Tuesday, August 30, 2005

My love affair with letters – Part Two – Going postal (or… Confessions of a letter-writer)

When I was ten years old, I got a pen pal. I’d had other pen pals before that, but they never worked out, somehow. Usually, they’d just stop writing. One got mad at me for something I said and sent me a scathing letter. By the time I received her reply, I, of course, couldn’t even remember what it was that I could have possibly written that could have offended her so much. I wrote back apologizing and never heard from her again.

But when I was ten, all that changed. I remember the day I went home to the little apartment I lived in with my Mum on Kencrest Avenue in the north end of Halifax. I opened the mailbox and there was a thin little envelope from the international pen pal agency, with information about my new pen friend, Samantha, who lived in the United States.

Samantha and I began to correspond and through our letters, we got to know one another and became friends. The year I turned 21, I went to meet Sam and her family in person. My birthday is around the time of American Thanksgiving, so that year, I got to celebrate with their family. A few years ago, she came to visit me and we chat occasionally about the next time we'll meet in person. We still correspond, having followed each other around our respective countries (two Canadian provinces for me, and four U.S. States for her), though we stay in touch mostly through e-mail now.

Although I had written letters since the time I could pick up a pen, corresponding with Sam taught me about the art and craft of creating a relationship with a person through letters. I later used the same skills to forge a friendship with Alex and Rosa, my friends from Spain, whom I met on the Internet. But that's a story for another day...

I’ve gone through phases in my life where I don’t send mail to anyone, except for my ritualistic Christmas cards, which take me numerous hours to prepare, from choosing the cards, to preparing the addresses, to writing and including a little annual letter in each one. In fact, I usually start in late October so I can chip away at them slowly until they’re ready to be mailed out in December, which probably means I’m not really all that efficient!

There are other times when I go mad with sending things in the mail… postcards, letters and even little packages. Of course, the cost of postage has risen dramatically and there have been numerous times I’ve handed over more money for postage than the contents of the package actually cost, and that annoys me. So consequently, I don’t post as many things as I used to.

But letters have always been one of my passions. I write short ones, long ones, spontaneous ones and ones that I think about for a week or more before ever putting pen to paper.

My sister likes to tell people that when I was a teenager, I would write her ten or twelve-page letters that sounded like they came from someone in their twenties. Naturally, I don’t remember, as I’ve written hundreds… no… in all honesty, probably thousands… of letters in my lifetime. I do have a tendency to wax philosophical, and so I suspect I was dabbling in that sort of thing even as a youth and that’s why she said that.

But by far, my most memorable experience writing letters was about six years ago, the autumn that my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I immediately flew from Calgary to Kitchener, where she lived, to be with her and other family members who lived there.

That was late October. We spent our days in the palliative care ward doing what thousands of other families do every day… making the most of the time that is left. My days at the hospital were long and I often slept there, curled up in the chair in her room, spending 18 hours a day or more there… leaving only to walk the five minutes to her otherwise vacant apartment, have a shower and regroup.

I was in Kitchener for two weeks, with plans to return at Christmas. There would be about a month in between my visits. I knew that month would be the longest month ever… for both of us.

At the end of my first week there, I had an idea. I decided to leave a piece of me with her…. something that would be fresh and new every day… something to look forward to until the next time we met.

I searched around her apartment for the supplies for my little project, knowing that she really wouldn’t mind if did so. And I set to work.

My plan was to write her one letter for every day I would be away, until the next time we met. That meant writing 32 letters in seven days, since that’s all the time I had left in Kitchener before I had to return to my life in Calgary.

This may sound crazy to you, gentle reader, and indeed it was, a little. But the craziest part for me was not the number of letters I had to write, but the fact that it meant spending a little less time in person with my Mum each day that I had left in Kitchener. Instead of being with her for 18 hours a day, I would spend a few hours less, sneaking away to go back to her apartment to work on her letters.

She slept a good deal of the time and so, I didn’t feel so bad about it. She noticed that I was there a little less and mentioned it once. I just said that I had something to do and she’d find out soon…

I went back to her apartment every night, and sat down to do my homework. Every letter was dated for consecutive days in the future, with the first one being dated the day after I left for Calgary and the last one being dated for the day I would return again for Christmas holidays. Each letter was written on nice stationery (which is not my custom, as I usually write unceremoniously on school notebook paper). But considering that she had a generous supply of proper stationery and no school paper, I used what was available, varying between different types and sizes of paper for each day, so she wouldn’t know what to expect.

In the first letter, I introduced my project to her, telling her that she could expect a letter every day until I got back. Then, I set to work on the daily letters… varying them between serious thoughts and feelings, messages of hope and memories of funny stories and embarrassing moments that I knew would make her laugh. I didn’t want to avoid the obvious topic, but I also didn’t want to be all doom and gloom. There had to be a good balance between the serious and the lighthearted. I wanted them to be little treasures for her to look forward to every day… something new and refreshing in a daily existence where minutes drag into hours and there is little to stimulate the soul.

I was exhausted, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically and in every other way that a human can be. But I didn’t want that to show in my letters. There were a couple of nights I fell asleep with a pad of paper on my lap, with the pen falling from my hand, but I didn’t care. My letter-writing project occupied just about every moment of my waking life when I wasn’t with her.

The plan included the nurses at Saint Mary’s Hospital. I told them what I had in mind and they said they’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing! They thought it would do wonders to brighten her spirits. They agreed to bring her one every day with her breakfast tray. The agreement was that if she got to the point where she could no longer read them herself, that they would read them to her. I put her name and the date on the outside of each envelope, tied up the whole packet with a ribbon I’d found in one of her boxes of craft supplies and then slipped the packet into a clear plastic bag so they wouldn’t get dirty. On my final day in Kitchener, I handed the bag of letters over to the head nurse, entrusting her with my little daily gifts for my Mum.

I know those letters made a difference to her. I know she loved getting them and they had the effect I’d hoped for… something to look forward to every day. I fact, I heard that one day, there was a change in the nurses' rotation and whoever was working that particular morning didn’t know about the arrangement and consequently, there was no letter with breakfast. Apparently Mum just about went ballistic, screaming that she didn’t care about breakfast, she wanted her letter! The poor nurse had no idea what was going on and thought Mum was delirious. The ranting continued until the little packet tied up with the ribbon was found and she was brought her letter of the day.

That marathon of letter writing was the most intensive I’ve ever done. Truth be told, I haven’t had the same energy to write letters since then, occasionally composing the odd five or seven-pager here or there, but for the most part, sticking to e-mails and phone calls.

Although I’ve become a much more dedicated e-mailer, I suspect that there are a still a few dozen letters still somewhere inside me, waiting for the appropriate moment and recipient before they’ll emerge, with the help of my usual blue pen and lined scribbler paper.

As I look back on this post it occurs to me that this year marks 25 years of corresponding with Sam. What wonderful things I learned from that experience… and what a wonderful and treasured friend I made in the process. (Note to self: send an e-mail -- or perhaps a letter! -- to mark the occasion…)

Sunday, August 28, 2005

My love affair with letters - Part One - Why I love getting them

Today I was at a friend's house and saw a little picture in her bathroom that said, "Some people write letters and other people don't. That's not a criticism. That's just how it is."

It got me thinking.

I love letters. I love coming home and finding something -- anything -- in my mailbox that isn't junk or bills or some other piece of paper that might, if it's lucky, get stuffed into a file somewhere.

I've been lucky enough to receive post cards from various corners of the world this year and they currently decorate the front of my fridge. The most recent one arrived from Madagascar earlier this week. (Thanks, Sabine!)

One year when I was in college, I had almost a whole wall full of postcards I'd received over time. It was both entertaining to look at and quite the conversation piece.

I rotate old with new now, so things don't get so cluttered, but I do tend to savour the cards for a good long time. I take them off the fridge every now and then, flip them over, read them and then pin them back up, re-examining the picture(s) on the front.

But if postcards are delicious little delights, letters are full courses to be savoured.

Every year, around my birthday or at Christmas, I have three cousins, and a few other family members and friends, who typically send cards and letters. I save the birthday cards until the actual day of my birthday, so they seem all the more special when I open them. But more significant are the letters.

Sometimes I wait a day or two to read them. I wait until I have a decent amount of time to myself, free of tasks demanding my attention. I make myself a cup of tea, lace it liberally with milk and sugar and possibly forage a cookie or two. Then, I take the tea, cookies, and the letter into the living room, where I settle myself on the couch, either with my feet up on the coffee table, or tucked under me, as I'm curled up. I unfold the letter, usually written on blue or white letter paper, in anticipation of the handwriting that I've come to know over a lifetime -- or at least many years -- of these customary letters, take a sip of tea and then sit back and enjoy the news.

With advances in technology, there is little need for these letters. We e-mail. We Skype. We text. And I have an excellent phone plan on weekends that allows us to talk for a super rate. We can communicate more and faster than we ever could before. And we do. Today alone I was texting with three family members in the U.K.... and e-mailing with friends across the globe.

But nothing will ever replace letters.

To me, they're not just sheafs of paper that I scan over quickly and discard. They're small treasures that I enjoy as an entire experience... gifts of time and energy that make me laugh and keep me feeling connected to folks who are far away.

And in case you've ever wondered if I actually read your letters and if it's worth it to even write them... well... now you know. I hope that we're never to technologically advanced to share such gifts that travel from one heart to another via pen and paper.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Language meets technology

Saw this article this morning, and I have to say, it piqued my interest...

“IM worm speaks your language”
Published: August 24, 2005, 12:22 PM PDT
Joris Evers Staff Writer, CNET News.com

At the research centre where I spend my days, many of my colleagues are interested in how foreign languages and technology can be merged, with the ultimate objective being to make language learning and culture more interesting, enjoyable and "user friendly" for the students of today.

Now, I'm thinking that whoever writes these kind of viruses has to be pretty smart. Now they're smart AND multilingual!

Maybe this will mean a new kind of job for the language students of today... cracking multilingual viruses.

Ha! I always knew one could have a successful career as a polyglot geek!

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The story of Bryce (long post!)

Dedicated to Lene, who's going to Turkey in 2 weeks, to meet her birth brothers, Tayfun and Turgut.

This story used to be posted on an adoption site on the Internet, but the site doesn't exist any more. So, Lene, as promised, here is a copy of the story...

Good luck in Turkey! I'll be thinking of you.

The story of my brother, Bryce
Why every day counts

It was when I was editor of the student newspaper at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax that I learned the journalists’ saying, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.” I learned as a student journalist and editor that you must try to be true to the facts, no matter what and that sometimes, even the facts seem to take on a life of their own, as various versions of “the truth” emerge.

During one of the first conversations I had with my younger brother, I said to him that he would hear as many versions of the circumstances surrounding his adoption as there were people involved in the story. Each person in the story has his or her own perspective, biases and emotional baggage. I told my brother that it would be up to him to take all of the information that he would be given and assimilate it into a story that made sense to him.

This is the story from my perspective. I cannot speak for my mother, my father, or my siblings. I can only speak for myself. It is my intention to share this story with you in the most honest, truthful way I can.

It started unexpectedly one day in 1996. I was at home one afternoon, busily doing chores. I was not often home during the day and I do not really remember why I was home on that particular day. But I was. The TV was on, background noise as I did the dishes. Oprah came on. I was only half-listening as the TV talk show host spoke about the day’s topic: adoption reunions. Her guests that day were families who had been reunited after successful searches and reunions.

Next thing I knew, I was perched on the edge of the couch, dish towel in hand, my eyes glued to the screen. I cried as I watched the reunited families talk about their experiences. I wondered what they must have been feeling. And I thought about Andrew, the brother who had been given up for adoption some 20 years before.

On September 1st of that year, my mother gave birth to Andrew James Eaton. He was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital, the same place I had been born almost six years before. I never saw my baby brother when he was born. He was given up for adoption.

Once in a while, when I would ask Mum about it, she would say that back in those days, adoption was different than it is nowadays. She told me that she never got to hold her baby boy, that she had signed the adoption papers and that directly after the birth, he was taken straight out of the room. They said it was to prevent the birth mothers from getting too attached to the baby after they had already agreed to the adoption.

That day, as I sat watching Oprah in my Calgary apartment, I was moved so deeply that it physically hurt. I felt a choking inside as I tried to contain my tears while watching the program. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to search for Andrew.

Some years prior, our older brother, Aaron, had started his own search. Up to that point, his efforts had proved futile. I thought that perhaps if we both searched, we might have better luck. Now, I think luck and fate has as much to do with it as any kind of research.

My first step was to call my mother. She was sharing a house with my sister in Kitchener, Ontario. I remember feeling awkward, not knowing how to tell her what I was feeling. I told her about watching Oprah and how the show had inspired me to start my own search. I asked her for her blessing to go ahead and do so. My mother’s reserved British manner became slightly flustered at that moment.

“Well... I suppose so...” She said. “You know that Aaron has tried to search and hasn’t found him.”

I knew. But I wanted to do my own search. Would that be OK with her?

“I guess. You won’t do anything drastic will you?”

My mother was gently reminding my of my sometimes over-zealous, exuberant way of doing things that can be like a bull in a china shop who just won’t stop until every dish is broken. We talked about her concerns.

“After all...” she said. “He may not even know that he’s been adopted. I wouldn’t want someone just showing up at his door one day and announcing that he has a biological family when he may not even know.”

She had a good point. We agreed that any methods I used would be “non-invasive”; no private investigators or other search techniques that may be considered unwelcome on his part. I remember Mum saying, “I don’t have a problem with it as long as you are just making yourself available, should he ever want to come and find us.” Twenty years later, my mother still had a strong sense of protection for the well being of her youngest son.

After getting the green flag from my mother, the search was on. First though, I had to figure out how to do an adoption search. I contacted agencies by letter, phone and over the Internet. I gathered as much information as I could about how to conduct a search. I contacted my mother and asked her as many questions as I could think of that might help me. My mother kept every single important paper that ever crossed through her hands. But when I asked her about documentation from the adoption, she confessed that she didn’t have it. “I threw it away. In my mind, I had to let go and I didn’t want to keep anything.” I begged her to wrack her brain for details, anything that could help me.

I joined search organizations, including the Triad Society for Truth in Adoption of Canada. The Calgary chapter of this non-profit volunteer organization held meetings every third Tuesday of the month at the Old Y Community Centre in the Beltline district of central Calgary. I would go and listen to the stories of mothers or children who had been searching for years, sometimes decades, for their birth relative(s). We would discuss search techniques and share resources. Members would discuss adoption laws and debate the usefulness of them. At that time, there were very few other people who were also searching for siblings. I learned a lot about adoption search techniques at Triad. I also learned a great deal about the emotional pain associated with unsuccessful searches and the feelings of loss and abandonment that some searchers felt.

I found my experiences with Triad to be intense. At times, I was deeply inspired. At other times, I left meetings feeling depressed and hopeless. Particularly when I heard birth mothers that were searching for their surrendered children, I became acutely aware of the pain, guilt and frustration that these women felt. The one thing that they had in common was that they all felt that they had no other choice, but to give their children up for adoption.

Listening to the stories of these women gave me a hint about what my own mother must have felt about the choice that she made. Regardless of what happened between her and my father, the fact remained that she had given up a baby that spent nine months growing inside her. I started to try to see things from her point of view, even though it was hard to imagine being in her place. There were even times when she said that the one thing she’d like to do before she died was to know that Andrew was OK and that he had a good life.

As I look back on things now, I realize that because of my close relationship with my mother I was able to try to see things from her point of view, even though it was hard. What was impossible was to see things from my father’s point of view. The baby’s birth – and adoption -- came just at the time our parents were separating. I won’t go into the details – mostly because my memories of what was happening are vague and colored by the perceptions of the five-year old that I was at the time. Needless to say, like many stories of parents and families splitting up, ours was heavily seasoned with pain and heartache. After my parents split up, our family unit dissolved. I had little contact with my father for many years and to this day, he prefers not to discuss the subject much. I do my best to respect that choice.

As part of my search for the brother who was given up at that time, I contacted every volunteer agency that I could find. I wrote letters and I sent e-mails. I reasoned that since my brother was five years younger than I was, chances are that he would also be familiar with the Internet and navigate it with ease. I did not have a computer at home, so I would spend my lunch hours at work searching the Internet, looking for adoption resources and free reunion services run by volunteers, as I nibbled on my lunch. I registered with every volunteer Canadian adoption search / reunion service I could find. The databases are similar to those of the government, except that they are unofficial. The agencies do not guarantee the validity of any matches, since they do not have any adoption records to verify the information. They suggest that searchers also contact the appropriate government, church or other organization that handled the original adoption.

The word “search” sounds like such an active word. I really had no idea when I started what it meant to undertake an “adoption search”. After an initial six months of writing letters and registering with free search agencies there was not much else to do; not if I was going to respect my mother’s wishes of a doing a non-invasive search for my brother. That’s when I learned that the longest part of the adoption search process is the wait.

The following year, in 1998, I returned to Ontario to spend Christmas with my family there. Although I did visit with Dad and his wife, Viv, I spent the majority of the time with my Mum and sister. It was not easy to come back to Calgary, to start work again on Monday, January 4, 1999. I got back to the office and the answering machine was full. When I turned on my computer, there were over 180 e-mail messages waiting for me. I quickly scanned the subject lines, deleting some without even opening them.

Then I stopped dead in my tracks.

The subject line said “Andrew James Eaton.” My heart raced. What was it about? I did not recognize the name of the sender, “Gail”. I opened it right away. The message was brief, saying that she believed she had found my birth brother and to please contact her.

My first reaction was a mix of elation, followed quickly by incredulity and suspicion. Who was this woman? How did she know about my search? It couldn’t really be true, could it? Was this a hoax?

I looked at the date of her message: December 18, 1998. The message had been sent the day after I left Calgary -- and my e-mail account at work -- to go to Ontario for Christmas.

I quickly e-mailed Gail back, asking her for more information and questioning about how she knew about me. Her reply was a quick and gentle, “Sarah, you contacted us, remember? I work with CANADopt Registry, an Internet search organization run by volunteers.” She went on to say that I had registered all my information with them and that they believed that they had matching information from a young man who was searching for his birth family.

I had registered with so many organizations that I had forgotten the names of them all. I was still in disbelief. My next e-mail to Gail expressed this. I asked her, “Are you sure?”

Her response seemed to indicate that my reaction was not unexpected. She gently explained that the organization was run completely by volunteers dedicated to reuniting birth families. She said that their service was “unofficial” in the sense that they do no have official government or other records, other than the information sent in by the searchers themselves. I remember her saying, “I can’t guarantee you anything, but I’ve seen a lot of these searches. I’m 99% sure this is your brother.” She went on to explain that the man had registered that he was born on September 1 in Guelph, Ontario. She reminded me that Guelph is a small city and that it was even smaller at that time. She asked me something like, “What are the chances that more than one baby boy was given up for adoption on that particular day in that hospital?”

I was starting to believe that maybe it was for real. My heart raced.

I remember that the flurry of e-mails continued, with Gail asking for my permission from both of us to send our contact information to the other party. Both sides consented. Suddenly, I knew his name.

Andrew James Eaton was known to the rest of the world as Bryce Kenneth Munn.

“Bryce.” I kept saying his name over to myself. “My brother, Bryce.”

The number and intensity of emotions inside me was inexpressible. I was ecstatic, relieved, surprised, still a little disbelieving and confused, all at once. I wanted to tell the whole world. At the same time, I wanted to be cautious. I wanted to be sure before I told anyone.

Bryce and I exchanged e-mails and confirmed all the facts and data that we had with each other. He stated that he had been born with the name Andrew James Eaton at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Guelph, Ontario on September 1.

It had to be him.

We arranged to speak on the phone and set up a time convenient for both of us. By that point, my doubts had subsided significantly. I wanted to let my mother know. I called her and explained the situation. Her reaction was similar to mine. “Are you sure?” She said. “We want to be sure.”

I told her that all the information was unofficial. That nothing could be confirmed until we got verification from the government agency. I said that the volunteer who had contacted me was “99% sure” and so was I.

My doubt melted away the moment I spoke to Bryce on the phone. I was overwhelmed by the sound of his voice. It sounded so much like my Dad’s and my older brother, Aaron’s, that I was convinced. The tone, pitch and intonation were so much like theirs that I was dumbfounded. I am a language teacher and am well aware that regional influences on speech may affect accent and intonation. I knew that Bryce’s speech patterns may be similar to those of my father’s and my older brother’s simply because of the fact that they had the speech patterns of every other man in that region of Ontario. I didn’t want my emotions to get out of hand.

Intuition won out over logic. The sound of Bryce’s voice was confirmation enough. This was my brother.

We had a long, exhilarating conversation that night. I sat on my bed, ear glued to the phone, wanting to know every detail about Bryce and his life.

He told me that he had planned to wait until he turned 25 before he started his search. For some reason, he had set aside that plan the previous November as one day, while surfing adoption sites on the Internet, he started inputting his information into the various databases he found. My hunch had proved to be right. This man who was five years my junior knew as much, or more, about the Internet than I did.

We had both registered at CANADopt. The volunteers there had matched our files about a month after Bryce registered his information. They sent out the e-mail in December, the day after I left for Christmas vacation. The day that e-mail was sent, I was already in Ontario. Little did I know that I was only a short drive away from where Bryce was living! If I had left for holidays just one day later, the Christmas season of 1998 would have unfolded in a very different way. We could have had a face to face reunion that holiday season.

During our discussion we reasoned that perhaps it had worked out for the best. If it had happened that we received the information before Christmas, we may have felt huge pressure to meet during the holidays. Since the Christmas season brings some stress to most households, a reunion certainly would have compounded that. As things were, we could take our time to figure things out without any pressure.

We began the process of telling the various members of our respective families and at the same time, contacted Child and Welfare Services in Guelph, Ontario, to ask them to confirm that the match was authentic.

We received the official confirmation from the Ministry of Family Services not long after that. It was a real and true match.

After those initial conversations and after we let everyone know what was going on, things began to unfold very quickly. Bryce suddenly found himself with 4 new family members: Mum, Tracy, Aaron and me. (My father chose not to meet Bryce and we respected that choice.) We all experienced intense and varied emotions those first few weeks, including an intense desire to learn more and to get to know each other. As we established a dialogue of discovery, by phone and e-mail, we also began to plan the face to face meetings... the reunion.

I had heard about adoption reunions before. I had seen TV skits and movie clips about reunions. Finally, we had the chance for our own adoption reunion. This is when I learned that there is not just one reunion, at least, not in our case. Separated by several provinces and thousands of miles and each of us with individual and demanding work schedules, we did not have a Hollywood style mega-family reunion. Our meetings took place in stages, each one carefully planned and anticipated with the passionate expectation never before known to any of us.

In February 1999, Bryce met my Mum and sister. As it turned out, he lived not far from where they were living — about half an hour’s drive away. From all accounts, the meeting went well (although everybody said they were trembling with nervousness!)

A few months later, in April, Bryce took a trip to Alberta to meet Aaron, our older brother, and me. It was also his first trip out west to see the Rocky Mountains.

We spent our time looking at family photo albums, telling stories about our respective lives and generally getting to know each other. It was truly a special and precious time. By the time Bryce left, we knew that we were re-united for life.

In May, the big “Meeting of the Mothers” took place. The two mothers, Becky (birth Mum) and Joan (adoptive Mom), met over Mother’s Day brunch and they were joined by Bryce, Tracy and others. I wasn’t there to witness it, but I heard that it was a success on all accounts. I would guess that emotions and nerves ruled the day and that everyone left relieved — and smiling.

The meeting ended with Joan and her husband, Ken, inviting Mum, Tracy, Aaron and me to share Christmas Day with them at their home. We talked about it over the phone and we all agreed. We promised to meet in Ontario for Christmas and for the first time, the four of us kids — along with Bryce’s adoptive sister, Karri, and other family members — would be together in the same place at the same time.

The rest of the summer was fairly quiet, but we kept in touch with Bryce and his family.

In October, just after I returned from a business trip to Mexico, my Mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The next five weeks in our family were filled with pain and grief, for everyone involved. My older brother and I both flew down to Kitchener to be with our mother and siblings.

During that five weeks, I remembered the words my mother had often said… “Before I die, I just want to know that he is healthy and happy.” When the diagnosis of cancer was made, doctors told us that our mother had probably been sick for years and very likely, she knew it. She hated doctors and resisted seeing them at any cost. We figure that she intuitively knew what was happening to her. She waited until she got her wish to meet the baby she had given up for adoption. Then, she gave up fighting the illness that had been consuming her for longer than any of us knew.

The first time the four of us kids were ever in the same place at the same time was at our mother’s side, as she lay dying. One of her dreams in life was to see us all together and we were able to make that dream come true for her. Sadly, that was the last Christmas gift we would ever give to our Mum. She passed away on December 8, 1999.

That Christmas season was particularly bittersweet. We were simultaneously grieving the loss of our mother and celebrating the reunion with our brother.

It didn’t really feel much like Christmas that year, but in any case, we decided to continue on with plans that had been made months before. The plan was for us to be with Bryce and his family on Christmas Day. That’s what Mum would have wanted and that’s what we did.

Before that though, we attended a special Christmas service at Bryce’s church. We were honoured by his minister, Rev. Kees, when he told us that every year they choose one family in the church to represent the spirit of Christmas. That year, the minister invited the Munn-Eaton family to light the Christmas candle in their church in Christmas Eve. Tracy, Aaron and I do not share the same faith as Bryce and his family, but family unity and love transcended religious denomination. We accepted, in honour of the spirit of Christmas and of family.

Since then, we have stayed in touch with Bryce and his family. In 2001, we were delighted to attend his wedding, officiated by the same Rev. Kees and be present as he married a delightful young lady named Marsha.

They have two wonderful children, Wesley and Katelyn. It somehow seems symbolic and very special that Bryce and Marsha have ushered in the next generation and giving us all an opportunity to embrace the cycle of life once again.

I waited for more than two decades to meet Andrew… Bryce… or as he is known to me, “Kid”, because he’s truly the best kid brother anyone could ever hope for… Definitely worth the wait.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Smudge sticks

Recently I was having an exchange with a friend about smudge sticks. She didn't know what they were. I explained that they're used for spiritual cleansing, telling her I had one that I've used on occasion, when I felt the need or desire to have the energy in my space cleansed. My smudge stick was given to me by my friend, Lee, I told her, and in a "pay it forward" kind of way, I would try to find one for her and send it along.

The problem is, I can't seem to find one. Today I was at a new age-type bookstore near where a friend of mine used to live. No luck... They had only braids of sweetgrass. I was told by the owner, "Sweetgrass is used to attract, sage is used to cleanse."

OK, fine.

I know there's sage in smudge sticks, along with cedar and a few other plants, so that makes sense.

But still, no smudge sticks to be found. The closest we got was bags of sage, that I could tie into a smudge stick.

Not going to happen. I don't know enough about them, or how to tie them.

So, this is half post and half plea.... If anyone knows where I can get a smudge stick in Calgary, I'd appreciate a comment back. Much obliged!

Monday, August 15, 2005


I’m a great lover -- of languages, that is. For as long as I can remember, I have loved words and marveled at how language works. As a small child my ambition was to be a writer, or an English teacher.

Well, like most children, it didn’t quite work out that way. I do some writing (other than this blog), but I certainly don’t make my living at it. And I took a swerve away from English and ended up being a Spanish teacher. But still… how many kids actually grow up to be what they always wanted to be? I think I’m pretty lucky to work in a field I’m truly passionate about.

Actually, truth be told, there was a time when I was about ten that I wanted to be an underwater archaeologist, but not because I was particularly interested in history. No, it was because I was fascinated by the sounds of all the vowels when you said the words “underwater archaeologist”, so I told people that’s what I wanted to be… just because I loved the way the words rolled off my tongue. (I know… I’m a geek. I’ve always been a geek. I’m O.K. with that.)

Even though I’ve spent the last dozen or so years teaching Spanish, my love of English has never waned. I’m particularly fond of Canadian English. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the expression “to deke” or “to deke someone out”… the word is related to “decoy” and comes from hockey. When you deke someone out, you fake a move, thus distracting them, so your team can get a goal… or something like that. For better explanations, check these sites:




You can deke someone out on the ice or at work (e.g. when you leave a meeting unnoticed)… or in any aspect of life. It’s not always a bad thing… in fact, it usually ends up in you reaching your goal.

Just recently, I have been watching someone I know “deke out” a man she’s crazy about, by pretending she doesn’t notice him, talking about other men when she is around him, and generally acting so uber-casual around him that even if the guy liked her, he would probably be left wondering if she even noticed him. One thing’s for damn sure… He’ll never know that she thinks of him “in that way”.

I ask her why she doesn’t just tell him directly what she thinks. But she won’t. She’s terrified of looking like a loser and being brushed off. So instead, she does the brushing off and Mr. Wonderful will never know he’s got this great (though somewhat insecure!) girl who secretly adores him. She’s substituted one goal – keeping her pride – for another, the possibility of a fantastic guy who may well think she’s fabulous, too.

She doesn’t want him to know how she really feels, so instead, she spends all her energy trying to deke him out. I don't get it...

Reminds me of another expression… “Be careful what you wish for… you just might get it.”

Na na na na. Na na na na. Hey hey hey. Good-bye…

Sunday, August 14, 2005


After the last post, and the comments it aroused, I realized that the two people who were "stuck in the 80's/90's", both had iPods. As I read their comments (or really, consolation and empathy notes... proud to annouce that they had Erasure on their iPods), I began to wonder what all this iPod business was all about.

I hadn't really paid much attention when my young cousin was visiting. I probably should have, but I didn't.

As luck would have it, I have been blessed with a bit of a summer cold. Last night, it was raging in full force and I knew that I would not be able to sleep well without something a little stronger than pepermint tea.

I headed to the closest London Drugs (a nearby pharmacy-plus-a-bunch-of-other-stuff) for night time cold relief. The trip had me leaving with cold meds in one hand, and a new iPod mini in the other.

I had no intention of buying an iPod! I blame it on sinuses that were so stuffed that it affected my brain cells.

But what could I do? They had a smokin' deal on the 4 gig models that only held 1000 songs. The new ones are (at least?) 6 gigs and hold 1500 songs. Basically, they were almost giving them away.

And hence, I am now the proud owner of a lime green iPod mini. Hopelessly out of date, I'm sure. But I don't care.

I spent the afternoon playing with it. And I'm damn near in love it with it -- after a few short hours. Now I see what all the fuss is about. This little thing is great!

What the hell took me so long? Oh right... at full price, they're a bit expensive.

Go. Grab the older models now. Chances are, you'll never listen to 1000 songs before you get bored anyway.

And for those of you who care, of COURSE my iPod has Coldplay on it. :-)

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Coldplay... what I didn't know

Post dedicated to C.M.

I got this e-mail the other day from a friend I've known since my days at Saint Mary's University. She checked out my blog and wrote to me to say, "Coldplay is one of your favorite groups?" (Clearly, she read my profile. ) "Man, you make me feel old!"

We had a bit of an exchange during which she said that she didn't think that Coldplay was music that grown ups listened to. She herself prefers Jazz, the equivalent of CBC radio where she lives, and Michael Buble.

I like Michael Buble too, just not as much as Coldplay.

It's funny, really. I kind of stumbled upon them one day while I was at a big bookstore having coffee with a friend. I heard them playing over the store sound system and asked the barrista who they were, after deciding that I quite liked them. He told me... Coldplay.

"They sound a bit like Keane," I said to him.

I had been introduced to Keane a few weeks prior by my young English cousin who was over visiting. As we travelled from one end of Alberta to the other in my little car, he and his iPod were in charge of music and I was in charge of driving. (Safer, I thought, than having him drive on the wrong side of the road!)

During those two weeks I came to some decisions. I definitely didn't like the Killers, and was really never sure about Snow Patrol (or was it Ski Patrol? I forget...) and I was enchanted by the voice of a woman who sounded a bit gospel-y and I imagined her to be a big, African-American woman with tons of soul. I was told that I was a bit off the mark... She was a very young, fair English girl by the name of Joss Stone.

No matter. I still liked her.

But of all the music on that little white iPod, Keane was definitely my favorite. I knew they only had one album out, so when I heard this other group in the coffee shop, I was curious as to who they were.

I immediately bought two albums and thanks to the aforementioned young English music aficionado, I also now have the third. They usually accompany me in the car wherever I go, punctuated by moments of Latin music, and yes.... even a bit of Joss Stone and others.

But I must say, this recent e-mail from my college friend threw me for a bit of a loop...

Coldplay isn't music that grown ups listen to? Hhhmmm.... What, are they, like, the Backstreet Boys or something?

I just liked the music.

I didn't realize I was too "old" or "grown up" for them! No one told me that!

This got me thinking about what it means to be "too grown up" for things...

As I sit here writing this, I’m wearing the new low rise jeans (with slightly flared legs) I bought for this year’s Calgary Stampede. Sadly, I lack the boyish figure of those who wear them best, but I thought, “What the hell… You need an updated look, girl!” Besides, at some point, I stopped obsessing about my body and started enjoying my hour glass figure. (A sign of maturity, perhaps?)

My friend who thought I was too old for Coldplay will probably be gasping with dismay as she read that last part. “Women our age shouldn't -- mustn't -- wear things like that! You’ll be mutton dressed up like lamb!”

But I’m not so sure…. I mean… I wouldn’t have bought them unless I liked them. And I do… And, all modesty aside… they look pretty damned fine, too, I must say.

Another friend just celebrated her 44th birthday by succumbing to a 2-year dance with a younger man. Consequently, she now has a lover who’s eleven years her junior. Is she too grown up to be with a man in his early 30s? Apparently neither of them (both otherwise unattached, consenting adults who know exactly where they stand with each other) seems to think so.

"Half your age, plus seven." Isn’t that the rule?

But what’s the rule about music… or clothes?

If anyone has an answer, let me know. Until then, I’m just going to keep listening to music I like and occasionally buy clothes that might fit the category of “trendy”, rather than “classic”.

As for my dear college friend who shall remain namelessly dismayed... don't worry.... "I will try to fix you."

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


So, I got this e-mail today... "Waiting patiently for your next blog!"

Wow! Surprised the heck out of me. Someone is actually out there, waiting for my next blog? Hell, I never knew I was so interesting... I suppose I just thought of this as my own personal soapbox space and that people might pay me the cyber-lip-service of visiting once, just to say they had; but I never expected that anyone would actually be waiting for the next one.

Cool. Surprising, but cool.

It got me thinking about waiting... It's rarely an unemotional activity, waiting... I mean, think about it... It's often combined with an emotion that makes the activity of waiting either painful, or painfully delicious.

Waiting for your next dentist appointment -- definitely painful. Sometimes the waiting is more painful than the actual visit.

Waiting for final grades in a course after the examination... positively obsessively nerve-wracking.

Waiting for results from a doctor's office... a mix of hoping for the best and fearing the worst.

Waiting for someone who's late for a meeting, or worse, a date... depending on your character, this could produce worry or annoyance. In me, it produces both emotions simultaneously, which can be hard to cover up when the party actually arrives. "You better have a damned good reason... Oh my God, are you all right? I'm so glad you're here!" That's so not a cool way to greet someone.

There are times when waiting can be dangerous... That is, when the waiting becomes infected with an overactive imagination and whatever it is that's anticipated gets built up beyond any human possibility. Then, when the waiting finally comes to an end, the reality can never match up to the fantasy and you feel your emotional bubble is burst by the time the waiting is over.

Then there's the kind of waiting that is tantalizing and delightfully agonizing... waiting for that first kiss with someone, for example. The butterflies in your stomach certainly indicate that the waiting is charged with emotion. You know it's going to happen. You just don't know exactly when or where or how... That's the kind of delicious waiting that almost has a taste of its own, it's so powerful.

But it does seem safe to say that waiting, as innocent as it may seem, rarely acts on its own. Its accomplices are emotions that vary from situation to situation and person to person.

As I wrap this up, I know that my bed is waiting for me, or rather, that I am waiting for it… tired after a full day of working, volunteering and now, blogging... tired and a little fuzzy-headed with the onset of a summer cold. So I find the thought of my bed, and more precisely, sleep, so delightful that I really must end here for the moment.

I invite your comments on waiting. In fact, I’m interested to know… So… what are you waiting for? :-)

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Carpe diem and Memento mori

I am currently reading a novel called Sophie's World, which was recommended to by Carla, a student who has just finished her first year of the same Ph.D. program I will begin in September. She said that the novel was a good overall introduction to the history of philosophy; a topic about which I know little, but must take as a required course on in my first year of the program.

I have about 200 pages left and my head is spinning with all the ideas and philosophies presented in the book. Many pages ago, I came across two phrases which have stuck in my head: carpe diem and memento mori. I used to use carpe diem a lot in my speech and writing, vehemently believing that we had to seize the day, living each moment as if it were our last.

But it was only recently that I learned memento mori, or "remember that we must die". It seemed strange somehow, that I had learned one phrase and not the other, since they seem to go hand in hand.

It is fair to say that I am not particularly afraid of death, having had a couple of brushes with it myself and once, staring it in the face at the very moment it gently took the life of someone I loved and cherished with all my heart (and still do, but of course, in a different way now).

The other night, as I had my nose in Sophie’s World, the phone rang. It was Roberto, whom I met in my dancing days in the late 1990s. Roberto is my Buddhist-barrista-dancing friend. My nickname for him is “Babe” and it is our custom to greet one another with a huge smile accompanied by, “Hey, Babe!” and a hug that often lasts a minute or more, and very often, an impulsive kiss or two on the cheek.

I don’t do that with everyone, but somehow with Babe, our form of greeting just evolved and now it feels strange to greet one another in any other way. He inspires a kind of exuberance for life and for living that seems to bring me out of my sometimes reserved Anglo-saxon shell.

This has startled people I've been with on occasion, who don't know Roberto. I'll be walking along the street with someone, we'll turn a corner and there will be Babe, walking towards me. Huge smiles cross our faces, and the customary greeting follows. But with his long grey beard, hair in a low pony tail, wearing a checkered shirt, and worn out old jeans and vest, he could easily be mistaken for a homeless person. So people who don't know him are often startled that this strange-looking man and I wrap our arms around one antoher in an exuberant hug whenever we meet.

Similarly, our farewells evolved into a customary, “Love ya, Babe!” And we knew what we meant… not a romantic kind of love, but a human-to-human kind of love; the kind we should all have – and show – for our fellow humans, but usually don’t. It is our custom to remind each other that we appreciate one another as human beings each time we part ways.

Babe is hard to get hold of, not having e-mail and not believing in cell phones. I had called him in late July at the home he shares with his beautiful partner, Sharon, to wish him a Happy Birthday. He’s a quintessential Leo and in general, I quite like people of that sign. Sharon, one of Calgary's most high-powered business women, and a "millionare-ess", as Babe calls her, is equally delightful and extraordinarily sure of herself. She’d have to be to be with a man like Roberto, who openly shows sincere affection for most people he knows, be they man, woman or child. They're definitely an "odd couple", but it's worked for them for 15 years, so all the power to them.

Of course, on the night of his birthday, he wasn’t home. I left a message, knowing that he was out “celebrating”. But it’s not unusual for Babe to celebrate. He celebrates every day he’s alive, in one way or another, whether it’s in a pub with friends, on the dance floor, over one of his own delightful cappuccinos or just walking alone along one of Calgary’s streets or river pathways, enjoying the sights and smells of everything around him.

He is the kind of man who, when he speaks to you he doesn’t look you in the eye. He looks deep into your soul and speaks to that part of you that is the most unique, the most vulnerable, the most human and spiritual at the same time. Then suddenly he’ll laugh from his belly and the spell is broken… until the next moment.

The other night, Babe returned my call. I never worry about when of if he will call. When the time is right, he just seems to appear out of nowhere, usually when I least expect it.

During the call, Babe said he thought we should all start dancing again. We had our little group of dancers, you know, “the gang”. We went out dancing seven nights a week and we seized every moment of every day.

But I haven’t been out dancing in ages now, and neither has most of “the gang”. Most of us have “moved on” in life, which meant, moving away from the dance floor to pursue other interests. It was high time, Babe said, to re-invent “the troupe”, have some fun and celebrate.

Sounded like a good idea to me. I realized that I hadn’t taken time lately to celebrate much, instead being slightly more bogged down than usual by things on my “to do” list, worried about whether or not I will possibly survive the program of studies I will enter in the fall, how I will make ends meet, and any number of other things that in essence, are pointless to worry about.

Talking to Babe reminded me of the two phrases that I read in Sophie’s World: carpe diem and memento mori.

The main character in Sophie’s World has a self-appointed philosophy teacher who teaches her about a different great thinker in each chapter. Roberto was my self-appointed philosophy teacher when we were dancing and I realized the other night on the phone that I miss our talks about philosophy, which would often occur over coffee or one of his organic lunches. He’s a real world dude who’s got it together in the spiritual and philosophical sense.

Babe doesn’t own a car and doesn’t want to. He walks most places and truly takes time to enjoy the smells, sights and feelings of each step of his walk. He “walks with his pain” in a very Buddhist way. He is acutely aware of his body, the world around him, the fact that he is alive and the fact that he will die.

I believe that it was no accident that he was one of the people there to guide me and support me when my mother died, often starting our conversations after her death with, “Well, are you walking with your pain yet, or is it still a burden?”

I would mumble something about trying to walk with it, but not doing a very good job of it. He would smile, put a coffee down in front of me and say, “You gotta learn to walk with it. Not just walk with it -- dance with it! Live it! Embrace it!”

And seeing me lower my eyes and peer into the frothy mug in front of me, he’d say, “Oh come here a minute and embrace ME!” And we’d have a hug and suddenly I would get the feeling that one day maybe I could learn what it meant to “walk with my pain” as Buddhists do… as Roberto does.

I realized after our phone conversation the other night that somewhere along the way, I had learned to walk with that particular pain, and in doing so, the pain itself had almost disappeared.

Perhaps Babe is right and it is time to dance again… to celebrate… carpe diem and memento mori. Perhaps Sophie's world and mine aren't all that different. We could all do with some self-appointed teachers who know what this philosophy stuff is all about and are willing to teach it to others... one step at a time.

Happy 60th, Babe. Love ya.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Tipping Point

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, is one of my favorite books. If you haven't read it yet, put it on your list. In it he talks about how ideas catch on, how certain trends take off and how others fall flat and what makes us, as a society, "tick".

There have been two phenomena in the past few weeks that make me think of his book. One of course, is blogging. I've heard about it for a while, but it took someone I know (someone I respect, admire, laugh with, have fun with and call "friend" -- and who prefers to remain anonymous in her blog, so I'll respect that here and refrain from naming names...) to inspire me to start my own.

Could it be this sort of thing that will brings blogging to its "tipping point"? One person nudging another into trying something new? I wouldn't be surprised if Malcolm Gladwell publishes an article about blogging soon.

The other thing that seems to be catching on like wildfire is Google Earth. I was first introduced to it by my cousin, Adrian, and since then a dozen or so people have fired me off e-mails saying, "Have you seen this? It's really cool. You've just gotta try it!" And hence, the downloading all over the globe continues as Google Earth moves closer towards its own "tipping point".

And by the way, if you haven't seen it, you've just gotta try it...

While the earth continues to spin at its usual rate, technology and trends seem to be spinning in and out of fashion faster and faster... Curious phrase, "tipping point", since it implies that you are suddenly off balance.

Balance is supposed to be a good thing, isn't it?

Blogging - the new "final" frontier

So, this is my first crack at blogging. I would have hummed and hawed over it more, except that a friend of mine has just started blogging and in support/solidarity, I wanted to offer encouragement by commenting on her post. (You can see it at: http://bastsbest.blogspot.com/)

She has her preferences set so that I could only comment if I too, was a blogger. Hence, I signed up. (Note that I have set my preferences so that anyone can comment; you do not need to be a blogger.)

Anyway, I'm going to keep this short for now. I still need to go comment on her blog! Stay tuned...