Saturday, 20 October 2018

On the one hand...

I am sitting in the dining room, sipping my coffee, and looking out at beauty. The sun is shining brightly in a clear blue sky, the blueberry bush and the dogwood are clad in red leaves, late blooming flowers add their splashes of colour. A walk in the woods stuns all the senses -- just heavenly! All is well with the world.

But honestly? Not really. All is not well in the world. The news I read is full of awful stories, stories that horrify me and make me worry about the future. We are having an election here in the valley, and people are lined up against each other on issues, neighbours and friends on different sides of the table. Closer to home, people I love are struggling with difficult personal issues and I feel helpless.

And the truth is, I'm having a few struggles myself. This carpal tunnel hand thing is bothering me way more than it should. After all, it's just a hand, not a brain tumor, not dementia, not a stroke. Once the hand surgeon has his way with me in a few weeks, I have it on good authority from many people who have gone through this themselves, that this episode will soon just be a bad memory. I'll be able to return to my studio and have the freedom to be creative. This lethargy I feel right now will be banished.

If I am honest with myself – honesty not always being an easy thing -- I am disappointed in myself. Where’s that victorious upbeat mindset that will overcome all obstacles, that positive thinking vibe I’m always wishing other people would adopt?

I'd like my blog to be about the sunshine, the blue skies, beautiful colors in nature, but the words just aren't coming.

I get this far, then reread what I have written. Where on earth are you going with this whining, I ask myself. Sigh. There’s another blog post for the recycle bin, the second one this week. I'm not getting anything right. I’m stuck like a hamster in a revolving wheel, going nowhere fast.

Then I pick up my current reading, a book by Parker Palmer, called “On the Brink of Everything,” subtitled Grace, Gravity and Getting Old.

Right up my alley and just what I need... NOT. In my current mood I'd rather be reading a comic book, something that makes me laugh. But Palmer, a writer I love, has a lot of wisdom to share, and once again, he points me in the right direction. Palmer has had his ups and downs, and he shares them honestly in all his writing. He has gone through several clinical depressions, and for every book he's written, there are thousands of pages on the cutting room floor, and thousands of hours of being stuck. A pacifist Quaker by spiritual persuasion, he finds himself angry and vindictive at times. One of the chapters in this book is called “What's an Angry Quaker to Do?” How do you deal  with these not-so-acceptable feelings?

With his help, I realize that my sense of the beauty and wellness in this world is not incompatible with the feelings of sadness and helplessness. We cannot always be looking to feel good, if that means that we deny our sadness. I believe more and more as I grow older that we do not live in a this-or-that, black-or-white, left-or-right world. Instead, we live in a world that is characterized by “and also.” Joy, and also sadness. Faith and also hope. An uplifting sense of God's nearness, and also at times a despairing sense God's absence. We have a light side AND also a shadow side. When we do not acknowledge and accept this, we are constantly fighting what we cannot change. So much energy that could be used in good ways is squandered in useless battles.

On the one hand... in my case, the good left hand... there's everything we strive for and hope for, that give joy. On the other hand... in my case, the painful right hand... there's everything difficult and frustrating and sad. Accepting this is how we find our way to peace. It is in the darkness that we see the light.

Howard Thurman, author, educator, and civil rights leader, says it this way: “All around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit.Such is the growing edge! This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of the child—life’s most dramatic answer to death—this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!”

The fact of the matter is, we go through life with both hands working together. As I’ve learned in the last few months, one doesn’t work nearly as well without the other. Finding the place where you can continue to grow, thrive and bless the world with your gifts depends on saying yes to it all, the whole ball of wax.

And thank God, we find other hands to hold, other hands to support us. We're standing together, as Parker Palmer says, "...on the brink of everything."

Palmer and musician Carrie Newcomer are working together this year in a series of retreats and talks. Find out more at  And listen to this inspiring song inspired by the book at

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Life on the Left

These days, in effect, I've lost half of my digits. The carpal tunnel problem has not gone away, and so my right hand is encased in a rigid splint. This means that I am finding out how to look at life from the left. And I'm not talking politically!

I have learned, that you can do a Sudoku with your left hand. I have learned that you can chop veggies -- slowly it's true – with your left hand. You can use your left hand to turn the car key if you stick your hand through the steering wheel. You can even brush your teeth with your left hand. And I am “writing” this blog with voice recognition software!

This whole experience has left me feeling connected to my grandfather.

What can I say about my grandfather? He was a school teacher and a principal, an elder in his church, a father of 10. But those are just statistics and facts.

I am the oldest grandchild and so perhaps I should have had the most memories of him. But because my parents immigrated to Canada when I was only a year old, I didn't get to meet him till my grandparents came to Canada to visit when I was in 9th grade, in 1962. However, with every birthday, I would get a letter, or at least a few lines of a letter, wishing me God's blessings. He was a deeply faith-filled man, and he shared this with all of his grandchildren, not only in words but also in deeds.

When I was born, my grandmother wanted to be known as Oma, a less formal name than the formal Grootmoeder. Not so my grandfather, who was known to all his grandchildren as Grootvader. It seemed to suit his dignified and quietly-authoritative demeanor. In the same way, he was known around town as “de Meester” – the master.

When Grootvader and Oma came to Canada for a visit in 1962, it was a big event. Grootvader had to get used to a different lifestyle. Life in Canada was much less formal, more casual. I really do wonder what he wrote in his journal about the way his children and grandchildren were living in this rather rugged country.

 One hobby my grandfather had was to make sketches of places where he visited. He had just retired, and was looking forward to spending more time with his hobby. He took a kitchen chair across the road and did a drawing of our home on Russell Street. I was in awe of his skills.

We were eager to show him everything Canada had to offer, so we decided to organize a family picnic at Pinehurst Lake. It was pretty exciting for all of us! Camp stoves to fry up hamburgers, with relish, ketchup and mustard, oh wow! Potato salad! And carrot and celery sticks... Grootvader took one bite of the celery and tossed it over his shoulder. He wasn't going to eat any rabbit food. There were games too. There was a race between two men to see who could diaper a baby doll the quickest. In spite of having 10 children, Grootvader had never once changed a diaper! It was quite the laugh to see him standing the baby on its head while he gamely tried to pin a diaper on it!

We decided to show him camping Canadian Style. Grootvader had always enjoyed camping on the  island of Vlieland with his large family. Mom often talked about these summer vacations, but really the vacation was for Grootvader and not so much for anybody else! Can you imagine bundling up enough provisions, bedding, clothing, tent etc for a large and growing family? Mom said that it was quite an undertaking for Oma and the oldest children. Meanwhile, as soon as he arrived,  Grootvader took his sketching stool and equipment and headed out to engage in his favorite activity.

 My uncle  rented a “trailer.” The trailer was not much more than an aluminum box on wheels. The back wall lifted up and was propped up on sticks to create an awning when we were set up. Inside were double bunk beds. My sister, my cousin and I slept on the top bunk. My grandfather and grandmother slept on the bottom bunk. Of course the back wall came down at night, so that the mosquitoes wouldn't infest our stifling sleeping quarters. My aunt and uncle slept in a tent. Grootvader was not so excited about the sleeping arrangements. He was sure that in the middle of the night that top bunk would fall down on top of him, so he jury-rigged posts to hold the bunk in place. My uncle Rudolph made sure we visited the best fishing holes in Northern Ontario, some of which were pretty remote and off the beaten path. That was not a big problem for my grandfather, he would get out his little stool and his sketch pads and draw what he saw. I'm not sure what my aunt and my grandmother thought about roughing it in the bush.

In 1969, my sister and I made a trip to Holland to meet many aunts and uncles, cousins, my grandfather on my dad's side, and of course Grootvader and Oma.  Grootvader was very excited about us coming, and although we were not due to arrive until after lunch he spent most of the morning sitting on the wall in front of the house, looking out for the car that would bring his precious grandchildren to him.

During that trip, he took us to the cemetery where his first wife and his son were buried. He told us about these events, and expressed his deep faith that he would see them again.

Now you may wonder why my carpal tunnel syndrome makes me feel closer to my grandfather. In 1972, my grandfather had a stroke. It paralyzed his right side, the side he used to do his writing and his sketching. These were such important activities in his life. As often happens after a stroke.,Grootvader  went through a time of depression, wondering what good his life was now. Then one day, a man in the next bed at the hospital asked him if there was anything he could do to help him. So father asked him to read a passage from the Bible. His roommate replied that he never read the Bible himself, but sure, he would read him a passage. At that moment, Grootvader realized that he could still have an impact on other people. He went to rehab, and learned how to use his left hand to type and to create art. Until he died, he sent many letters to his children and grandchildren, and he also made a piece of art for each of them. The piece of art which I have hanging on my wall is a reminder of him.  Setbacks and obstacles are not optional in our lives. Everyone encounters them. But how you deal with them is your choice.

As I laboriously print my numbers in the Sudoku grid, I think about the phrase common in Buddhism called "beginner's mind." According to the Wikipedia, beginner's mind refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. With a beginner's mind, almost anything is possible. When Grootvader adapted to our life in Canada, and when he  learned how to type and draw with his left hand, he had to adopt a beginner's mind. He had to start all over again. And he did.

It's Thanksgiving weekend, and I am grateful for having role models in my life and in my family that are examples for all of us.