Category Archives: Lisa’s Story

Power Hour

Did you observe Earth Hour on Saturday night? How did you choose to mark the occasion? In my city, some people spent the time between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. enjoying an acoustic music performance at a downtown pub. Others demonstrated their commitment to the planet with a candlelit yoga class (I imagine there’s something to be said for downward dog in the dark).

In fact, millions of people were expected to participate around the globe, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Here in Toronto, our use of electricity dropped by a somewhat shabby six percent. That’s not quite as much as last year’s Earth Hour, although on my own street the rate of participation seemed unnaturally high – I noticed several darkened houses, displaying a high respect for energy conservation in my ’hood (unless, of course, those folks were simply out somewhere, dancing to pounding techno-pop under strobe lights).

Sure, turning off the lights for an hour is a symbolic gesture. But that doesn’t make it less meaningful. Or less fun. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all more attractive by flickering candlelight. And by the same token, everything’s a little more interesting.

At 8:30 in my house, the family – including the dog – gathered together in one dim room for a snuggle and deep conversation. We passed the hour (quickly, it seemed) with several rounds of “Would You Rather,” each one sparking a spirited three-way discussion. Likewise for two other games we invented on the spot, one I’ll call “What Would Your Happiest Moment on Earth Look Like” and another called “If You Could Have the Answer to Any Mystery on Earth, What Would It Be” (contenders were “what’s beyond this universe?” and “who borrowed that book from me back in the seventies?”).

You know, when your kid is 14 and life is a whirlwind, having an hour to talk together as a family, with no electronics, noises or distractions, is pure gold.

So as much as observing Earth Hour was a sincere gesture of goodwill, I have to say, the privilege was all mine.
Globe

A Custodian, a Banana Peel, a Tennis Ball (or Two)

Maybe it’s because my high school reunion is coming up this month (spoiler: I’m not going), but I’ve been thinking a lot about those old public school days. I grew up just outside of a tiny, remote hamlet. When our meager population was finally deemed robust enough to justify the construction of a modest elementary school, I was among the first students.

There are many things about that fresh little K-5 school that stick in my mind. Like the brightly painted foursquare and hopscotch patterns. The shiny, 1970s-modern play structure (poor Marnie E., who fell from it and broke her leg). The proximity to the candy store.

I also remember Mr. Hamilton. He was the small school’s one and only custodian. He was cheerful, skinny and (I thought at the time) incredibly old. He smiled often and wasn’t perturbed by much.

So there I was, a fifth-grade, ostensibly goody-goody sort of student, under the influence and the thumb of my best-friend-at-the-time, Christine M. Christine was smart and creative and bold. In grade five, a person with that special constellation of qualities was considered a troublemaker. (Unbeknownst to me, a teacher had already contacted my parents to suggest they try and break up the friendship.) When, at lunch recess, Christine dared me to throw my banana peel onto the one-storey building’s flat roof, I complied.

I got it in one shot. Unfortunately, I also got caught – by the teacher on yard duty.

She sent me inside to the custodian’s office to apologize forthwith, since he’d be the one stuck cleaning up my roof garbage. I hadn’t thought of that. And truth be told, I had very little experience owning up to my misbehaviour, since I didn’t display much of it in the elementary school setting.

I nervously went down the hall and, trembling, approached the janitor. “Mr. Hamilton?” I said in a tiny voice. “I’m very, very sorry, but I threw a banana peel on the roof.”

Good old Mr. Hamilton (who probably wasn’t all that old). He grinned broadly at me. “Oh, that’s okay,” he said. He reached for his desk. “Do you want a tennis ball? Here, have two tennis balls.” He handed me the treasures and sent me away. Seems Mr. Hamilton didn’t collect only garbage from the school’s flat roof.

I don’t remember much else about that incident. But I remember how relieved I was that the janitor wasn’t mad. And puzzled that he’d rewarded me with a gift.

I’d like to say that it was a major turning point, that Mr. Hamilton set me on the straight and narrow with his simple act of kindness. It would make for a great story. It wouldn’t be true, though. I would have continued to more-or-less behave no matter what. Christine M. and I drifted apart as we got older (she’s all grown up now with three beautiful daughters, which shows what you can do with intelligence and creativity). I got good grades and got into the regular measure of trouble that most teenagers manage to find. No, Mr. Hamilton didn’t do anything earthshattering that day. He was just nice.

But I think it’s enough that I never forgot it.

“Hey, something’s wrong – my wi-fi connection is down!”

“Hey, something’s wrong – my wi-fi connection is down!”

A Holiday that Isn’t Just for Turkeys

Now that this blog has been around for more than three years, it’s safe to say there’s an established annual tradition. Every year, right around this time, I’ve written about Thanksgiving and thanks giving. Of course, thanks giving should happen on more than just a day in October. And for most of us, it probably does. (Who you thank, of course, is your own business. I just try to wallow in a cloud of general appreciation.)

Still, it’s important to have a designated day to focus on our good fortune. (And eat pumpkin pie. It’s important to have a day to do that, too.) This month, my little family has been challenged with a couple of significant problems, plus a few assorted minor ones. And when these trials hit, I’m reminded of how easy it is to slip into frustration, host a pity party, fantasize about the runaway life.

Yet when I try to dwell on the positives in my life – the health and happiness of my child, the warmth of my marriage, the roof over our heads, the close community we live in, the taste of pinot grigio (my friend and oft-advisor firmly believes that no pity party is complete without a glass of wine)… it never, ever fails to make me feel at least a little better.

So that’s what I did this Thanksgiving. I felt thankful. And it’s helping. It’s no reason to give up my glass of pinot grigio – let’s not get giddy about this – but it truly makes a difference.

P.S. I had the pleasure of sharing my enthusiasm for good deeds on CBC Radio yesterday afternoon. Here’s the link to the 7-minute interview if you want to check it out.

I tried to take a picture of a pumpkin pie that WASN’T half eaten, but that’s an endangered species around here.

I tried to take a picture of a pumpkin pie that WASN’T half eaten, but that’s an endangered species around here.

Not as Powerless as You Might Think

This past Wednesday was a significant anniversary, at least it was for anyone who lives along the northeast seaboard of North America. That’s because August 14 marked ten years since a historic, sweeping power failure blacked out big cities and small communities alike, affecting 50 million people for up to four days.

On Wednesday, many of us reflected back on the experience (while others, apparently, partied like it was 2003).

Ten years ago, on August 14, my family and I had just moved into a new house in a new neighbourhood. We hadn’t yet met anyone – more on that later – and our bungalow was a mess with the dust and debris of renos.

When the lights went out on the afternoon of August 14, my husband and I were downtown at work. We were both in office buildings with elevators. Right after the power loss, my colleagues and I carried a co-worker in a wheelchair down the stairs, in the dark – unbeknownst to me, my husband’s colleagues were simultaneously doing the same for him. Hence the good deed marathon had already begun.

I then walked over to my young daughter’s daycare. I mentioned to another parent that I couldn’t reach my husband to find out if he was trapped, and she promptly packed both our kids in the back of her car, scooting us off in the direction of his workplace. (“I know a back route,” she bragged, zipping through side streets to avoid the jammed intersections with failed traffic lights.)

My little family eventually reunited and made it home. In an inspiring feat of resourcefulness, my husband’s personal care attendant made it to our home for the evening shift after first prying himself out of an elevator that had stalled between floors. He did his work by candlelight.

And so on.

I have two favourite memories from that week. The first was stepping outside after dark that first night to look at the stars, an impossible treat for an urban dweller. It was a rare, breathtaking view.

My other favourite moment involves yet another act of benevolence. In the morning, I walked on our new street with my daughter and discovered, to my surprise, a makeshift coffee stand. A couple across the street had rolled out their barbecue and put on an old-fashioned percolator, and were now grandly brewing coffee for any neighbours who gathered. I was delighted to stop for a cuppa, and even more pleased to receive introductions to a wonderful new community of people.

That kindness of spirit we first experienced on our street that morning has endured for a decade. Ten years later, I still think of the 2003 blackout not as the time our air-conditioning failed in the heat of summer, or the time we drove around looking for batteries… but as the way by which we first met our new neighbours.

Were you affected by the blackout of 2003? Did you witness moments of grace and generosity? I’d love to hear from you.

Recent moving truck on our street: Let’s assume Joe is happy with the free publicity…

Recent moving truck on our street: Let’s assume Joe is happy with the free publicity…

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, etc., etc., etc…

Whew! We’re back to the regular routine this week after a good deal of lovely time off. Much of our summer vacation involved day trips, but we also travelled out of town. Returning home yesterday involved no fewer than seven modes of transportation – we know this, because we counted: car, plane, ferry, streetcar, subway train, bus and trusty little feet. Nevertheless, the trip was straightforward and included few surprises.

It did, however, remind me of how frequently I witness good deeds on or around public transportation. (I’ve touched on this before – here, here and here are a few examples.)

So, here goes another account of a moment of kindness that didn’t happen yesterday, but did happen recently. I’ve been saving this story to share with you because it made me grin. And because it’s the little things that sometimes perk us up the most, don’t you think?

It happened when a heavily tattooed, muscle-bound, shaved-headed guy came close to running right into me. He was barrelling towards the same subway station entrance that I was just about to walk through. But instead of colliding with me, the man came to a sudden stop and backed up to let me in the door. And as he did so, he gifted me with both a big, lovely smile and a sweeping arm gesture to wave me past him – saying sheepishly: “Sorry, sweetheart!”

Unexpected overwhelming decency. Yup, I think it’s wonderful.

Here’s where I was yesterday. Remind me again why I came back home?

Here’s where I was yesterday. Remind me again why I came back home?

Floods of Generosity

If you live in or near Toronto – or you don’t, but you know of Toronto, or you can pronounce the word Toronto – then you may be aware that we recently experienced what weather experts are calling a “once-every-hundred-years” phenomenon.

In layman’s terms: We were drenched. In just a couple of hours on Monday, we got more rain than we’d received in the entire day, ever. In fact, we collected more rain during rush hour than we normally get in the whole month of July.

What did that mean for those millions of us who live here? Spin the roulette wheel and take your pick: power failures, flooded basements, washed-out roads, evacuated homes, phone outages, stalled transit, swamped vehicles, trapped train commuters, damage to house and yard. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has experienced loss in some form or another. And yet they’ll tell you, too, of the kindness they witnessed amid the devastation, the neighbours, friends and families who helped each other. I’m not hearing tales of woe. Instead, what I keep hearing is: “We were lucky.”

We were lucky. Our basement – not known for being impervious – wept somewhat during the worst of the downpour, but it was a slow leak that was easily contained with towels. Same with the rainwater that washed in under the front door. Our power was out for over 40 hours, leaving us with no means to operate my husband’s essential disability equipment. But we were able to literally recharge our batteries (and have a rewarding doggy visit) at a family member’s home. We had no A/C, but the weather was pleasant (fickle as it is). We threw away hundreds of dollars’ worth of perishable food, but we had great fun sharing a meal with neighbours, eating some stuff up before it spoiled.

And we were safe. We checked on folks in our community, and they checked on us. We fielded calls, texts and emails from people farther away who cared. I had the best coffee I’ve tasted in a long time, thanks to the neighbour who brewed it for me in the camper-trailer in her driveway. (Incidentally, I also had the worst coffee I’ve tasted in a long time, thanks to the enterprising local café that did the best it could with a gas burner and candlelight.)

Events like these remind us that in case of disaster, we have each other covered. We will pitch in. We will come through.

It’s a comfortable way to weather any kind of storm.

Hold on to your rainhats, folks, here comes a product endorsement … our coping-with-the-dark ability was boosted by our three terrific Lanterna “Touch On” LED table lights.

Hold on to your rainhats, folks, here comes a product endorsement … our coping-with-the-dark ability was boosted by our terrific Lanterna “Touch On” LED table lights.

Tip of the Morning to You

Our street has seen a lot of construction work this month. And with this work comes a parade of tradespersons’ bulky vehicles, expanded variously with trailer hitches and stepladders and hoses, and parked around the worksite like there’s a party going on. Last week, a string of trucks and vans lined a section of the road that has no sidewalk. That didn’t leave much room for drivers and pedestrians to share the road. As I went for my usual morning walk and began passing these parked vehicles, I met a school bus coming the other way along the considerably narrowed street.

Not wanting to risk a flattening, I stepped into a convenient driveway and waited for the bus to pass. I enjoy it when drivers and pedestrians – or drivers and cyclists, or drivers and fellow drivers – make a little extra effort to get along, and then acknowledge that effort. You know what I mean. One person or the other nods, or puts up the palm of their hand in that universal “thank-you” gesture. It’s a moment of recognition, of connection.

This bus driver looked out his window at me as he drove past. But instead of nodding or showing his palm, he raised a hand and doffed his cap to me. Yes, really. I was delighted. Cap-tipping as salutation may have been in style a hundred years ago, but it’s rare nowadays. Made my day, it did.

Another Tale from the Crypt

If you can stand another story about my basement-purging project, I swear it’s worthwhile. No, I won’t talk about the woman who drove for 50 minutes just to come and get a free raised toilet seat for her 89-year-old father. And I won’t go into great detail about the lady who emailed me after she got home from a pick-up to ask, “Is there someone in your neighbourhood that has a pig as a pet? Thought I was going crazy…” (For the record: Yes.)

But I would like to tell you about the guy who came to pick up a box of old tapes. Music-wise, I’ve gone digital, so I posted on our local Freecycle listserv that I was giving away a “…box of about 80 audiocassette albums. They haven’t been played in a few years, so current quality is unknown, but they’ve been well stored. Many, many artists/titles. Examples include: Blue Rodeo, Cat Stevens, Cowboy Junkies, Crowded House, David Bowie, Elton John, Enya, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Harry Connick Jr., John Lennon, Kate Bush, Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Police/Sting, R.E.M., Sarah McLachlan, Smiths, TV/Movie soundtracks from the 80s/90s, compilations, etc., etc…

I swiftly received a response: “Hi……… Yes, I would love these audio cassettes. There are many titles I love, and as I do a lot of driving, these would be great for me.” I was happy for my collection to go into someone’s tape deck instead of the garbage. So I emailed him back with our address.

As we corresponded, it didn’t escape my notice that his name, not a particularly common one, was the same as one of my husband’s favourite authors. I dismissed it as coincidence.

He confirmed that he’d come the next day. That morning, we exchanged a few words as he (who turned out to be sixtysomething and white-haired) hefted the box from our front stoop and carried it over to his car. Just as he was about to leave, the man turned back to me and called out: “I’ll tell you what, look for me on Amazon. Pick your favourite book, and I’ll send you a signed copy.”

Whaaaaa….?

“Are you serious?” I asked. “Are you really — —–, the author? That’s you?” I couldn’t believe it. “My husband has all your books!” He smiled modestly – or possibly a little tentatively. “Go on Amazon, pick the one you like best, and I’ll sign it for you,” he reiterated.

“But – you’re not kidding me? You’re really — —–?” I persisted. “You wouldn’t be having me on, would you? Listen, if I grab your book right now, would you be willing to sign it for my husband?” The guy nodded (again, perhaps a little hesitantly) and came back towards the house, while I fetched four or five novels from our living-room bookshelf. I thought about how thrilled hubby would be. I thrust the stack at the author, along with a pen. He looked down, and that’s when realization dawned.

“Oh, that’s a different — —–,” he said. “See, he spells his last name differently. Mine is spelled this way.”

Ohhhhhh…

“It did surprise me when you said you had all my books,” he admitted.

I melted into laughter as soon as I closed the door. Turns out he’s not a multi-award-winning novelist and playwright but, rather, self-publishes short stories and detective novels. Not that I’m not intrigued – I may in fact take him up on his offer. Because, after all, you never know where one good turn will lead.

Highly enjoyable thank-you notes from three of the kids who’ve benefited from our many toy giveaways this month. Notice the beautifully rendered pogo-stick image. That’s what you call appreciation.

Highly enjoyable thank-you notes from three of the kids who’ve benefited from our many toy giveaways this spring. Notice the beautifully rendered pogo-stick image. That’s what you call appreciation.

Strange Stories Amazing Facts

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve become involved in a little basement-clearing project because I have many idle hours to fill … okay, not actually true. I have very little time on my hands, but the fact of the matter is, purging is just plain fun. Yes, I’m a sicko.

Part of the process involves raking through our yards of books. I’ll keep anything I’d enjoy re-reading or lending, but everything else must go. Three boxes of books were delivered to Goodwill yesterday. A handful of tomes for tweens went to a friend’s granddaughter. A few collections for very young kiddies are spoken for, boxed and ready for pick-up.

I picked up one particular hardcover volume, unsure how it arrived at our house. It’s a Reader’s Digest compilation and on the cover it says: Strange Stories Amazing Facts: Stories that are Bizarre Unusual, Odd Astonishing Incredible… But True [sic]. (I’ll tell you what’s bizarre and unusual, it’s the casual dismissal of essential commas in favour of a clean cover design.)

As I opened the book, a piece of paper fell out. It was a note I’d never seen before, handwritten by my grandmother ten years ago. The note is addressed to my husband and reads:

Dear Ian:
I read only 2 stories in this book – I hope you don’t mind getting it “2nd hand” but it is good and I wish you to have it. I hope you enjoy it! Have a good Xmas!
Love
Jean

My grandmother died in 2009. We weren’t extremely close, but we always stayed in touch. So finding this letter was, in a way, like receiving a message from beyond.

And as I flipped through the strange stories amazing facts, I discovered something else. Tucked inside the book was a pressed pink rose. Not only had my grandmother read from this book, she’d used it to preserve a flower – which she eventually forgot about before passing it on to my husband.

I’ll never know the significance of the rose and why she chose to keep it. But I was touched to find it, and to read her letter. In a way, it was a gift all over again.
JeanNote

Giveaways for Good

Does my basement make me look fat? Yes, I’m purging again. Bit by bit, we’re giving away a variety of toys, mismatched furniture and miscellany. The hard part is the sorting and cataloguing. It all takes time, and who has time?

The easy part is finding new homes for all the stuff. Batches of toys last week went to friends with young kids. Educational books and games went to classrooms. Over the weekend, I tallied my jigsaw puzzles, identified a pile I no longer wished to keep, and advertised them on a local Freecycle website.

The first person to email me was rather curt. But nevertheless the early bird gets the worm, so I sent her our address and we set up a pick-up time. At the door, she wasn’t much warmer.

Then, as she balanced the tall stack of puzzles in her arms and prepared to leave, she offhandedly mentioned why she was taking them. Turns out she has a friend coping with depression. He distracts himself with jigsaw puzzles. These were for him.

The lady at my door may not have been high-spirited or bubbly (off-topic, suddenly I’m craving champagne), but her actions certainly spoke for themselves.

Deepak Chopra said: “There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.”

I won’t use the phrase “puzzle obsession,” but you can see why I could afford to give a few away.

I won’t use the phrase “puzzle obsession,” but you can see why I could afford to give a few away.