Category Archives: Lifestyle

Different kinds of brave

You might be dismayed to learn the number of times that I’ve been told over the past year that I am “brave.”

My feat of daring? Letting my hair return to its natural colour.

On the weekend my husband was told many times that he was brave.

His courageous act? Performing a stand-up comedy routine for the first time.

If each of us were to create a “bravery spectrum,” we would place different actions in different places.

For those with a fear of public speaking, a stand-up comedy routine would be off-the-charts. For others, it might be more in the middle. Most people would agree that it takes guts to be vulnerable in front of an audience that way.

But my hair colour? Please. Let’s not even.

There are people who perform acts of bravery truly worthy of our admiration.

  • First responders who run toward danger. Firefighters, police, paramedics, and members of our military who put their lives on the line every day.
  • Volunteers who work in vulnerable countries around the world, healing the sick or wounded, building wells, providing food.
  • Refugees who leave behind everything they know and start over in a place where everything is foreign to them.
  • Staff and volunteers who work with the vulnerable people right in our own back yards, supporting the homeless, encouraging those affected by mental health issues of addictions.
  • Single parents who juggle work and family, doing their best to provide for their loved ones.

What do you think of as “brave”?

Stand-up routine at Absolute Comedy, Ottawa
It takes guts to do this.

Jubilation: Setting high expectations

For the second consecutive year at my church, we were given a Star Word. It’s word to focus on, work through, or look for in the coming year.

We select it in much the same way a person picks a card from the deck during a card trick. The words written on pieces of paper placed upside-down in a plate, and we pick one without knowing what we’re going to get.

This was mine.

The word Jubliation on a starry background

If I focus on it, work on it, and look for it, 2020 could be a jubilant year!

I want to live like Alex: A timely re-post for the New Year

The crowd crammed into pews until there was no elbow room. And then the crowd crammed in some more. When every inch of every pew was full, ushers scurried to bring extra chairs to the aisles, front to back.

An overflowing multi-faith, multi-generational, multi-cultural assembly gathered to celebrate the life of Alex McKeague, a man who lived 80-plus years to the fullest. “I’ve got to learn to live like Alex,” I thought.

If I dare.

It is not an easy road to extra chairs at your funeral.

To live like Alex, I would need to take action and not say, “I’m sure someone else will do it.”

To live like Alex, I would need to speak up for what is right, even when it is not the popular option.

To be truly alive like Alex, I would need to be the voice in the wilderness crying out for changes to make the world more compassionate, equitable, peaceful.

  • Alex founded the Carlington Chaplaincy in Ottawa to help feed and nurture residents of a challenged neighbourhood. He gave them more than food; he gave them potential.
  • Alex collected skates, tennis racquets, or hockey equipment for children in need. He gave them more than sports equipment; he gave them inclusion.
  • Alex rode his bike when he could, even during draining chemotherapy treatments. He gave us more than clean air; he gave us inspiration.

Alex tapped into some mysterious energy-force we would all love to find. Alex couldn’t coexist peacefully with injustices. He couldn’t overlook a need. He did more good work in a week than many people do in a year, or even a lifetime.

Sounds good. Sounds like what we all should be doing.

But most of us don’t. I don’t.

Most of us set up a wall of defensive excuses. I do.

I don’t have time today.
There are programs in place for that.
I’m afraid.
That person is getting what he deserves.

Alex took action to change things when sticking to the status quo would have been easier—the tempting, deliciously attractive, effortless, risk-free status quo. He bravely stepped in where others feared to tread.

And he had another gift. He could lay out the difficult truths to resistant audiences and achieve the miracle of illumination. When Alex spoke in his quiet way, his soft handling of the hard truths encouraged us to join his vision for a better, more just world. 

His quiet words held loud power.

Alex showed that deep, long-lasting happiness is a paradox. We think that to find happiness we need to focus on ourselves, and our emotional comforts, and material bonuses. We think happiness comes wrapped as a big screen TV. But the opposite is true.

Happiness doesn’t live in the mirror.

He turned his back on self-reflection and looked outward to fulfill the needs of others. He obtained a doctorate, but there was no “Call me Dr. McKeague” from him. He instructed his children not to make him “look like a big shot” at the funeral. He wanted the rewards of his actions to fall on those who needed the help, not on himself. It was okay with him that we all looked toward his causes, helping them, supporting them, only glancing back after he was gone to realize that he had been the foundation, the catalyst for so much good work.

Alex lived naturally to a standard that most of the rest of us find unnaturally difficult to achieve. It’s hard to get past fear and societal pressures.

What will people think? Obey the rules. Don’t rock the boat.

I’ll try. Because at Alex’s funeral I learned I want to live like Alex, so that when I die they will need lots of extra chairs.

This is a re-post from 2010. All these years later, I’m still trying . . .

lots of chairs
Photo by Daniel Ferreira Baltà

Bayberry candle luck: A Christmas ritual to warm the soul

“A bayberry candle burned to the socket puts luck in the home, food in the larder and gold in the pocket.”

bayberry-tapers

My mother-in-law burned a bayberry taper candle down to the socket every Christmas Day, to bring the family luck for the coming year.

We adopted the tradition in our house even though I learned that my mother-in-law’s version of the tradition differed from the original. According to online sources, the candles were lit on New Year’s Eve and the flame had to continue burning into New Year’s Day to carry the luck forward.

I thought about changing our tradition to align with the legend, but then dismissed the idea. Traditions are rituals, and rituals should warm the soul, revive memories of loved ones and centre us in what is really important.

If I were to light a bayberry candle on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Day, it would feel all wrong.

So I’ll keep on lighting a bayberry candle on Christmas morning. When I do, it will warm my soul, it will remind me of my mother-in-law, and it will centre me in what is really important. 

And that, I suspect, will bring me more luck than anything. 

bayberry-nativity

I am out of thyme! A Christmas lament with a happy ending

Empty spice bottle with Thyme label

Weeks ago we coordinated the schedules of six busy family members to find a day that worked for everyone to go to the Cedar Hill Christmas Tree Farm. We set the date for December 14 with visions of bright sun glinting off snow-covered fields and our boots crunching in and around rows of perfect trees. We’d picked the perfect fat tree, we’d return to a big dinner, and we’d make eggnog or mulled wine.

It would be perfect.

Then Saturday morning came along. The sun rose, but we couldn’t see it through heavy cloud.

Misty rain fell.

We’ve been renovating our front hall, so all morning my husband and our neighbour laboured at laying tile, grouting and fixing plumbing. All the clothing, and shoes, and boots, and umbrellas, and hats, and scarves, and toilet paper rolls, and surprising other things that normally reside in our bathroom and front hall closet were scattered all over our home. They mixed in with the boxes containing the new toilet and bathroom vanity in our living room.

Messy living room with a toilet in a box and paint rollers, etc.
Our living room: half Christmas, half renovations

We’re dog sitting, and he got loose and ran through the tile glue, leaving doggy glue prints on some of the new tiles.

dog prints on tile

While all that was going on, I set about making the marinade for the crown roast of pork I planned for dinner. The dry rub recipe called for, among other things, thyme. I opened my spice drawer and pulled out the bottle. Empty.

“I’m out of thyme!” I called out.

My husband, panicked, appeared at the kitchen door. “For what?”

I held up the empty bottle, and we both fell apart laughing.

Christmas tree farm in the rain
Not the weather we would have picked for our Christmas Tree excursion.

The six of us trooped through increasingly heavy rainfall. We found a tree that wasn’t quite as fat as we like, but was lovely nonetheless. We made the annual stop at the Pakenham General Store and enjoyed their amazing baked goods. (Date squares for me. A perfect ratio of oatmeal to date filling.) The crown roast was delicious—even without the thyme—and the boys made eggnog and played guitar, and all was well.

Not perfect, but well.

Thyme-less and well.

Pot with homemade egg
Homemade eggnog

Life well lived: A nail of gold

Into God’s temple of eternity,
Drive a nail of gold.

—The father of Raymond Moriyama, found in his book In Search of a Soul

Raymond Moriyama is the Japanese-Canadian architect behind the Canadian War Museum.

During the Second World War, his family was sent to an internment camp in British Columbia. But his father was separated from them and sent to a POW camp in Ontario. The family was eventually reunited and when Moriyama graduated from high school, his father gave him a hand scripted copy of the quote above.

The words have been popping into my head in recent weeks. Perhaps Remembrance Day prompted that, because one of Moriyama’s war museum design features was a shaft of light that shines on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at 11:00 a.m. on November 11.

The inspirational quote makes me want to get off my couch. It makes me try that little bit harder to finish whatever I’m doing to its fullest extent.

To make whatever I’m doing a little bit shinier.

Roots Part II: To grey, or not to grey

If you were to walk up to a group of women in their forties and fifties and say “Roots” out of context, the first thought of many, if not all, would be hair.

They wouldn’t think about tree roots snaking out through soil in search of nourishment, and they wouldn’t start pondering family ancestry. They’d wonder if they left it too long between dye jobs.

For the past year I have been transitioning from dyed hair to natural, and it has been an en-lightening (pun intended) process. For women, there is little middle ground on this topic. Most fall at one of two extreme opposite ends of a spectrum.

  • Abject Horror: “What? You’re going natural? (They step back as if it’s contagious.) Don’t do that! It will age you horribly. I am never going grey.”
  • Militant Support: “Good for you! (They thrust a victorious arm in the air.) I don’t understand why women ever colour their hair. Natural hair colour is an act of resistance against societal beauty norms for women. You will never regret this.”

Considering there are such extreme opinions on this, I myself was quite ambivalent. In the end though, I made my final decision instantaneously as a result of one story told to me by a friend.

She told me about a woman she knew who, on her deathbed, reached out to family to implore that they make sure she had no roots showing when she was laid out in her coffin.

I thought, “God, when I’m on my deathbed, the very last thing I want to be thinking about is my roots.”

And, we never really know when that deathbed might arrive, right? It might come sooner than I expect. And, even if it doesn’t, I’m 57, so statistically I’ve got 25 or 30 more years left. How much of that time do I want to spend thinking about my roots? Surely, there are more important and interesting things for me to think about than that.

“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”

from Desiderata

Don’t get me wrong. I grieve for my former dark hair. I have thick, wavy hair, and when it was my natural, lustrous dark brown, I loved it. I was vain about it, in fact. I have never wanted to be blonde, ever.

BUT, grief is no reason to avoid action. I decided to follow the advice of Desiderata and take kindly the counsel of the years and surrender gracefully the things of youth.

Arlene Somerton Smith
On my way to full silver and loving it

On my recent hiking trip I met many silver-haired women who were striding confidently on steep hiking paths, enjoying the spectacular views, and not spending one second of their time thinking about roots.

In the time I have left, however long that might be, I want to stride confidently on the steeps, enjoy the views, and let my mind whir and spin with how to make the world a better place.

This aging thing is a blessing, every day.

Arlene Somerton Smith silhouetted against glaciers and the sky on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, Lake Louise, Alberta
Enjoying the view on the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail, Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada