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The Last Word

I was finishing up with some piano students when I received the news of the death of a friend’s husband. He was 48 years old, with two young daughters, and appears to have died in a freak accident at home. Suddenly all the thoughts of the day – to-do lists, student concerns, home renovations, what to make for dinner – were swept away by the surge to which everything else always yields: the news of death.

We post-modern humanoids have a bizarre relationship with Death. It sits there in the corner of our mind’s living room, not saying much. (Thanks to Don Everts’ book The Dirty Beggar Living in my Head for this idea.) We all know it’s there, although we wish it weren’t. Some of the brightest and wealthiest among us have devoted much time and money to try to show Death the door, but deep down we know that it’s not going to happen. Carbon-based life cannot live forever. Death, that quiet intruder sitting in the corner, will always strong-arm its way in, regardless of how much money we have, how smart we are, how well we live, or how many essential oils we consume.

We all know this. Humanity has known this since the beginning. It’s just that now we have become experts at diversion. We are awesome at distracting ourselves from facing the only real certainty in our lives (the one not even the relativist can bend): the absolute fact that our heart will stop beating and we will return to the dust from which we were made.

We begin with actual words, preferring the term “passing” over that other ugly word. Since few people ever come back (and we don’t really know what to do with those who claim to have done so), we create narratives about it, hoping these ideas will present some form of protection when we are forced to face death. Even staunch materialists are willing to step outside of their stated belief that matter is all that exists, and embrace the idea that somehow the spirit lives on in the universe. It’s just too horrible to think that the person we love is gone forever; it makes it a bit easier to believe that their spirit lives on somewhere (over the rainbow).

It’s really not that far off from the archaic belief once held by uneducated people (who allegedly believed anything they were told to believe) that death is only the beginning of a new life lived on in another dimension. Even today, in a time when the educated masses allegedly never believe what they’re told to believe, few people are able to believe their child simply ceases to exist when it is taken too early by cancer. When Death stands up in the living room of our minds and asserts itself, none of those other shrill voices are prepared to truly argue with absolute certainty that there is nothing beyond that door. In times of raw emotion we all wish that the redemptive narrative were true, that we can tell our children that heaven is real and that they can rest in the certainty of seeing their loved one again.

I’ve read enough to hear the clinical voice of Academia calmly explain that these narratives are coping strategies that we create. The accounts of people having experienced Glory (or that terrifying other place)are merely chemical reactions in the dying brain to make dying easier (which isn’t so true for those who claim to have been to that terrifying other place). Even if this were true, I’m not sure why time+chance+matter would care about the dying process, and should have evolved to make it easier for us, lumps of matter that we are. What is more, I’m really not sure why the speculation of these lab-coat types should carry any more weight than anybody else’s opinion, because it’s pretty hard to design an experiment to test the hypothesis. Like I said, not too many test subjects would return from the other side. I’d rather believe my saintly grandmother who, after having returned from her first death, asked her weeping and praying children why they hadn’t just left her there. It was so much better than here.

In the end, we’re all going on faith when it comes to the question of what happens after death. It’s the biggest wager for every human being on earth.

We have a child with a genetically inherited disease that severely limits his vision. Not only has he been severely myopic since birth (his vision was 20/200 even as a baby), he also has a malformation of the cells across both retinas, and another condition where his eyes shake, further reducing his visual acuity. There is no treatment for his condition, and glasses can only correct the myopia. He is fortunate, because he can see enough to function independently, but he has to work harder at everything, and some things are just impossible for him to see.

Caleb is now 7 years old. He has never known clear vision. He lives in a fog all the time. The only way he can see his score when we’re bowling is for us to take a picture of it and enlarge it for him on the screen. He cannot recognize me across the playground unless he remembers which colours I was wearing that morning. He has trouble finding his friends at recess unless they come up to him and ask him to play. Because of one of his conditions, he has to tilt his head to one side severely to focus on anything, so he has to do daily neck exercises to make sure that his neck develops normally. He trips and falls easily, and cannot see a ball that’s been thrown to him until the last minute. He also cannot see the stars at night.

Caleb loves to talk about heaven. He usually ends up crying, because he is so overcome with what he imagines heaven will be like. He asks me questions about it all the time, and claims to have seen the sky part just a bit to reveal a slice of it to him (it was the moon peeking through some clouds). He doesn’t want to die, but his ardent wish is to go to heaven, preferably sooner rather than later. One night when he was telling me about this he said, “I can’t wait to go to heaven, because then I can see the stars”.

And then it hit me that for Caleb, heaven holds the promise of completeness that most of us feel we can somehow achieve here on earth. In his childlike mind, he’s picturing an all-expenses-paid elevator ride up through the cosmos, holding Jesus’ hand, and being able to reach out and touch one of those suckers. What his mama knows is that he has no hope of ever seeing the stars for himself until he is given new and perfect eyes, which I have faith will happen when he winds up in that place where every tear will be wiped away, every wrong will be made right, and as Frodo Baggins says, everything bad will come untrue. This is not a coping strategy – this is where I have placed my wager for eternity.

Perhaps this is why Death has been ordained to stay in the living room of our minds. It reminds us to place our bet, because we don’t have the choice whether to enter a wager or not. Everything that matters is on the line. Death reminds us in no uncertain terms that we are but dust, that the completeness we hope for will never be found on this side, so we might as well stop working so hard for it. Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Where have you placed your wager?

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Mothers and Sons

For better or for worse, kids take after their parents. It’s part of the design of the institution. Parents contribute the genetic material and the environment, and, by and large, their kids will become easily recognizable by outsiders as being a member of that family.

Usually when I see my kids exhibiting my character traits and behaviours, it’s the bad ones that stick out, and I find myself cringing under the knowledge that I’ve contributed both my nature and my nurture to what I’m seeing. Yesterday, however, I had to laugh hysterically as I sat across the table from my little doppelganger.

The grade 3 curriculum focusses heavily on narrative writing at this stage of the year, and so we have watched our son‘s creativity unfold in some pretty wild, imaginative stories. Currently Teddy is devouring C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia together with his father, so he has been inspired to write fantasy stories. His teacher is impressed by his imagination, but not so impressed by his lack of brevity. Every day he starts a new story in school, but all of them lie unfinished in his work basket because he runs out of time to put all his ideas on paper.

Still, his teacher recognizes his writing ability, and pairs him up with students who are weaker in this department, hoping that they might glean a thing or two from his fertile imagination. Predictably, he’s the one doing the work while his partner is content to apply herself to other unrelated pursuits. (At this point I must interject and concur with the writer of Ecclesiastes: “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever…That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So, there is nothing new under the sun… smart kids will always do the work of slackers, and teachers will always think it’s a good idea to pair them up in a vain attempt at peer improvement . If this was true for your mother’s generation, it will be true for yours.” [1:4 & 9, amplified somewhat])

But I digress. Teddy enjoys and excels at writing, and so I was surprised when he expressed his dread at the writing requirement of the upcoming Province-wide Standardized Test, the EQAO.

“Mom, we have to write a one-page narrative on our EQAO test!”

“Oh Teddy, that’s a piece of cake,” I answered. “That’ll be no problem for you.”

“Mom,” (with that lilt in his voice that develops around age 6 and indicates that your kid has figured out that sometimes you’re just plain dense) “you don’t understand. When I write, I write six pages, not one. That’s impossible!”

There are times in my life as a parent when I shake my head because I just can’t understand my kid. Then there are times when I’m pretty sure my kid was cloned, because it could be me sitting there in that little body expressing those same frustrations about word counts and limits on literary creativity. I looked over at my husband, who is nothing like our son in this respect, and who just could not wipe the grin off his face. “What?” I said in in our defence, “There are just so many good words out there that it’s hard to only pick a few.”

That being said, I’d just like to point out that this piece is under 600 words – a personal best for me in my pursuit of brevity.

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Picture Day

This is a school picture of me at age 7. Every time I looked at this picture over the years I asked myself the same question: Did the photographer not notice the hair? Could she not have at least drawn my attention to the fact that I looked like I’d just had an encounter with a bear? Check out the dress, folks. Obviously I was prepared for picture day. The hair was the result of recess, and I would have appreciated the opportunity to set it right before it was captured in all its disheveled glory for posterity.

I know how painful a bad school picture can be, especially to the perfectionist control freak. It was with great shock and horror, therefore, that it dawned on me in the middle of the morning while shopping for shirts for our oldest son in Once Upon A Child, that today was Picture Re-take Day, that merciful accommodation of school photographers for those children who a) forgot about Picture Day, b) were absent, c) were cross-eyed in the picture or d) were caught on film picking their nose.

I racked my brain trying to remember what Teddy looked like when I sent him off this morning. I remembered an epic bed-head. I desperately tried to bring to mind what he was wearing, but it just wouldn’t come. Experience has taught me that he gives about as much thought to his clothing as he does to girls, so this could be a disastrous picture. (Note: this is not my kid, but you get the idea)

Thankfully I had four really nice shirts in my hand, so I quickly paid for my purchases, grabbed our youngest son and ran out of the store on my mission to save Teddy’s grade 3 picture. As I raced across town (for yes, I was on the other end of the city) I hoped against hope that his class had not yet been called down to the gym. “At an average of 3 kids per class needing re-takes,” I reasoned, “if they start at Junior Kindergarten, what is the chance that the Grade 3s have not yet been called down by 10:15?” Clearly the odds were stacked against us.

The thought occurred to me that we should have just gone with the original picture. It wasn’t so bad, really, just severe. He was looking at the camera as if to say, “our landfills are filling up, folks, and I don’t see you doing anything about it.” (He is the official garbage sorter of their class – by his own choice. Today he “gets to” stay in at recess to remove the recyclables from the trash and put them in their correct receptacles. Where does he get this stuff?) Still, the severe picture in a nice shirt would have been better than the bed-head and who-knows-what ghastly T-shirt and track pant combo.

I roared into the parking lot, grabbed two sweaters and my now sleeping 36 lb three-year-old and made my way into the school. (By the way, 36 pounds of dead-weight is a lot heavier when you’re in a hurry than when you can take your sweet time). I got to the office, which was empty. I checked in the Principal’s office, which was also empty. The Caretaker is next, a former classmate from high school. “Luke,” I said. “I’ve got a problem. I forgot about Re-take Day, I haven’t brushed Teddy’s hair since the original Picture Day, and his outfit is probably a disaster. Can you help me?”

At this point the music teacher came by, who offered to get Teddy out of class. As she was off getting Teddy, the Secretary came back from the photocopy room and I filled her in on the reason for my visit. Together we figured out that one grade 3 class was already in the gym, but not his. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then they came around the corner: the music teacher and my sweet, smiling boy dressed in a faded grey camouflage T-shirt, poppy-red track pants, and a bed-head that hadn’t settled in the course of the morning. In that moment I knew we had avoided a painful school picture for the next perfectionist control freak in our family.

Together we used water from the fountain to try to tame the unruly hair, and I requested the photographer to crop the bright red pants out of the picture. “Teddy,” I informed my now smartly-dressed son with only mildly unruly hair, “you just pose with your arms crossed and the photographer will take off your pants.” As soon as the words came out I realized that the true meaning had been lost, and the caretaker, secretary, music teacher, and another waiting mother were all in stitches at my slip of the tongue.

Truth be told, of course, we all know that this was about me, the Mom. We Moms care about these things. It’s the reason we show up at school with hairspray and a comb on picture day just to ensure that our offspring will look good in the picture that will grace our mantle for the coming year. We pay attention to the details in our kids’ lives. If we didn’t, who would remember the little things, like bringing cupcakes for the Halloween party or 20 little Candy-grams for all their little friends on Valentines Day?

Actually, I’m not that detail person. I’m quite the opposite. So while other moms made Zombie eye-balls using Oreo Cookie crumbs and cream cheese for their classroom party, I remembered that morning about the party and sent along a bag of chips for one (from Daddy’s secret stash) and a package of store-bought chocolate chip cookies for the other. “Better than nothing,” I assured myself. “I’m doing my part to keep up with the other Moms.”

Apparently not. On the day after Halloween when I picked up our third son from pre-school, I marveled at his large paper bag filled with candy. Upon closer inspection I realized that Caleb was apparently the only child who had not brought little Halloween treat baggies for all his “friends”. Every Mother with a child in that school had assembled little treat baggies for all the other children, stuffing them with erasers, pencils, play dough and sweets, tying them up with a ribbon and name tag, and finally somehow distributing them to all the other children in the class. My only comfort is that some of the bags were anonymous, so they can just assume that one of those was from their “good friend” Caleb.

I have to say though, that the pay-off this morning was the actual picture. The photographer allowed me to stand beside her, and I watched as she tilted his head and adjusted his arms to make the picture just right. His smile wouldn’t really come, so I just reminded him that the photographer was going to take off his pants. Beautiful.

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This is not farewell

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

I recently spent an evening listening to a 90-year-old woman talk. If you’ve never listened to a 90-year-old person talk about his or her life, you really should. Our conversation gave me a lot to think about.

Aunt Susie told me about her life; about her decision to marry a widower with 13-month-old twins instead of pursuing her own dreams, about raising 8 children while working in a nursing home to make ends meet, all the while taking care of a child who was in and out of the hospital. She told me of the pain of losing that son at the age of 18 after 13 years of illness. “I still miss that boy,” she would say. She has buried two husbands. She has housed and nurtured foreign students, been the live-in companion to the developmentally challenged, and adopted the 30 descendants of her deceased sister, in addition to her own large extended family.

Now in her 90’s, she starts her day by praying for each family member by name. There are over 200 people on her list, so this takes a while. People will approach her with personal needs and she prays for them. She calls one friend on a daily basis to pray with her over the phone. Aunt Susie has no idea how her friend’s problem can be solved, but this doesn’t stop her from praying for her. She’s confident that God knows the answer.

She journals. She writes down the minutiae of life: the phone calls she made, what she had for breakfast, which appointment she had at 10:00am. It keeps her mind sharp. I wonder what she would think if I told her that people are doing this on something called the internet for the whole world to see. She would probably think me insane.

She also journals about sermons she’s heard. Helps the teaching to sink in, she says. One would think that someone who spends that kind of time praying and reading her Bible would have no use for the sermons of people 30 to 50 years her junior, but she does.

And finally, Aunt Susie makes cards. Personalized birthday cards for the people in her life, complete with dried flowers arranged on the front and a verse or poem chosen just for them. Sometimes she makes up to six cards a day. She probably uses more stamps in a month than I have in the entire last decade.

Aunt Susie spends her time serving, praying, and counting her blessings. She is blissfully unaware of reality TV, which movies are now playing, what Lady Gaga tweeted about today, or who has posted new photos on facebook. She never has to check her e-mail, pay a cell phone bill, or install a firewall on her computer. What matters in her life are relationships with people and her Lord. That’s it. And I envy her for it.

Having said that, I already hear the rebuttals: “She’s 90 and living in a retirement home where all her needs are met. You’re 32, caring for a young family, networking with people, paying a mortgage, saving for retirement and your kids’ education, and trying to keep your ear to the ground so as not to appear totally stupid in a conversation.”

I get that. And still I envy the simplicity of her life. I envy the peace that emanates from her well-organized mind. I envy the discipline she has developed in her formative years and maintained in her later years. I envy the quiet of her inner being, the attitude of rest in her manner. Her contentment with her situation. The total absence of striving after meaningless things. I cannot help but compare her simple life to the social networking noise, the frenzied pace of technology, the worship of the environment, and the pressure to do it all because you are Woman!

So for this reason (and because it’s gardening season) I have decided to take a hiatus from blogging and unnecessary use of technology. This does not mean I will not return to this place to write down my thoughts in the future. This blog will still exist. But I have decided not to care about how many people follow my blog, or whether they care about what I care about. I have decided that, for now, I’d rather invest my time in training my children and being with my family than writing about it. I’d rather be in my garden than sitting in front of my computer writing about it. I have decided to invest my precious time in the relationships that are right in front of my nose instead of bowing to the pressure to “follow other blogs so that someone will follow yours.” This is the reason I left the juvenile medium known as Twitter, why I can’t be bothered to post statuses on facebook, and why I leave the computer off on evenings and weekends. As far as I’m concerned, this metal box full of chips and wires gobbles up too much time that could be spent doing other useful things – like riding my bike to visit a friend.

To be clear, I am not bringing my laptop to the curb. I rely on it for everything from banking to e-mail communication to running my piano teaching business. With the change of season, however, I am once again putting it in its proper place of servitude, and elevating relationships and real-world, tangible, sensory-stimulating things and activities to their rightful place of importance in my life.

The very first blog post I ever wrote began like this: Technology and I have come to a tenuous agreement: though I hate it and it hates me, neither of us are going away, and so here we are, coexisting in a space called Debbiesblog. (Now creationcarekids) As any shrink will tell you, a relationship where both parties are seeking their own advantage is doomed to failure, and so it is when I attempt to coexist with technology. My dear readers, do not let this temporary separation distress you, however. This is not good-bye, but merely see you later…

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Mrs. Trefz Stays In

Three weeks ago I crossed the border to go shopping in the States. I am a home-sticker, from a long line of home-stickers, so I should know better. (For all the entertaining details on how things went, I invite you to read Mrs. Trefz Steps Out.) Yesterday I decided to do some Christmas shopping right here in the comfort zone of my hometown. The experience was enough to convince me that the grass is not always greener in Niagara Falls, NY. In fact, I doubt whether it’s ever greener than in our fair city.

My plan for the morning was to buy meat at a small downtown butcher shop. Since I arrived in the rain before they opened, I packed the children back into the van and drove through the downtown streets until I reached one of those stores I had always admired from a distance, but never had the occasion to visit.

Niagara Central Hobbies has a wide downtown store front, complete with an awning. I love awnings. They’re reminiscent of quaint European stores that seem to welcome you with a kiss on the right cheek as you walk in. It also helped that the store had a decorative old wooden door with some decoupage around the handle. I had to actually pull on the handle for it to open. Very unlike the pompous lobby of your friendly Big Box store.

The store offered everything an artist or craft-lover would need. I also discovered that they had a fully stocked Thomas the Tank Engine section (complete with a large train table for the children to play at) and an equally large selection of PlayMobile in the basement. Any store that has a basement devoted to PlayMobile and doll houses is my kind of place.

While the children played with Thomas I was able to browse without fear of them running off to the sporting goods section. The music playing in the background was tasteful and quiet, and the staff friendly. I ended up buying two gifts: a $21 PlayMobile set, and a wooden drag racer model complete with an acrylic paint set ($12 total). I don’t care where you’re shopping in the States, once you factor in the cost of driving there and back, spending $33 on two Christmas gifts is not bad.

When Sammy announced that he had to pee, one of the Associates took us downstairs to the “Employees Only” washroom. On our way there we passed the extensive model trains section of the store, went down another set of stairs to a separate basement (full of more model trains) and through a door into a low concrete cellar used for storage. The old brick foundation seemed to be breathing history. I couldn’t help but be grieved at the thought that the bustling Walmarts and Michaels of our day are putting unique shops like this one out of business.

After paying for my purchases I left the store and we headed back to the small butcher shop. Pilgrim’s Drug Free Butcher Shop is possibly one of the best-kept secrets in our city. Their business hours sign proclaims that on Sunday they are open from Gone TO Church. Behind the cash register are several plagues depicting the children the store has sponsored through World Vision. Not a bad business model, if you ask me.

Pilgrim’s offers a wide selection of hormone and antibiotic-free meats at prices that rival grocery stores. Besides that, none of their drum sticks spent any time in a cramped, dark chicken barn, and none of their steaks originated in a feed lot. The meat tastes and feels totally different. The staff there recognize the children and me, and always offer them each a slice of drug-free deli ham. (Sammy has already learned to say “I’m hungry, Mommy!” really loudly upon entering the store.) To top it all off, the fresh meat is packaged minimally in small recyclable plastic baggies without any Styrofoam or messy blood-soaked pads to dispose of. Again, my mind wanders to the extensive Big Box meat sections stocked with chemically-infused meat from sickly animals, and I wonder about the future of Pilgrim’s.

People cite convenience as a factor in where they buy products. I would argue that driving across the border to buy cheap chicken is less convenient than heading 10 minutes into town and buying good, affordable chicken from a local merchant. People also cite cost as being a reason to buy south of the border. Obviously some things are cheaper at a place like Walmart or Target, but at what price to the small merchant attempting to sell quality toys out of a downtown store? I personally would hate to live in the Brave New World where all consumer goods are available only through mammoth retailers who have put all others out of business. Ultimately we the consumer will determine who gets to stay in business by where we spend our money. Are you spending your money in line with your values?

 

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