Friday, 11 January 2019

It's Easy to Forget - By Sharon Flood Kasenberg

Missing Pieces

The sky was dark, the stars were out,
the night was ripe for romance.
She felt him lightly touch her hand
and claim her for the first dance.
One dance led to another one;
One evening led to more -
each began to sense emotions
that they'd never felt before.
One twilight with her hand in his
he got down upon one knee,
and with an earnest, pleading gaze
asked, "Will you please marry me?"
The memory is clear to him
while she recounts the story -
hopes kindled, she asks, "What came next?"
He can't remember - sorry.
Another piece of life has fled,
his peaceful mood upsetting.
She gently smooths his fretful brow
and mourns all he's forgetting.
He's losing pieces of himself -
so much is disappearing -
and someday he'll forget her too;
at least that's what she's fearing.
She grips him tightly by the hand
to keep his feet from straying,
and as she gently guides his steps
her heart continues praying.
She pleads for strength to carry on;
he needs her constant tending.
She knows he'll soon be lost to her -
their days together ending.
The pieces that are lost to him
she clutches desperately -
his charming ways, his witty quips
and his once infectious glee.
His history is filled with holes -
his thoughts scatter to the breeze -
she's grateful he still knows her touch
as he gives her hand a squeeze.
Now he's a puzzle to himself
with pieces time erases;
she tries to catch his straying thoughts
and fit them in their places.

Sharon Flood Kasenberg, April 2006 (For those with Alzheimer's, and those who love and care for them.)

Years ago there was a woman in my congregation at church who faithfully brought her husband to church with her each Sunday. Maybe she hoped that seeing familiar faces and engaging in the religious rituals of a lifetime would trigger fond memories or calm him down, or maybe she simply felt he should not be left at home with a caregiver. Maybe she could not afford a caregiver. I can't address her motivation for bringing him along, but I can tell you that watching the two of them together affected me deeply. The fact that he was completely lost was as evident as the love she felt for him. Sometimes he would get up and wander, and she would patiently bring him back to his seat. Sometimes his agitation would build, and she'd guide him out to the foyer. From afar I watched the emotions play over her face - love, devotion, and heartbreak over what they were both losing.

Once a friend whispered to me, "You should have met him years ago. He was such a charming, intelligent and vibrant man."

Her description of him almost made me weep - they had both lost so much to Alzheimer's.

January is Alzheimer's Awareness month in Canada, and so I thought I would post their story as an illustration of what Alzheimer's looks like and what it robs us of. What could be more painful to a smart and witty person than suddenly forgetting chunks of his or her life? What could be more painful to those they love than watching the destruction of that individual as their memories fade?

My mother-in-law lived in a nursing home for the last seven years of her life. Most of the "serious cases" of Alzheimer's were kept in a locked wing upstairs for their own safety and protection. Those in the early stages were usually admitted to her floor. One particular woman was quite young - only in her late sixties. When she came to the nursing home she was still quite engaged, even though her memory was challenged and her intelligence was only intermittently apparent. Within a year she was moved upstairs, her eyes vacant and her memories gone. I barely knew her, but she and my mother-in-law had struck up a friendship when she was first admitted to care, so she was someone I paid attention to. Alzheimer's was ruthless with her, and her decline was swift and terrible to witness.

I find it interesting that January was the month chosen to draw attention to a disease that makes us forget. The first month in a new year, a time when we're intent on looking ahead to meeting fresh goals and challenges, is the time our attention is drawn to a monster that robs people of the past. Perhaps that's exactly why this month was chosen.

For those of us lucky enough to have capacity to remember, forgetfulness can imbue its own pain in our lives if we aren't vigilant. It's easy to forget a lot of important things. We might forget why we fell in love with the person we're with. We might forget who our friends are. We might forget how much we have to be grateful for, how much we have to offer the world, or how wonderful the world around us really is. As we make resolutions for 2019, let's resolve to try harder to remember those things.

We all lose a little of our sharpness as we begin to age. We misplace our glasses and car keys, and we forget to buy toilet paper until only one bathroom in four has a few sheets on a roll. These are annoying little inconveniences compared to losing the relationships around us because we've grown careless in our efforts to remember; they're irksome trivialities compared to forgetting what used to bring joy into your life.

As we come into 2019 let's resolve to remember what's most important in our lives, and to build on those memories in the future. Let's resolve to find the pieces that are missing from our lives and put them back into their rightful places. We can't control the future, but we can better control what happens in our current lives if we hold firmly to the best pieces of the past. We won't cure Alzheimer's tomorrow, but we can offer comfort to those afflicted and offer assistance to their heartbroken and harried loved ones who bear the burden of all the lost pieces of shattered lives.

It's far too easy to forget - so let's try to remember those who can't, and remember for those who no longer can.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

More or Less - By Sharon Flood Kasenberg

More or Less

What can I offer, more or less -
within mid-winter bleak?
Perhaps less anger to distress;
more thought before I speak.
What can I offer to do more -
what habits can I nurse?
Perhaps more praise on friends I'll pour,
more kindness I'll disperse.
What can I try to do far less -
which flaws can I remove?
I'll do a tally and assess
the ways I should improve.
There's more that's good all ought to give;
more worse we ought not share -
far better ways for us to live
and of others take care.
This year I vow that - more or less -
I'll set my best self free;
I'll use the talents I possess
to build a better me.

Sharon Flood Kasenberg, Dec 18, 2018

Life is more or less an endless series of lessons to learn. No matter how much I might learn, or how much I grow in one area, I'm always certain to find some other aspect of myself that needs work.

This past year has been challenging in many ways. Always change-resistant, the universe seems intent on telling me that I need to embrace change. Always introspective, the universe keeps telling me to think less. Always thin-skinned, the universe seems to put me in positions where I'm apt to be rated, graded, and more often than not left feeling that I'm just not measuring up.

In short, the universe and I have been somewhat out of sync over the past several months.

I'm hoping we can reach a more amicable agreement in 2019. This seems like an attainable goal - as long as I'm willing to do my part to be more agreeable.

Yup - that's the issue - straight from the horse's mouth. Whenever it seems that the universe wants to teach me something, I dig in my heels. My reactions to change are automatic - I resist without stopping to consider whether the change might be good for me. I'm uncompromising in my ability to stubbornly hold fast to the status quo, even when life requires a good shake up. Perhaps this is the year I rid myself of that behavior.

Every year, between Christmas and New Year, I reassess my life. What am I doing right? What could I be doing better? Do I feel like my life is moving in the right direction? In some ways, I really do feel that I'm making progress - in spite of those times when I backslide and feel myself pulled back into the negativity that I'm always working to free myself from.

These past six months have felt like an enormous backslide. I'm tired, I'm cranky, I'm critical. Too often I've felt that I'm excelling at putting my worst foot forward. I offer the world too much of my worst, and too little of my best. I hang on to things I ought to throw away. I'm contrary.

One of the phrases I often hear is, "Let it go."

It's good advice, but not easy for someone like me; someone with a mind that needs an off switch. (Another phrase I hear a lot follows a similar vein - "You overthink things.'')

Today I participated in a "Fire communion". I wrote some words on a piece of flash paper and watched them catch flare as they were dropped into a fire pot. It felt cathartic to watch those words burn - a lovely sort of symbolism to usher in a new year. If only old habits could be released so easily.

Every person has their own list of "mores" - talents and skills that they should be intent on developing more fully and sharing more often. If you're like me, you may find yourself envying those who have obvious gifts - those who create beautiful art or music, or instinctively know how to make a delicious meal appear on the table. It can be easy to forget that kindness, inclusiveness, a sense of humour, hospitality, generosity...these are all gifts. Many of us have them in abundance - but we fail to utilize them regularly, and our skills grow rusty.

What would happen if we each reviewed our list of strengths and decided to give those parts of ourselves to the world more generously and more frequently?

Sadly, we all have another list - one that too many of us spend too much time examining. Our list of failings is ruthless; it tries hard to demand all of our attention. It constantly reminds us that we're flawed. It relentlessly tallies all of the ways we fail; we can't measure up to the expectations society places on us, and most importantly, we can't meet our own lofty standards.

This year I'm going to tear up that second list. I'm going to take those shreds of paper and burn them to ashes. That list has ruled my life for far too long. I'm going to spend more of my time looking at my other list - expanding it, and experiencing the satisfaction that comes when I've done my best with the meager gifts I have. I'm going to try harder to not succumb to envy or comparison. I'm going to accept a good backslide onto my backside from time to time. Progress is still progress, whether or not it comes in fits and starts. I'm going to quit questioning every step into the unknown and embrace the uncertainties that are part of living. I'm going to risk a few spectacular falls on my way to making a graceful leap - a leap from defeat to belief.

And I really do believe that this might be the year I learn to let it go.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

'Tis the Season - By Sharon Flood Kasenberg

Show Me

Christ in the spotlight?
I doubt that he'd care
whether tableau is
placed here, or placed there.
Want Christ in Christmas?
Perhaps you might start
by showing his teachings
are deep in your heart.
People are hurting
this time of the year -
lonely and hungry,
and lacking in cheer.
Go - sing some carols
to make some hearts glad,
help out the weary
and comfort the sad.
Make a donation
To show that you care.
If Christ's in your Christmas
then prove He is there.

by Sharon Flood Kasenberg, December 10, 2018

There's a large sign on our lawn that says "Season's Greetings" in large three foot green lighted letters. I'm just waiting for somebody to complain that it doesn't say "Merry Christmas" instead. Go ahead - I dare you.

First of all, if you know me, or if you've ever read even one of my Christmas posts, you'll know that I love Christmas and have no trouble whatsoever using the phrase "Merry Christmas." Most of the people I know celebrate Christmas, and so that's the phrase I use most of the time. A few times it has slipped out around Muslim, Jewish or Hindu acquaintances, and they simply smiled and said they hoped I enjoyed the holidays. No big deal. If a Jewish friend wanted to wish me "Happy Hanukkah", I wouldn't be upset in the slightest. Isn't life too short to waste time getting bent out of shape over such little things?

Sometimes, when there's any doubt in my mind I say, "Happy Holidays" - everybody seems to be celebrating something at this time of year, so why not? If by chance they aren't, it's still likely that they'll get a few days off work, so at the very least I'm showing goodwill by saying I hope they enjoy those days away from the grindstone. I hope they enjoy the days that I'll be celebrating my holiday - which is Christmas. I'm not being politically correct by saying "Happy Holidays" - just practical.

I am unabashedly non-religious these days, but I love the Christian themes in Christmas. It's a season of hope and joy - and Heaven knows we all need a bit more of those things in our lives. Every Christmas Eve, I try to make my way out to St. John's Elora to hear their beautiful choir sing. I listen to my husband's vast collection of honest to goodness Christmas carols in the car - no "Frosty" or "I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus" here. I love the carols that tell the story of Jesus' birth. I don't know if Jesus was actually born at this time of year, and I don't particularly care. Winter can be bleak, and a big birthday party - with gorgeous music and lots of bright Christmas lights and decorations - is a great way to add a little warmth to the coldest, shortest days of winter.

We can all get up on our high horse about how we can't display our Christian symbols anywhere we like, or worry about who greets who how - but what would Jesus say about His followers getting twisted out of shape over these trivialities when there are people in our midst with serious problems that we're ignoring while we make our petty complaints?

The way I see it, the problems in our society don't stem from "Godlessness" - but from a lack of morality. We are not kind enough. We don't show enough empathy toward others. Too many parents don't take time to really talk to their children; to teach them about compassion for others and the value of being honest, decent, and respectful. Too many fine Christians send their kids off to Sunday School once a week, and ignore their spiritual and moral development the other six days of the week. (Trust me on this - I taught Sunday School for a lot of years.)

Our problems didn't start when we stopped saying rote prayers in schools and other public spaces - they started when we stopped eating dinner together as families. They started when we - as the role models in our children's lives - started parking them in front of the television instead of talking to them and playing with them. Our problems started when we became so enamoured of our own devices that we gave them cell phones of their own to keep them out of our hair. Our problems were exacerbated by two income expectations - we, as parents got so caught up in giving them better things, that we failed to give them what they needed most - time, attention and limits.

It's handy to blame the influx of other faiths to our country as the root of our problems, and thereby assume - erroneously, I might add - that Christian morals are the only morals. I'm going to say something radical now: I've met a lot of Agnostics and Atheists who put Christians to shame when it comes to looking out for their fellow humans. I've seen amazing service rendered by non-churchgoers and non-believers. Religion, in my opinion, has most definitely not cornered the market on morality, goodness or decency.

I never cease to be amazed by the tribalism evidenced in today's society. Does it matter who goes to what church, or if the people who do their best to serve us - kindly and generously - go to any church at all? Is it our business how they choose to spend their Sundays? Would Jesus say we get to judge our neighbours based on whether they go to church? Would Jesus care how we greet each other in December? Or would he just be happy that we offered kindly greetings to each other at all?

It's easy to carp and complain about Christ not being part of Christmas. It's harder to conserve whatever scant energy we have, and then apply it to taking care of each others' needs. If you want to show that keeping Christ in Christmas matters to you, then demonstrate that you've incorporated his best teachings into your life. Be kind. Serve others. Give the benefit of a doubt to the Samaritans in your midst - they just might repay the favour.

Spend less time worrying about who believes what, and more time proving that you understand the concept of doing "unto others as you would have them do unto you." Take time for the people who matter most in your life, and for rendering kindness unto "the least of these."

And above all, don't judge your neighbour for putting "Season's Greetings" up in lights. I think Jesus would approve of the fact that I'm trying to include everyone in my celebration.

Peace on Earth - and good will toward all. Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Snow Flake Windows and Starry Nights - by Sharon Flood Kasenberg

I love Christmas - always have, and always will. In my childhood Christmas was a magical time. Our pleasures were simple. As siblings we often teamed up in order to buy nicer gifts for each other. I helped my mother bake all kinds of cookies and squares to bring out during the holidays. We put up a real Christmas tree and the house had a wonderful woodsy smell. For our family it was a time of fun and happiness, and the warmth of family was easily felt. For our friends it was a place of hospitality, where they would be welcomed with cookies and ginger ale.

When my sons were young I tried to recreate that kind of Christmas enchantment, in spite of the fact that our budget was often tight. Two different motifs show up in abundance in my holiday decorating - both "cheap and cheerful" - and I'll explain the significance of each.

Snowflakes and Stars

Snow to cleanse the frozen ground,
stars to pierce the night,
symbols that I spread around -
Christmas they invite.
Snowflakes on my windowpane -
cheap, and simply made -
and their presence I'll explain;
why they're thus displayed.
Each unique and cut by hand
they lend winter cheer -
a tradition that has spanned
from our poorest year.

Stars that grace the coldest night,
lighting earth below.
See them shining - oh, so bright! -
on the frozen snow.
When upon the sea he'd roam,
seeking haven dry,
stars could guide a sailor home
if he'd read the sky.
Stars upon my Christmas tree
sparkle to remind -
When home's light you wish to see,
love is what you find.

Sharon Flood Kasenberg, November 28, 2018


A lot of people in my small town comment on the snowflakes that I put on my door every Christmas, and here's the story of how that tradition was born.

One year, when the boys were about three and four, I decided I wanted to decorate the house for Christmas. I truly had no decorating budget, but I did have a stack of mostly usable white paper at my disposal. So I cut out some paper snowflakes and taped them to the long, tall window that flanked the front door of our townhouse. When the light outside the front door was turned on, those snowflakes cast beautiful shadows in our entrance. My sons loved those snowflakes so much that they insisted I leave them up as long as the "real snow" lasted, and they asked for more of them the following winter.

Every year since then I've covered my windows with hand cut paper snowflakes. As my sons got older I taught them how to cut proper (six-sided!) paper snowflakes, and they'd help me arrange them in windows. At the end of winter I'd take them down, discarding the ones that were too tattered, and put the others, tape side down, on long sheets of waxed paper to roll up and save for the next year.

Now I'm getting older and I feel the cold more than I used to, but I refuse to become one of those crotchety people who hates snow. I live in Canada (for goodness sake!) - where snow is a fact of life - and it seems to me that those who complain endlessly about it make winter miserable for themselves and everyone around them. I really like snow. It's fresh and pure and glittery. I think of it as a beautiful white blanket that covers all the roots in the earth. It sparkles in the sunlight, and it reflects starlight at night. Yes, it's cold - just bundle up warm and enjoy it!

Snowflakes amaze me. As a child I was told that every snowflake was unique. When I first saw a snowflake under a magnifying glass I was astounded by how beautiful and fragile it was - here one moment; gone the next. They are a perfect metaphor for our individual lives - each is different, and their duration depends on circumstances. One snowflake, on a warm hand, melts quickly. Another, falling on frosty ground lasts, and when joined by many others, creates a layer of snow.

Like snowflakes, we need others of our kind around us. We can survive alone, but we thrive in company with our own.

The paper snowflakes on my windows remind me of some basic life lessons we'd all do well to heed. Sometimes the simple, inexpensive things are the most beautiful and inspiring. (My windows have inspired a little "flakiness" in my community.) Some of the most fragile things - and people - can join forces and change the climate in ways both good and bad. Every individual is unique, and we need to surround ourselves with other unique beings to really shine. And finally, life is short - enjoy all the beauty you can while you're here.


Once upon a time I had a friend who confessed that his Christmas tree had no decorations. At the time I worked at a health food store, and often, on my break, I'd stretch my legs by going to the dollar store next door. (Okay - I'll admit that sometimes I'd buy chocolate. Don't judge me! Chocolate has therapeutic effects. But that's another post...) Anyhow, one day, after ruminating on the sadness that my friend's naked tree represented, I was in said dollar store - and a bag of sparkly, metallic pipe cleaners caught my eye and fueled my imagination.

Once back in my quiet, customer-less store, I took one out of the bag and began twisting it. What simple thing could I shape from this lovely bit of bendable bling ? I fiddled a while, and a star was born! So I made all the metallic pipe cleaners in the bag into stars for my friend's tree. I liked them so well that I bought another bag on the way home from work so that I could make some for my tree too.

Every year since then I've hung those stars on my tree. They are another creative and inexpensive decor innovation that morphed into a family tradition. (We also have a golden, pipe cleaner submarine, a tribute to the Beatles, that also gets a spot on the family Christmas tree every year.)

I love stars too, and have many fond memories of looking up into star-filled skies in northern Ontario where I was raised. Stars fascinate me - tiny pinpricks of light seen from earth are actually massive, flaming suns to other planets. Mind blown! I love knowing that stars create a map in the sky for sailors and explorers to navigate by. It thrills me to know that we can find our way home by following the stars.

One of my simple pleasures at this time of year is taking an evening walk to enjoy the Christmas lights my neighbours put up. There is something soul satisfying about walking in the crisp evening air - stars reflecting off the sparkling snow - and enjoying the coloured lights that are pretty and fun, but merely a cheap imitation of what the heavens offer us. Often these are solitary rambles. I walk alone, on these nights, but I'm not lonely.

The stars above will light my way home - to a snowflake covered door - and behind that door is love.

Monday, 19 November 2018

I Swear... By Sharon Flood Kasenberg

I swear.

I was always encouraged not to, and perhaps that's why I did - it became a small manifestation of the rebellion in my soul.

In my defense, I never swore because I thought it was a way of looking smart or cool. (Seriously - "cool" wasn't an attainable goal for me, and I was never afraid to use more impressive words to demonstrate that I knew my way around a dictionary.) Nope - those weren't my excuses. In fact, I never tried to excuse my bad habit at all.

I just tossed out a few nasty words here and there - mostly when I was alone - because it made me feel better. It eased my anxiety and provided much needed catharsis when I was angry or frustrated. Shutting my bedroom door and dropping a curse or two seemed like a safer option than hitting someone or exposing my rage to the household at large.

Research suggests that I might've been on to something. While I don't advocate a liberal sprinkling of profanity in our everyday conversation, I do think that there are times when a cuss or two make us feel a whole lot better. Studies have shown that using profanity might provide the following benefits:

Stress Relief!

This benefit seems like a no-brainer. I recently had a conversation with a seventeen year old, who reiterated what I've always felt.

"When you're really upset nothing feels better than swearing. You immediately begin to feel better."

I concur.

"Darn - I'm so annoyed!" will never provide the same degree of catharsis as letting a good expletive fly. Sometimes we're simply better able to cope with the stress of a situation by breaking the tension with a bit of well-placed profanity.

Pain Tolerance:

Recent studies have shown that swearing can reduce pain by as much as fifty percent. This explains why our first instinct, upon hitting a thumb with the hammer, is to swear profusely. Some speculate that swearing releases chemicals that dull our pain receptors. There's also evidence that swearing can make you perform better at the gym - so don't be too quick to pass judgement on that person cussing up a storm nearby.

It Signals Honesty:

People who occasionally swear in public are viewed as having more integrity than those who never swear. Their momentary lapse is seen as an indication that they are genuine, and not obsessed with appearing perfect all the time. Nobody's perfect - and the person who loses their cool, for a second or two - here and there - is more likely to acknowledge that they aren't. Swearing can also signify levels of trust between individuals, as well as demonstrate an understanding of boundaries and tolerance levels. Those prone to dropping the odd nasty word quickly learn to assess exactly how much swearing will be tolerated among different audiences.

I can't speak for the rest of you, but I've had worse experiences with hearing gossip and back-biting from people who'd never dare utter a "bad word" than I have from people who let loose occasionally, so I put some stock in this last theory especially. It seems logical (to me, at least) that the people who are occasionally shamed themselves by using profanity might be a bit less inclined to run around shaming others.

There are worse things you can do than swear a bit.

As parent, I tried to discourage swearing, but I sometimes swore in front of my sons, so I knew I had to excuse them if they followed suit from time to time. I didn't want to preach a "Do as I say, not as I do" sermon, and I also knew there were a lot bigger things to concern myself with than whether they used a bit of profanity.

When you host international students, the topic of profanity inevitably comes up. It's a necessary conversation; they need to understand what words are seen as "the worst" within our culture, and be certain that something that seems inoffensive in their country of origin - or their parent's home - isn't taboo in Canada or within the host family's home.

Oddly, right after our conversation, mention was made - on a television show we were watching - of a "swear jar". So I explained the concept.

"It could be a good way for me to save money", I quipped. "Especially at Christmastime!"

They laughed, having both heard the words I'm prone to utter when I drop things in the kitchen. And that, my friends, inspired this blog post and my latest poetic offering.

I swear - and while I'm not afraid to admit to it, I'd never go so far as to say I'm proud of it. It's just something I do sometimes, and as long as I (mostly) keep it behind my own closed doors I refuse to feel badly about it. (I don't really see it as a worse linguistic habit than using perpetually bad grammar - which hurts my ears every bit as much as the odd four letter word might hurt those with ears more sensitive to profanity.)

Yeah, I could start a "swear jar" - but I'll admit that for me it would likely be nothing but a way to bank spare change.

So without further ado, here's my @&%# poem:

Savings Plan

Here's how to save some money
a little at a time -
just start a swear jar, Honey;
add nickel, or a dime,
for each time you indulge in
the urge to be profane.
You will profit sin by sin,
with ev'ry cuss you'll gain.
Go on and curse - feel no guilt.
Go on - fill up that jar!
Tidy nest egg will be built;
rude tongue will take you far!
Do you want to take a trip
down to the sunny south?
Just go on - and let 'er rip,
and profit from that mouth!
Then, when you flash your bank roll,
some credence you'll accrue
for your tongue's lack of control
and every curse you spew!

by Sharon Flood Kasenberg, November 8, 2018.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Another Point of View - By Sharon Flood Kasenberg

Another Point of View

A road too seldom traveled -
because too few will dare -
where dogma is unraveled
by vista seen from there;
it's where our vision changes
so eyes can see anew
from high atop the ranges,
another point of view.

We need not climb a mountain
to come to such a place -
a drink from wisdom's fountain
can grant sufficient grace
to exercise some kindness
and empathy extend -
from both of these cure blindness
with better set of lens.

The lenses worn by others
are tried on by the brave.
They transform men to brothers;
relationships they save.
Miraculous the powers
exhibited by few
who, from compassion's towers,
see another point of view.

Sharon Flood Kasenberg, Oct 19, 2018

In our Toastmasters group, we sometimes participate in a speaking exercise called "Point/Counterpoint". A subject is chosen at random, and one member of the group stands up and presents one point of view on the topic, then the other speaker addresses the group with a contrary opinion. Imaginations are often stretched; the second speaker might actually be in full agreement with what was previously said, but spontaneous debate is the objective, and a second point of view must be offered. It's always interesting to watch the second speaker quickly come up with a (preferably) logical opposing argument.

Respectful debate is an art that's on the decline. Polarization is the new norm - everyone seems to be absolutely convinced that their approach to any given situation is the most correct, and their opinion is the only one that matters.

In younger days, many of us were encouraged to attempt to walk in the other guy's shoes. I always had trouble with this adage - how could I be expected to actually navigate the world in the same way as someone who had completely different experiences than I did? Logically, I knew that the "shoes" would never fit, and that my movement in the ill-fitting footwear would automatically make my journey even more difficult than that of the person who owned the shoes in question. None of us can navigate through new terrain in shoes that don't fit.

I like the concept of viewing the scenery through a different lens better. Remember being a child and trying on your friend's new glasses? The scenery around you suddenly distorted in bizarre ways, and it was hard to grasp the notion that those same glasses that made the world look crazy to you actually helped your friend see the world the same way your 20/20 vision allowed you to see it.

It can be hard to remember that our figurative "eyes" all see the world slightly differently. We might not ever be able to step into the "shoes" of another, but if we try to be empathetic, we can catch glimpses of the problems that others have to overcome.

A young man I know was always extremely bright, but "different" - awkward, overly stimulated by his own thoughts, and exhausted by the noise, confusion, and expectation to be socially "on" that high school placed on him. Knowing that he was brilliant, his parents fully expected him to go on to university. In Grade Twelve he told them that wasn't his plan - and for a time they were confused. The father was quite devastated - how could a boy who loved to learn be so adamant about not pursuing higher education? One day, in the course of picking up his son early from school, he walked through the same crowded and noisy halls that his son traversed daily. Suddenly he was granted a gift; for a brief moment he saw those halls through his son's eyes - and finally understood why his son felt as he did.

We seldom catch those "aha!" glimpses of what life can be like for those around us. In the case I just mentioned, the father truly wanted to understand why his son felt as he did. That was the precursor to the miracle of that moment of other-sighted-ness. Most of us, caught up in our own way of thinking, are far less invested in understanding the workings of the hearts and brains of our fellowmen. We can't relate to individuals who've been shaped by experiences so vastly different from our own, and often we simply don't care enough about them to try.

At other times, we've experienced things just similar enough to feel empathy. Our experience might pale beside greater trauma suffered, but it can provide us with a point of reference. Someone who was mugged on the street, and suffered a few minor injuries, can't equate their ordeal with that of the person who was raped, or had an attempt made on their life. However, they can remember that moment of fear when a stranger approached and lashed out at them. They can remember how they felt insecure about walking alone for a long time afterward. This enables them to reach out to the victim and say, "I think I might be able to imagine what that was like for you. I know how it feels to be afraid."

Sometimes we can't really empathize at all. We've simply never had an experience that compares in any way to what the other person has gone through. Their lives and experiences have shaped them very differently. They are clearly "other". Can we manage to care about "them"?

We may not ever desire to see a point of view that is in such direct opposition to our own, but we can still demonstrate kindness. We can attempt enough self-mastery to engage in civilized debate. We can admit - to ourselves and them - that we can't see through their lens. We can offer a hand to steer them when their vision falters, rather than push them into the path of that oncoming freight train that they can't see. Isn't that what we hope they would do for us?

What happens when our own vision is clouded, when our lenses are smudged with arrogance, anger, or bigotry? Are we happy to keep stumbling over obstacles that we'd avoid with clearer lenses? Do we deny how much we can't see to keep our pride intact? What do we do when tears fog our lenses? Do we take them off and give them a rub, or do we refuse the arm of the person willing to steer us for a while, and trip ourselves up while we wallow in unnecessary misery?

We are stubborn. Sometimes we want to pass on our filthy, clouded lenses to others, all the while insisting that they'll afford clearer vision. Other times we're offered corrective eye wear that we refuse to put on.

In my mid-forties, I suddenly required reading glasses. I spent months in denial - what were they thinking, suddenly making my crossword puzzle print so small? I mean, really - who could see that? As it turns out, almost everyone could except me! Oddly, while my physical self was protesting glasses, my mental and emotional selves were beginning to open themselves up to improved vision. My heart was becoming more open to the plights of others, and my mind was suddenly ready to entertain other points of view. My new glasses ushered in a whole new era of sighted-ness for me.

I won't tell you that I'm always open to seeing life from another person's perspective - there are still times when I'm as stubborn as my pre-glasses self. I know what point I want to make, and I don't want to hear the opposing argument - let alone play devil's advocate and imagine the arguments against my point of view.

I might squint and strain my eyes and insist that the print has shrunk rather than put on my specs. Life can be like those times when I head out to dine, having forgotten that I need those reading glasses at all. I know I have all kinds of options, but realize I can't quite manage even the large-print menu in dim light. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, my mother or a friend will hand me their glasses, and while the prescriptions vary enough that my vision isn't perfected, I can at least see well enough to order a meal. The need for guess work on my part is eliminated by a brief glimpse through another lens.

Maybe that's all it takes - an admission that our ignorance has blinded us, and our glasses got left at home - followed by the generous offer of a fellow diner:

"Can't see? Here - try my glasses!"

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Dance to Your Own Drumbeat - by Sharon Flood Kasenberg


This drummer beats for me - and me alone -
and I dance to rhythm all my own.
I'll move in time with music 'til it's gone;
don't know all the steps, but I'll catch on.
You hear another tune; have your own groove,
and can't tell me how I ought to move.
I'll march with fervor, or I'll tread with grace -
when drum changes tempo, I'll keep pace.
If I am out of step, you'll never know.
Your drummer does a diff'rent beat bestow.

Sharon Flood Kasenberg, October 10, 2018

What was meant to be a temporary re-arrangement of furniture in our front sunroom inspired this post. Steve - the furnace guy - was coming in early the next morning to re-route some venting in the attic and our son's bedroom, and because said son is a night owl, this entailed a different spot for him to sleep for a night. Knowing that he'd bunked a night or two in the sunroom, I went in there to pull out the futon he'd be sleeping on, only to find that the drum was in the way.

The drum in question used to belong to my mother-in-law. When she moved into a nursing home several years ago, my sons claimed it. Nobody here plays the drums, but it's one of those things that we just can't seem to part with. For me, it symbolized something - I just wasn't sure what until I moved it yesterday. Looking for a spot to stick it for 24 hours, I plopped it down in the corner of our front entryway. I walked past it several times, and decided it looked at home in that spot. In fact, I decided it could make an important statement about our family.

"I'm going to leave it here" I told my husband. "I'll put a sign over it that says, 'Dance to your own beat' or 'Follow your own drum'..."

"I like it!" he responded.

So there it sits - sans sign - for now. Having it in our entryway is symbolic. We are a family that values individuality. My husband, my sons and myself all see the world differently. We are four shades of ideology. We have four different views on religion; four different views on politics. We keep different hours and enjoy different pastimes.We have varied opinions on fashion, on budgeting, on art, on music...Name a subject and the chances are good that the four of us will each have our unique take on it. We are individuals.

Amazingly, we don't spend all of our time together arguing. Why bother? As parents, we just wanted to raise decent kids - not little clones of either of us. My sons always got along well, in spite of the fact that they had different temperaments, personalities and interests. We love each other, but what makes us a happy family is that we genuinely like each other.

I won't tell you we've never had heated discussions, or that we always respect each others opinions, but we accept this as fact - we're allowed to see things differently. It's good to be unique.

I love my husband's ability to keep a civil tongue and an even temper. I love how my older son has a very dry wit and can remember bizarre facts on a million topics. I love watching my younger son in action - when he explains AI theory I understand little - but I love how passionate he is about his interests. I love that all three of them keep talking to me, whether I know what they mean or not!

I appreciate that my husband cares about my opinions. Many of our conversations begin with the words, "what do you think about..." It matters that we still ask these questions, even though we know there's a good chance that our points of view won't be completely aligned.

We're tolerant of each other's foibles. As I've said before, I do not excel at multi-tasking. (As an example, on Tuesday I opened the microwave to find the peas I meant to serve at Thanksgiving dinner.) My husband and kids know this about me. They understand that I'm incapable of real conversation while I'm preparing a meal, and they know that disorder in the kitchen makes me crazy enough to drop a bad word or two. I know this was an annoyance to my younger son when he'd invite friends from church over, but - bless him - rather than chastising me for my nasty mouth, he'd stoically come into the kitchen and offer assistance. His brother would do the same when kitchen counters got heaped with tins and ingredients during my annual Christmas baking binges - just step in and help re-create order from chaos.

We don't always agree, but we "get" each other.

Yes - we roll our eyes sometimes, but we do it as we bite our tongues. None of us is perfect, but as a family, this much diplomacy we've mastered:

- We don't always have to waste our time trying to sway each others' opinions.
- We don't have to agree with each other to enjoy each other.
- We don't have to like the same things.
- We respect each other's strengths and try to compensate for each other's weaknesses.
- Criticism should always be gentle.
- A whole lot of things we might want to say are better left unsaid.

At the risk of sounding trite, love really is the answer. As I've contemplated the drum that now sits in my front entrance, I've decided that we're perhaps not just marching to a different beat, but perhaps all hearing different drummers. Some are pounding bongos, some are beating snare drums. Some are tapping away on steel drums. At times the desire to share the rhythms we choose to hear is almost overwhelming. We each hear through our custom headphones, and most of us (secretly, at least) believe our music is best. We are social creatures who want to share what we love, and we often invite others to join us in our dance - forgetting that they already have choreographed moves of their own. Sometimes an inner critic wants to tell them what they're doing is wrong; to us their tempo seems off, or their movements don't seem fluid. Love is knowing how to hush that impulse.

Love is a clumsy dance that transcends all the genres. It is ballet's elite twirling their way through a mosh pit of ravers. Love is embracing the concept of not just hearing different beats, but knowing there are different drums and drummers. It's accepting that every drum has its merits, and every drummer has her or his own style. Every beat has its place.

Love is an open invitation:

Come as the individual you are, and dance to your unique drum beat.