2016: Those Moments

Ah, New Year’s Eve, that date filled with both remnants of the past year and glimmers of hope for the one yet to come; an arbitrary dividing line we devised ourselves, and yet cling to as if it is written in the stars.

It has been interesting to watch as the end of 2016 approached, as there has been an outpouring of emotion against one set of twelve months that began on January 1 and ends tonight. There have been various reasons for this angst, those anxious to usher 2016 out the door and welcome 2017, and equally as interesting has been the reaction of those who have tried to convince those who declare 2016 an “annus horriblis” that it actually wasn’t a bad year at all.

The thing we seem to forget is that no one lived 2016 like we did. We each have our own experience of this period of time, those moments each as unique as we are, and no experience is exactly similar. The truism of this was brought home to me when 88,000 people evacuated the same city due to the same natural disaster and not one had the same experience.

Just as in that experience, our experience of the past year is unique to us, and no one can tell us whether it was a “good” or “bad” year – it was, after all, 366 days (being a leap year) of our experiences, not theirs.

We have a tendency to tell people how they “should” feel. And the mantra is often: Don’t be sad, don’t be angry, don’t be, heaven forbid, negative. Be happy, be positive – always!

I know the hazard of this approach very well, as after my mother’s unexpected death I denied myself the opportunity to grieve, only to discover grief would then manifest itself as a physical illness that led to months of medical visits, procedures and anxiety, until I finally learned all I needed to do to heal was to allow myself to feel what I needed to feel.

I am so very happy for those who had wonderful years in 2016; for myself, when a friend challenged me to rate it – was it 60/40 good vs bad, 70/30, 50/50? All I could respond is that it was a blur, an entire year in which so much happened both good and bad and happy and sad and entirely unexpected that it makes my chest tighten just thinking about it.

Nobody was with me when I stood in a field and watched my city burning, and nobody was in my car with me when I lived as a nomad for a month, just a travelling band of three confused but committed felines who, through the experience, have bonded to me like glue and can now be found within inches of me at all times.

Nobody but my daughter knows the words I said to her on the phone as I stood in that field, those moments when I was calculating my own odds of survival, and, for the very first time in five decades of life, realized they may be lower than I would like.

Nobody knows how I felt when I was finally reunited with her a couple of days later, my physical survival now ensured but my emotional compass spinning wildly as I began to comprehend what had happened to me and the community I have come to love.

Nobody was in my head for all the other moments, the highs and the lows, the laughs and the tears. Even if they were present, right there beside me, their experience differed from my own.

2016 was my year. And it was your year too.

However you feel about it – happy, sad or indifferent, you are entitled to feel it, regardless of what factors led you to develop those sentiments towards it.

I learned a lesson long ago when my mother died. I will never deny how I feel about anything and try to push those feelings down in order to feel the way others feel or think I should feel; they are not me, and I am not them. I will not tell them how they should feel, because their experience is theirs alone, and I am in no position to judge because I have not lived their lives.

And how do I feel about 2016 in the end? It was not the worst year of my life; it was not the best. It was a year filled with those moments, so many emotions that it would be difficult to capture in something as simple as calling it “good” or “bad”.

It was, in my lifetime, utterly unique, and for that reason alone I find myself strangely grateful to have lived it, because life is about experience, and 2016 was, barring all else, one helluva ride.

As 2017 looms large, I look ahead with optimism, because that is what I do and who I am, the eternal optimist; and I reflect on the past twelve months – 527, 040 minutes – with respect, with reverence, with joy, with sorrow, with happiness, with sadness and with immense gratitude that I was here to live them.

In 2016, one of my favourite Canadian bands played their final concerts. The lead singer, someone I have adored since adolescence, chose to cease performing due to the early onset dementia he suffers. Watching that concert vicariously through friends who were there was another one of those moments in 2016 when the emotions could just not be captured in one word. The band also happens to be responsible for my favourite New Year’s song, a bit dark and irreverent, and yet brimming with enthusiasm and somehow joyful, too.

Your new year will not be defined by this New Year’s Eve, or January 1. There is another entire year ahead, and it too will be filled with those moments – own every one of them, whether they are happy or sad or both of those and everything in between.

Because those moments, my friends? Those moments are life.

Happy New Year – and welcome, 2017. I stand ready for your moments.

Target Fixation: License to Drive

I got my driver’s license at the age of 33.

That’s one of those bits of information about myself that I tend to hold onto for those “ice breaker” moments at meetings when you are asked to share your name, role and “something nobody would know about you”. It’s innocuous, it’s mildly interesting, and it’s a bit unusual, so it works well in those settings and has stood me in good stead more than once.

One of the things I don’t always share in those moments is that I also took Driver’s Education – for the second time in my life – at the age of 33. Having done it before at the age of 15, but never following through with that whole pesky “getting a license” business, I thought it was wise to do a refresher course in driving with the driving instructor in the very small town I lived in at that time.

My driving instructor was undoubtedly more accustomed to younger pupils. He had abundant patience though, and lessons were going fairly well until one day, for about the fifth time, I found myself veering towards a large wooden bear-proof garbage bin while he yelled “brake, brake” before I could smash it into matchsticks.

There we were, stopped just shy of a garbage bin, when he mopped his brow and glared at me with frustration, the first time I had seen that expression on his face.

“Do you know what your problem is?”, he finally asked. “You don’t look where you want to go.”

I spluttered indignantly for a moment, astonished at this revelation. Of course I was looking where I wanted to go. The fact that I was steering towards the garbage bin (again) was just a freak coincidence, not evidence that I was in some way distracted or worse, looking at that garbage bin and allowing it to become my focal point.

He listened to my attempts at defense, and then said: “The truth, Theresa, is that you will steer towards what you are looking at. If it’s straight ahead, you will go straight. If it’s to the side, you will veer that way. And if it is towards a garbage bin, then you will head right for it.”

Look where you want to go.

It’s called “target fixation”, an actual phenomenon in which we will steer towards what we look at, and it took me until I was 33 and learning to drive to truly understand it.

A few weeks later, both to his intense relief and mine, I passed my driving test, without once hitting a garbage bin and having learned a powerful lesson about driving.

The reality, of course, is that my driving instuctor had given me good advice on both steering my car, and steering my life.

Perhaps this year, during times of challenge and uncertainty, this thoughtful advice has given me more direction than ever before. And I think it is sound advice not only for us as individuals, but for organizations, governments and communities.

Where do you want to go? Do you want to live in the past, enmeshed by the events of the last few months, or do you want to move into the future? Do you want to spend precious time breaking down the could-haves, should-haves, would-haves and rolling them around in your head, or do you want to explore what the future could hold?

It is your choice, and yours alone. And where you look will undoubtedly direct where you will go.

If you look into the past, there is a terrible chance you will end up mired there, unable to move ahead. If you allow yourself to be distracted by the endless side shows that exist in our world, the incessant “hey-lookit-me’s” then you will find yourself headed towards them and steering off your path.

But if you truly want to steer into the future – to move on and to move ahead – then you must focus on it, and look to where you want to go.

It’s a pretty simple concept, but it’s one we quickly forget when it comes to our lives, even if we practice it daily when we drive. We find ourselves looking in directions we don’t really want to go, and almost against our will we find ourselves steering towards them, not even understanding why we are heading that way.

And it is because we have chosen to look in their direction, into the past behind us or the dead-ends or the paths meandering far away from where we actually want to be. It is normal and it is natural and it happens to all of us from time to time, because we forget that in the end, 100 percent of the time, we will steer towards the direction we look.

Life goals, employment goals, community goals; all of these can be attained by simply holding fast to our course and looking towards them. As soon as we look towards the garbage bins of hopelessness, negativity, anger, frustration and despair, we will head right for them.

If we are lucky, we hit the brake before we hit them. If we are not, we collide with them, and the trick becomes steering our way out of them.

I wonder if my driving instructor ever realized that those words, meant to help a 33-year old woman finally get a driver’s license, held far more significance than simple driving advice.

It was sound advice for driving a car – and a life. And it’s sound advice as we move from a year of challenges into another year that will undoubtedly hold new challenges, too. If we continue to look where we want to go, we will steer towards it and one day find ourselves at the destination we have chosen.

Or we can end up in the garbage bins, surrounded by a place we didn’t want to go and unsure how we ended up there in the first place.

The choice is ours. You hold the driver’s license.

Now look where you want to go. 

And hit the gas.

Dear 2016

Dear 2016,

There are people in this world who think the universe conspires to create events to teach us lessons. According to this train of thought, things happen because we are meant to learn from them, and to somehow in the end become better and wiser people.

So my question today, 2016, is what the hell have you been trying to teach us?

Were you trying to teach us that our time is finite and that death comes even for the greats, like Bowie and Prince and Cohen and all the others you took from us this year?

Got it.

Were you trying to each us through the tragic loss of a far-too-young firefighter and local hero that life is short and we never know when it may end, and to make the most of every minute?

Got it.

Were you trying to teach us that life can change on a dime, and one beautiful sunny day can turn into one that ends in smoke and flames and heartbreak?

We got it, 2016.

We fucking got it, okay?

But when you struck down a small local child with cancer, what was the lesson there, exactly?

And how about when you stole the lives of two young adults as they fled a wildfire?

2016, you kicked our ass. You knocked us to the ground, let us get up, and then knocked us down again, over and over and over.

I don’t think you were teaching us a thing.

I think the only lesson one could find here is that life is random and painful and cruel.

And yet it is still somehow incredible and wonderful and a tremendous gift.

With every single ass-kicking you handed out, there have been moments that reminded me that despite the fragility, despite the pain, despite the sorrow and despite the agony, there is beauty and kindness.

And hope.

It is amazing that despite all of the “lessons” listed above, what has struck me most in this past year is hope.

Hope that things will get better, hope for the future and hope for our community.

How has that happened?

Because none of this, 2016, was about lessons. It was about life, this tenuous journey we all find ourselves on, winding down paths and none of us knowing where they will lead.

It is about the best laid plans going astray, about how things you think you know turn out to be wrong and about how life will always, in the end, surprise you.

Sometimes, the surprises are terrible ones, the kind of surprise where you want to close the box, tape it back up and return it to the sender as 1) unclaimed, 2) unwanted and 3) unbelievable. But on occasion, even during the midst of the terrible surprises, are such kind and gentle moments that you are reminded of all that makes this world a good place.







And hope.

I keep coming back to hope, 2016, as we come to the close of this year. And I know that January 1 is an arbitrary line and there is a chance 2017 will be every bit as difficult as 2016, except for one thing.

2016, you taught me to hold on to hope, because sometimes, hope is all there is.

Hope isn’t always found in things turning out the way you wanted or expected, though. Hope is discovering that no matter what happens, there are people who will be there for you. Hope is discovering that those around you won’t give up and realizing their tenacity fuels yours.

2016, if you taught me ANYTHING it’s that the universe does not conspire to teach us lessons. Life is just something that happens, and we learn along the way.

And if we stop long enough to take a breath, we learn to hope.

I was ready to kick you to the curb, 2016, to say “screw you” as you ended. But now, instead, I find myself reflecting on the past year and focusing not on the moments of flames and smoke and sadness and sorrow but instead on the moments when my heart lifted and I felt hope.

The moment I listed to a David Bowie song and felt joy that he had been on this earth at all to share his talent with us.

The moment I thought about how an entire community became an army, united because of one young man and his battle with cancer.

The moment I saw a small child with cancer smile as she played with stickers donated by strangers from across the country.

The moment I reconsidered dog-earing the page of a book I was reading, because of the memory of a young adult who loved books and who left us far too soon.

The moment I drove under an overpass on which stood the firefighters who fought the flames.

The moment I came back to my community for the first time in a month, and wept with both tears of sadness and relief, finally able to return to the place that has been my home for the past sixteen years.

The moment when I walked into my house after a month away and felt simple overwhelming gratitude.

I have been lucky, 2016, so much more fortunate than so many others; but it is in their courage and determination that I truly began to understand the nature of hope.

2016, you didn’t teach me a damn thing. Every lesson I learned this year was taught not by a tumultuous, topsy-turvy, stomach churning year, but by the people around me. And I am grateful.

This year, just one day before returning to the community I have chosen as home after a month filled with uncertainty, I turned 50. And instead of the things one might think one would feel at that landmark – disbelief at reaching half a century, the sense of your own mortality creeping up on you, wondering what the remaining years would bring – I felt pure and simple joy.

And hope. Hope found in the fact that I was here at all after 50 years, hope that the future would bring good things, and most of all hope that I could be part of making the world a better place, in whatever way I could manage.

So, 2016, you might have tried to break us, but you didn’t. Perhaps you tried to crush us under the weight of it all, but you failed. You see, no matter how dark the night, no matter how thick the smoke and no matter how bright the flames, there is hope.

Dear 2016, thank you for reminding me about the nature of hope. If there was one thing maybe I needed to learn this year, perhaps that was it; and so in the end maybe you did teach me one important lesson after all.

You taught me that hope changes everything.



I Believe

I still believe.

It’s over 40 years later, and I still believe in the magic of Christmas.

I was not raised believing in Santa Claus. From some recent comments I read online, apparently this should translate into me feeling I was deprived as a child, robbed of the magical spirit of Christmas and decrying my parents for their treachery in not allowing me this belief. And yet Christmas is my favourite holiday, and every year I feel the same sense of awe and wonder I did as a child.

And it has nothing to do with Santa.

My parents, being German-Canadian, celebrated Christmas on December 24. Christmas Eve was a night that began with a huge traditional family meal, followed by carols, the reading of the story of Jesus’ birth, the opening of gifts and then a trek to midnight mass, followed by yet another small meal (did I mention the German part?).

December 25 was a day spent with family and friends, eating, visiting, playing cards and games, reading books and enjoying the simple pleasures of the day. There were no reindeer hoofprints, no fat men in red suits, no chimneys, and on my part no sense of disappointment because for me Santa was just a lovely story.

And while my family was Catholic we were not what I would consider incredibly devout, so that wasn’t the reason for the absence of Santa. It had more to do with how my parents were raised, and their parents before them.

Christmas gifts came from the people around you, who may have scrimped and saved to deliver them. They likely agonized over the perfect gifts, and they were the ones who wrapped them and placed them under the tree. If anything, knowing this made them all the more special, because the gifts I received were directly from those I loved.

I guess there are those who think the magic of Christmas is only found for children within the magic of Santa, the excitement and the anticipation; and yet for me the magic was in my family.

  • The Christmas dinner my mother lovingly prepared, far more food than any family could ever consume in one sitting and leading to the necessity of two fridges in their home to hold leftovers alone.
  • The way my father would always find the homeliest, saddest and most misshapen tree on the Christmas tree lot and bring it home, introducing me to the concept of the Charlie Brown tree long before television did
  • How my dad would pull out his accordion, a massive black and silver beast that so very few people can master, and begin to play carols.
  • The sounds of my parents’ voices as they sung Silent Night, not in English but in their native German, the language that had both spoken until they went to school as children.
  • The bowls of mandarin oranges that would be passed around several times, leading to orange over-consumption and no interest in that particular fruit for the rest of the year.
  • The way my parents welcomed in “strays” – people who had nowhere to go for Christmas, far from friends and family of their own. This is actually how I learned about multicultural diversity, as our guests could be from anywhere in the world, but our home was their home at Christmas.
  • Doing the dishes – by hand! – after that massive meal before we could get to the presents, leading to everyone helping as it made the work go so much faster and the presents arrive sooner.
  • Midnight mass, the one time of year when going to church actually seemed beautiful to me and when it reflected the peace, joy and love of the season.

And yes, the presents.

As I reflected recently on those childhood Christmases I recalled the year I found a large box under the tree. I must have been around 7, and in that box was a toy that would entertain not only me but entire future generations of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

My Fisher Price Play Family Castle was not from Santa. It was from my dad, with his rough and worn working hands, and my mom, who often was found with a bit of flour on her face from baking bread for her family. This gift and those Christmases burn brightly in my memory not because of Santa, and not because of a lack of magic, but because my parents were the true embodiment of the season: kindness, joy, peace, love and family.

The singing of Silent Night in German still makes me weep, especially since it has been almost a decade since either of my parents were alive to sing it.

Mandarin oranges still make me smile, and I can still eat a dozen in one sitting.

I have an inordinate fondness for real Christmas trees that are far from perfect specimens, and I still own my dad’s accordion, even though I cannot play it and just take it out once in a while to touch the smooth keys.

Sometimes, even though I am far from religious, I still go to midnight mass and let the feelings of peace wash over me.

And this year I went online and found a vintage 1974 Fisher Price Play Family Castle, which is now on its way to me as a reminder of all those Christmases so long ago.

It may seem an unusual nativity scene, and yet I know it is destined to become part of my Christmas decorating tradition, taking me back to my childhood and a time that lives on forever in my memory, but mostly in my heart.

Because that is where the magic truly is; deep in my heart and intertwined with memories of my mother, my father and Christmases long past.