not policy. Did the senseless murders constitute a deeper policy failure? Was there something more that could be done? This is not the time for such questions, though it will surely come. This is the time for humanity – the sheer depravity and nobility of it all. We must cry until we are spent, pray until we are wordless, give until we are poor. In the very season where we celebrate a child in a manger we have a community that has lost many of its children. The irony of this will drive us to despair, to question, to doubt.

But then we will look at our children and a spark will be kindled once more. There are parts in each of our beings that we had no idea existed until a child entered our lives. This is more true of mothers than anyone else, for they carried such life long before it became visible. And yet we all understand it. A tragedy that emptied our souls over the loss of so many young lives is somehow overcome, in time, through the very reality we feared we had lost – children. It’s just as Fyodor Dostoyevsky reminded us: “The soul is healed by being with children.”

As we have reached year’s end, we hear increasingly of the Mayan prophecy of the end of the world. The majority of us don’t buy it, of course, but right now, in Connecticut, the world just ended for loving families who are struggling to imagine how they can go on. How do you even wash the lost child’s bedding, pack away their toys, open a heart to their memories? This will be a long journey, a dark night of the soul that appears not to end.

But it will, through faith, endurance, community, love, support, and the need to get on with living. Above all, healing will return through children themselves. We must live with them, through them, and for them. We must come together as communities and acknowledge that more children are growing hungry than ever, that their economic futures are being robbed by the present, that their dreams now lie farther beyond their reach, that their world is more dangerous. Who knows, perhaps our children can lead us to the paths of equity where all are of equal importance, regardless of their differences, and we can obliterate the gap between rich and poor. Maybe we will learn our children never did fully belong to our present, but to a future calling out for itself. Maybe by allowing ourselves to be filled with wonder, as they are, we can heal ourselves.

But not right now. This is the moment of grief for some dear families in what was a peaceful town in Connecticut. We mourn with them, but we will pray that what they have lost this week will be recaptured through the presence in this world of those who yet possess the potential to bring us to a better day – the children.

Dog Gone

Sometimes, big things in our lives come in threes. That was my experience in the last couple of weeks. First there was the discovery of the tumour in my stomach that has to be removed. Then it was my daughter Kimberly’s wedding last weekend – a perfect day and a beautiful bride. But then on the phone came the voice of Kathy, my oldest daughter who lives near North Bay, telling me that their beloved dog, Wookiee, had just been run over by a school bus and killed. Something churns inside you when you hear one of your kids express deep grief, coupled with tears, in moments like that.

I got to meet Wookiee when she was but a pup, as you’ll see in the video below, which I made for Kathy a few days later.  But her real effect was on Kathy and her husband Jeff. Unknown to them at the time, it wouldn’t be too long following their acquisition of Wookiee that their first child, Wesley, was to come along. In his moving farewell to Wookiee on Facebook, Jeff reflected that this special puppy was their first big responsibility they took on as a couple and prepared them for Wesley’s arrival.

Wookiee made me think yesterday of the old Scottish proverb, penned near where I used to live in Edinburgh as a kid, that stated, “To call him a dog hardly seems to do him justice, though inasmuch as he had four legs, a tail, and barked, I admit he was. But to those of us who knew him well, he was a perfect gentleman.” Wookiee was a female, but she was a gentle gift of life. I will always remember her that way.

Wookiee walked Wesley (five years old) to the edge of the driveway, as she did every morning, waiting for the school bus. For some reason, when it arrived she bolted in front of it and was run over. Wesley sat in the back seat with his dog as Jeff rushed her to the vet. She died enroute and Wesley’s little heart was broken. Thornton Wilder remembered a similar experience as a child and lamented, “Many who have spent a lifetime in it can tell us less of love than the child that lost a dog yesterday.” The moment life flickered out of Wookiee’s eyes, Wesley suddenly knew what it was like to grieve in love. He will never quite be the same. Following this deep loss, it will be harder for life to throw something difficult at him that he won’t be able to bear. Almost all of us know this feeling exactly. It is how many of us were first baptized into humanity.

Wookiee was a happy creature that expressed more by wagging her tail than a person could say in hours. She was a gentle reminder that a good dog is one of the few things we will ever encounter that loves its owner more than itself. This is how we were supposed to be as humans but oftentimes didn’t get around to. It’s why Plato could exclaim that, “a dog has the soul of a philosopher.” By living her life this way, Wookiee reminded us, as all of our great pets do, that they bring out the best in us.

Kathy and Jeff buried Wookiee back by her favourite spot on the farm. But that’s not where she is – not by a long shot. If you could have heard my daughter’s voice over the phone as I did – the brokenness, the grief, the loss, the warmth – you would realize that Wookiee was buried in that one place that mattered more to her than anything else – in the hearts of the family she loved. She would be the happiest there, and is. She was more human than many of us, more of a divine messenger than many angels, more of a protector than most babysitters, and more of an abiding memory than a favourite picture. She enriched my daughter and her family’s life beyond measure. She was their friend, their defender – faithful and true. We all owe it to her to be worthy ourselves of such devotion.

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