On saying “NO”

No.

I have always hated saying it to people, especially those who might judge the essence of who I am inaccurately, as a result. Ultimately, it’s always run counter to my character to disappoint.

But this past weekend, I did just that.

I said “no” to someone.

I said “no” to giving more than I could provide.

I stood within the integrity of my initial offer of generosity and refused go beyond it.

I refused to compromise my boundaries or to take time away from my precious family in order please someone else.

And it felt good. Really, really good.

In our current culture that encourages us to say “yes” at all costs, it’s not an easy thing to do, to say “no.” There are books, movies, podcasts, and movements dedicated to inviting, embracing, and devoting ourselves to “yes.”

In fact, I would consider myself a recovering “yes-person,” a pleaser or Obliger. In her recent book, The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin describes an individual of the Obliger tendency as someone who “meets outer expectations, but struggles to meet expectations they put on themselves.” Many of my past decisions have been guided by the following tenant- above all, ensure that people like you.

Whenever I have had to disappoint people, fallen short on another’s expectations of me, or had to draw a line, the decision has weighed heavily on my heart, slipped its way into my dreams, and left me sleeplessly second-guessing my choices. For too long, my decisions could be summed up by someone else’s evaluation of them. In the past, I have often ignored the signposts of my intuition, feeling compelled to meet exterior demands on my time, performance, and ability because the alternative meant letting someone down.

Disappointing someone might result in judgement.

Judgement could give way to dislike.

Dislike could lead directly to un-lovabliity.

And In my mind, there was nothing worse.

But not this time. I made the decision to say “no” with absolute clarity and peace of mind.

As time marches on, I have questioned the need to derive my value from pleasing others. Lovability, I’ve learned, comes from an inner sense of worthiness and belonging, not from external reinforcement. The truth is, the more you attempt to meet external expectations, the further you drift from your own path of purpose. The more you stay true to your integrity, the more you uphold your self-trust, the more loveable, worthy, and valued you wind up feeling deep inside.

It’s one thing to know this, intellectually. It’s an entirely different experience to put this into practice with actual, unpredictable, reactionary, tangible humans.

It was Thursday morning and I had just finished contacting beneficiaries for an upcoming charity photoshoot event.

These days, photos play an integral role in creating, sharing, documenting, and preserving memories. The cost of family photo sessions can be astronomically expensive and that cost can be a barrier to entry for lower-income or single-family homes. In the spirit of the Small Act Big Impact initiative, I thought it would be fun to offer a handful of single-parent families (from the non-profit 1 Up Single Family Resource Centre) a mini-session photoshoot and a single edited digital family portrait as a keepsake.

No ulterior motive.

No business marketing scheme.

Zero personal gain beyond the joy of using my hobby to genuinely add value to people’s lives.

That morning, several of the individuals I would be photographing reached out to thank me or share their stories in anticipation of the shoot. One of the single-moms emailed me, stating, “This sweet surprise feels like one of those little nudges to let me know I’m doing the right thing and being rewarded in this recent decision of mine to leave an unhealthy relationship and change everything for me and my children.”

I was feeling excited and honoured to be providing a service that might bring happiness to people who could not otherwise afford it.

Ping! My thoughts were interrupted by the signal of another email entering my inbox. One of the recipients, whom I had not yet met, had presumed that because the photoshoot was free, there was a catch. Her assumption led her to believe that doing the shoot would result in some benefit to me personally or financially, so she took it upon herself to make several bold demands of my time.

Acknowledging her wishes, I kindly declined and stated that in order to fulfill her expectations, I would be compromising important time with my family; furthermore, I assured her that because of the nature of the project, any benefit to be would be of the heart, not financial.

She responded almost immediately, proceeding to compare my “services” to other for-profit company ventures and marketing campaigns. In closing, she snidely asserted that the free offer was hardly worth her time, and that unless I could deliver on her list of demands, she wouldn’t be attending the shoot. Looking back now, I think her goal had been to shame me into submission. This was not a negotiation she was willing to lose.

I was stunned. I reread the email, believing I’d missed something or that maybe she was joking. And as I did, I felt an angry red heat rising in my chest, travelling up my neck, and spreading across my cheeks. I felt sickened by the skepticism lacing each line of her message, distain and entitlement emanating from the text like destructive radioactive waves.

For a moment, I began questioning my own adequacy. Maybe, she was right! Maybe what I was offering wasn’t enough. She wanted filet mignon, five-courses, and white-glove service, but what I was offering was a warm, soul-infused, hearty bowl of soup.  Briefly, I felt the need to explain myself, to make her understand that there was no catch! I wanted her to see the purpose and intent behind the shoot. I wanted desperately in that moment for her to know, see, and understand me.

But then, I realized something…

Our world is in crisis right now and we have all become victims of uncertainty and scarcity.

We have collectively become conditioned not to trust people.

We have learned that in order to survive and protect ourselves, we must read between the lines for the ulterior motives, because everything that seems too good to be true always is.

We want to win, not lose. Therefore, we continually play anticipatory offense to win the game, at all costs.

We have been acclimatised to our dog-eat-dog world by becoming takers. We have been trained to believe that since everyone else is taking, we might as well, too. Our appetite has become insatiable because there is never enough. The scarcity story plays out in all aspects of our lives.

There are not enough jobs.

There is not enough time.

There is not enough money.

There is not enough sleep.

There is not enough stuff.

Not enough,

Not enough,

Not enough…

We feel we need to negotiate by asking for more than we deserve because that’s the only way to get what we need.

We actively eliminate humanity from our interactions to protect our tender hearts and, in doing so, we become ever more disconnected from the heartbeat of the world.

And so, I understood that this woman was simply a casualty of our current culture. Compassion and empathy edged out the anger.

As I crafted my response with a more open heart, I was reminded of Dr. Maya Angelou who once said: “You teach people how to treat you.”

My goal was not to please. My goal was not to win, either. My goal was to stand strong, with respectful integrity and say “no.”

So, I did.

 

 

How a Facebook Mom’s Group, Capital Iron, and an Embarrassing Moment Made me Feel Closer to my Community

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So, initially, I wasn’t going to share this story because it’s fairly humiliating. But, I’m swallowing my pride and sharing it for the following three reasons:

  • We all love that feeling we get when we hear stories that showcase human beings being benevolent to one another. It just makes us feel good about the world and restores our faith in humanity. Check!
  • Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to lean a little more readily into vulnerability, embarrassing moments, and getting comfortable with discomfort because, as Pema Chödrön says: “Resistance to unwanted circumstances has the power to keep those circumstances alive and well for a very long time.”
  • And perhaps most importantly, let’s be honest, we all secretly love to hear stories about people failing at life, because it makes us feel so much better about ourselves.

Petty? Yep!

Small? Totally!

True? Guilty!

So, this is my gift to you… Merry Christmas!

So, earlier this week, I was in the Westshore Capital Iron with my brood, picking up a few last-minute stocking-stuffers for the people on my list. Capital Iron, by the way, is a magical store that literally has something for everyone: sports fanatics, camping people, outdoorsy types, fishers, culinary creatives, the Martha-Stewart-types, and kids, too! It’s a great place to do last-minute Christmas shopping, plus it’s locally owned, and it turns out, they are all about being kind and going the extra mile for their community!

At the checkout, I remember patiently reminding my three-and-a-half year-old to kindly STAAAAAP touching all of the tempting items at toddler height about 17 million times, while playing an animated game of peek-a-boo with my baby in the stroller, who kept threatening to completely lose it and sabotage the entire operation. As we exited the store, bags in hand, I felt a distinct sense of relief: we had MADE it! Mission accomplished!

Pleased with myself, I set the stroller and bags beside the vehicle, then I buckled each child in the car. I even smiled with uncharacteristic love and tolerance, as boots and socks flew off of mischievous feet as we pulled out of the chaotic parking lot. Oh, you guys…

It wasn’t until the next morning, as I was digging through my purse readying myself for the day, that I realized my wallet was gone. Assuming it had been lovingly tucked into a ride-on car or oven of the play-kitchen, I casually began my search while simultaneously tending to the rapid-fire demands for breakfast, specific outfits, and advent calendars.

While checking emails and messages on my phone, I noticed one from my friend, Lyndsay: “I’ve just tagged your name on the mom’s group.” Anticipating encouraging or funny meme, I checked the group post. It turns out a fellow mom and Capital Iron employee, Alison, had tagged my name and written the following: “Can anyone help me out? We have some important belongings of hers at Capital Iron. Thanks for helping!”

My wallet! Immediately, I messaged her and announced I’d be in as soon as possible.

I arrived at Capital Iron, about an hour later. The store was bustling with shoppers and there were lines several people deep at both cash registers, so in the interest of time, I sheepishly made my way to the back of the store where several employees were working on inventory and helping customers. I gingerly interrupted them and apologized, but didn’t even have to introduce myself as Alison emphatically and warmly called out, “Are you Morgane?”

She quickly led me to the back corner of the store and unlocked the door to a small room, all the while assuring me that as a mom, she understood how easy it was to misplace items, that we all do so much during this time of year, and that she’s done similar things before. I nodded gratefully, as she handed me my wallet. Slightly embarrassed, I thanked her profusely for her empathy and lack of judgement before turning to leave.

That’s when she stopped me, with a confused look on her face:

“And, you’ll obviously be wanting to retrieve your stroller, aswell, right.”

My stroller?

MY STROLLER!

Oh…my…goodness!

My stroller.

In my haste, not only had I managed to misplace and forget my wallet, but somehow, I had succeeded in unknowingly abandoning my honking big, incredibly hard-to-miss stroller with the bag of stocking stuffer purchases in the parking lot, too. It became apparent that the staff at Capital Iron had not only salvaged my wallet, but had braved the elements to recuperate my stroller and items, then set out to track me down. That’s dedication!

I think what struck me most was that my sleep-deprived, over-loaded brain didn’t even notice it was gone! Who does that? I started laughing, helplessly doubling over with tears springing to my eyes, as Alison giggled alongside me.

Strangers and a friend had committed themselves to reuniting me with my items, all the while demonstrating much-appreciated compassion towards me.

As I left the store, this time with the stroller, bag, and wallet, I was overcome by gratitude for the amazing community in which I live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Visit with Santa and a Generous Invitation

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It was 9:16 am, Frank Sinatra’s Christmas album was playing in the background, and both of my children, smiling faces illuminated by the late November morning sun, were bundled and strapped in the back of our vehicle as we cruised down the highway on our way to beat the crowds and meet Santa. My husband was out of town, so I had devised an itinerary jam-packed with fun-filled kid-friendly activities to get us in the holiday spirit and fight off cabin fever. Baking, crafts, checking-out Christmas book titles from the library, visits with friends, kicking back with classic family movies, and photos with Santa…it was going to be fun.

This is likely the first and only year I have ever embraced the “magic of Christmas” and all of its commercial baggage so darn early. But, considering last year’s Christmastime debacle and dashed dreams as a result of my unexpected vertigo symptoms, one can’t really blame my earnest and eager efforts to squeeze every last ounce out of the impending holiday season!

That morning, I had prepared and mentally geared-up for the usual Outfit-Resistance Routine, only to be pleasantly surprised when my 3.5 year-old-daughter not only agreed to wear the reindeer sweater I had laid out for her, but excitedly reached for it and exclaimed how much she loved it! Nonchalantly, I had slowly backed away, dressed her brother in his companion reindeer sweater, and ushered them both into the vehicle, barely saying a word so as not to draw her attention to my complete shock in case she changed her ever-loving mind.

We finally pulled into the already bustling Mayfair Mall parking lot and quickly found a spot. It turns out “beat the lines” was everyone’s mantra that morning. The mall had barely opened its doors and already streams of coordinated children, dressed in green, red, metallics, and stark whites, poured into the building, eyes gleaming with excitement, little hands tugging and urging their parents along. You could see some children jockeying to be the first ones in the doors, some of them literally pushing past families to do so. My heart skipped a beat. Maybe this was a mistake. I paused, gazed at the scene, and deeply inhaled the fresh, crisp air. Then, I turned to haul the double-stroller out of my trunk, a must-have fall-back when you have two small children under three-and-a-half years of age.

We reached the entrance of the mall and bee-lined for Santa. I immediately became aware of two little girls, sisters around 10 years of age, flanking either side of my stroller. They were dressed in the most stunning coordinated red and green plaid dresses, golden ballet flats, and white knit capped-sleeve sweaters. I realized quickly that these girls meant business. Their straight brown hair swung from side to side as they pumped their elbows to propel themselves past the stroller as Santa’s workshop came into view. I resisted the childish urge to pick up my pace. However, I couldn’t counteract the sinking feeling that ensued as we rounded the corner and spotted the snaking line-up, 20 people deep. Santa wouldn’t arrive for another 20 minutes. Again, I thought of the memories, sighed, and resigned myself to whatever misery would meet us in that line-up. We joined in, coming in second behind the coordinated sisters.

I should mention, before I had children, I made grandiose declarations about the “kind of parent” I would be. Technology, unhealthy treats, unnecessary negotiations, and kid-centric food would NOT be employed in our house. As a new teacher, I would sometimes find myself lamenting a romanticised historical time when children demonstrated the fine art of waiting patiently with little more than a verbal reminder. Cue the enormous eye-roll. How ignorant was I to the perils and unrelenting marathon that is parenting!?

Fast-forward to the present, I am humbled by the experience of motherhood. It has been an incredibly beautiful, challenging journey. Parenting my children has been the most humanizing, reflective experience in my life. In many ways, entering the world of parenthood has forced me to evaluate the, sometimes, unrealistic expectations I have not only of myself, but of my children.

So, I forgive my imperfections.

I employ the use of occasional unhealthy treats.

Sometimes, I make empty threats.

I use my best negotiation tactics on an almost-daily basis.

Most days, our meals consist of a predictable rotation of kid-centric food.

And technology makes appearances at least once-a-day.

And, in that Santa line-up…I used every last trick in my arsenal.

I had to laugh at the irony, as my son was back-arching, I was plying both children with “special treats” usually only reserved for the potty, and my daughter was plugged into Charlie Brown Christmas (I know, I’m pretty sure it’s single-handedly responsible for teaching preschoolers the word “stupid”), I made eye-contact with a past parent and student I had taught.

Oh…terrific.

There’s something sort of acceptable about feeling like a gong-show parenting failure in public when you feel anonymous, but the overwhelm reaches a whole new level when you actually know those around you, professionally. I smiled apologetically. She and her daughter gave a big friendly wave in our direction.

Forty minutes later, my parent-teacher ego a little bruised, we eventually arrived. We were second in line and could finally spot the big man, himself, between the photo set’s enormous sparkling trees. My daughter was star-struck, a smile spread across her face as she and her brother peered through the branches.

In that moment, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. The two sisters stood in front of us smiling and invited us to go in front of them. I’m not sure if it was guilt for having beat us in the race to greet Santa, outright pity, or the giving spirit, but I appreciated the genuinely thoughtful gesture, nonetheless. Instinctively, I started to refuse, but remembered how magnificent it feels when someone graciously accepts your kindness. Their generosity made a big impact on me. It allowed me to practice the art of receiving. It also reminded me to search for ways to make those around me feel supported by and connected to humanity, especially throughout the busyness and chaos of the holidays.

Genuinely, I thanked the girls and their parents, and watched as my children greeted Santa, my son tentatively and reluctantly, my daughter enthusiastically.

It had been worth it, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Empathy Leads the Way for the Transformation from Victimization to Resiliency

IMG_7940Just this morning, I had a realization that stopped me in my tracks. It was one of those “Aha” Oprah-moments that sent a jolt of electric energy from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s caused a dramatic paradigm shift in the way I look at people-centred pain.

I have spent the last few weeks or so researching for my newest project which will provide tangible support to teachers embarking on the Small Act Big Impact 21-Day Kindness Challenge with their classes in the form of grade-specific lessons, activities, and free resources.

I have stolen early morning, caffeine-filled moments at my dining room table sifting through books, articles, videos, websites, and adapting classroom lessons.

Anti-bullying strategies.

Neuroscience.

Peer-reviewed studies.

Opinion pieces in major magazines.

Psychological theories.

All of it has reinforced my belief that teaching generosity and kindness though explicit means within the classroom is essential to creating classroom cultures that promote a sense of belonging and significance for our students.

The research process got me thinking about the concept of understanding those who hurt us. Nothing underscores the universal human experience more than the hurt we have all suffered at the hands of someone else. Painful break-ups. Conflicts at work. Family Feuds. Misunderstandings with friends. Falling outs. Bullying on the school ground. Childhood trauma. We have all experienced varying degrees of very real interactional pain.

The thing is, many people reflexively tend to demonize those who have hurt us. Dehumanization of perpetrators or those who cause us pain somehow makes us feel justified in acting outside of our integrity. We blame. We rage. We might even turn to hate. We might act uncharacteristically. We do so with the intent of protecting ourselves, and ironically, we wind up perpetuating the pain. We can get stuck in the story and the victimization. We might find it challenging to seek understanding, because retribution can be what we ultimately seek. For example, when I think of students in conflict, the “winning” mentality can make it difficult to come to consensus and seek positive solutions. For some students, retribution seems like the only answer.

But…here’s what I realized this morning:

The more we understand bullies and those who hurt us either intentionally or not, the less victimized we become by their actions. When we see the situation or conflict at arm’s length, from a different perspective, I believe the narrative can change. That is what we need to teach students in order to build resiliency in the face of conflict.

And here’s where I have to be very clear. Reframing the narrative by seeking to understand various facets of a hurtful interaction does not mean standing by passively and allowing it to continue!

It’s not about condoning the hurtful actions or statements.

It’s not about blind forgiveness.

And, it’s not about inviting hurtful people back into our lives in the hopes that things “change.”

It’s about preventing the hurt from weaving itself into the narrative that defines us as individuals.

I recently had a fascinating conversation with a close family member about the importance of recognizing what motivates people to hurt us and the value in having empathy for them. We discussed that people are fundamentally motivated by a variety of needs and that their actions directly relate to those needs, whether they are conscious of them or not. I believe that when people hurt us, their words and actions are motivated by unmet needs. It’s like they’re in survival mode, finding the easiest, fastest route to strengthening themselves. Ironically, like fast food, hurting people to meet your needs doesn’t fill you up at all. It leaves you emptier, hungrier, and lonelier than ever. I argued that understanding these motivators provides us with a broader, richer context though which to view the hurt. We seek understanding from our empathy as much for our sake as theirs. And, it allows us to view it through a less personal, victimized lens.

Through several defining moments of my life, I have had to set clear boundaries to ensure that I stay true to my integrity and to protect my soul and spirit. As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them; the first time.” It’s not easy. It’s not simple. It requires a great deal of courage, possibly many attempts, and a boatload of help, but it’s possible to rise up against unfair treatment. When we look around us, we see so many examples of individuals banding together courageously to advocate against injustice.

By and large, we are creatures of habit and certainty. When we are thrust into trauma or hurtful conflict, we instinctively go into certainty-seeking mode. Our brains try to make sense of the interaction and search for the best path back to certitude. In the absence of tangible data, our minds generate narratives (whether they are accurate or not) that make sense because we are biologically wired to find patterns.  In his article on the Neuroscience of Story Gert Scholtz asserts, “Stories invoke the mind to fill in gaps and to anticipate future outcomes and as such it provides a safe simulation of reality.” This explains why many people who have been hurt, not only blame others but often blame themselves, consciously or unconsciously. If the pain is bad enough, they may apply this new narrative to redefine the way they interact and react to life’s stressors to avoid being hurt again. As we know, when our backs are against the wall, we fight, flight, or freeze.

Heartbreak and trauma may very likely be part of your biography, but it does not define who you are. We don’t have to own or accept the story our brains have set out for us. I believe that seeking to understand the motivations of an individual who introduced the hurt into our lives, gives us perspective and a new frame of reference through which to view the pain. We can be freed from the limiting beliefs that we are inextricably linked to our stories and that we are not only somehow at fault for what has happened to us, but that we ARE our stories.

When we realize that we are not our stories, that it is not our fault, we can experience the truest sense of spiritual and emotional freedom. Within the spaciousness of this newfound freedom, we become capable of writing our own endings.

How do we actually go about putting this understanding framework into action? Here are some powerful questions (from Rising Strong, Brené Brown) you might ask yourself or invite your students to ask themselves in conflict:

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  1. What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation in terms of what I know and my assumptions?
  2. What more do I need to learn and understand about the other people in the story in terms of information I’m missing and questions I might have?
  3. What more do I need to learn and understand about myself in terms of my response, my feelings, and the part I play?

 

Sources:

*https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/neuroscience-story-gert-j-scholtz/

Brene Brown (Rising Strong/Braving the Wilderness)

Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic)

Maya Angelou

Tony Robbins

Dr. Shimi Kang

 

Tantrums, Toddlers, Torrential Rain: How One Mom’s Decision Paid-it-Forward

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Just the other day, as the children in my household pressed pause on their play to catch up on some much-needed rest, I rested an elbow on the smooth surface of the kitchen table, my hand cupping the ceramic promise of wakefulness. I inhaled the delicious moment of silence for a few extra seconds before hinging open the silver lid to the computer that sat slightly askew before me.

 

As I opened my email, her message practically jumped off the screen at me.

 

“Thanks for your inspiration to step out of my comfort zone today!” she had written.

 

I was intrigued.

 

Tingling chills climb up my spine and spread across the surface of my skin whenever I hear about people helping people. When I hear that an individual has pushed themselves to take a risk in being kind to another person because of a story they’ve heard or an kind acts they’ve seen, it confirms my deeply held personal belief that kindness inspires kindness.

 

“I’m normally a very quiet, reserved person, and have a hard time initiating conversation. But today, I pushed myself.”

 

Happiness washed over me as I read on.

 

The message was from Denise, a teacher and mother, like me. We had both attended the same classes in university and graduated alongside one another. Although we had fallen out of touch, we would often see each other at the park, running errands, or chauffeuring our kids around town.

 

As a result of the Beacon Hill blog post I had published just days earlier, she had made it her mission that day to strike up a conversation when the opportunity arose.

 

That morning, as she spoke to strangers in line, smiled at passers-by on the sidewalk, and chatted with fellow parents at school drop-off, she felt rewarded in knowing that such a small effort positively impacts many people’s day.

 

But it was a decision she made later that morning, that would truly become a defining moment for her.

 

After drop-off, she hurriedly parked her vehicle near the entrance of a local grocery store. Glancing at the list of items she had written on a neatly folded piece of loose-leaf paper, she gathered her purse and keys, then fastened the buttons on her waterproof coat just as wet droplets began tapping at roof of her car. Within seconds the rain was pelting the windows; people scurried to their cars shielding their heads from the rain with anything they could find: flyers, clasped hands, and even boxes of cereal.

 

She took a deep breath, assembling her things under an arm as she pushed the door open, readying her legs to sprint to the entrance of the store.

 

Then, Denise stopped dead in her tracks, as her gaze fell on her.

 

The woman, whose face was plastered with soaked wisps of a messy bun, pleaded desperately in the assailing rainstorm as her one arm wrestled a coat onto the flailing limbs of a tantruming toddler. An unmistakable wail drew Denise’s eyes to the woman’s other arm, which held a new baby, red-faced, screeching furiously, and blinking as beads of water accumulated on her tiny body.

 

Denise immediately recognized the woman as one of the teachers she had taught with in the past.

 

Instantly, her mind went to the huge list of errands in her purse. She barely had time to get it all done as it was!

 

In that moment, a distant memory interrupted her thoughts. It was a dark, rainy night just a few years earlier. A new mother, Denise had found herself in the parking lot of a grocery store much like this one, a cart filled to the brim, her new baby crying, and her car keys were nowhere to be found. Frantic, she had searched for the keys, rain dripping from her forehead into her purse and onto her screaming baby, aware of her galloping heart as panic rose in her chest.  Right then, a stranger had stopped to help her find her keys. She remembered being filled with a such a deep sense of gratitude.

 

With a look of determination, Denise deposited her belongings on the seat, gently shut the door to her car, and headed straight in the direction of the woman and her children.

 

Pic credit: Fatherly.com

 

The Unexpected Detour That Landed Me Exactly Where I Was Supposed to Be

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Last week, I experienced an unbelievable moment that will stay in my heart forever.

Dampness permeated the air that morning.  As I hurried out the front door of my house and onto the driveway, I felt the impact of a big, fat raindrop on my forehead. The cold licked at the back of my throat and confirmed the conclusion of summer. I slammed the door to my car just as the clouds cracked open. A barrage of raindrops struck my windshield and roof.

I was all set to do a follow-up lesson for the 21-Day Challenge in my friend’s Grade One class downtown. The traffic from my house to the city centre can be unpredictable at best and excruciatingly slow at worst, so I planned ahead and left with plenty of time.

When I arrived downtown thirty minutes early, I was pleasantly surprised. I had brought a book to read and could have revisited the lesson to pass the time as I had done before previous school visits.

But, for some unexplained reason, I felt compelled that morning to do something different.

Instead of taking the more direct route to school, the one I had taken a million times over, something guided my car to the entrance of nearby Beacon Hill Park.

Crisp autumn leaves swirled, a dancing rainbow against the backdrop of the lifeless cracked pavement. Darkened bodies, shadows, emerged from the dew-covered foliage to my left and right as I continued along the route, to the heart of the park. One man, a statue, perched motionless on a bench gripped his shopping cart, which overflowed with accumulated treasures. My eyes settled on a woman shuffling along the adjacent grassy path, two enormous black garbage bags torn and cobbled together to serve as protection from the rain that had been pelting my car just minutes earlier.

Today, someone needs you.

Before I knew it, I found myself parking at a grocery store nearby. Arriving inside, I raced up and down the aisles, filling my arms with packages of English muffins, a jar of my favourite classic chunky peanut butter, some delicious raspberry jam, a bunch of perfectly-ripe bananas, and a bundle of plastic knives.

Heaving the substantial white bag onto the passenger seat, I hopped into the driver’s side and drove back to the entrance to begin my second tour through Beacon Hill.

The park was eerily deserted, now. Where people had stood just minutes earlier, there was nobody.

“Where could they have gone?” Perplexed, I drove further and further down the street, my eyes scanning for somebody. Anybody.

My face flushed and my stomach did a flip. Suddenly, I felt ridiculous. What was I doing? I didn’t have a plan. Who the heck did I think I was?

Ready to give up, I reached the edge of the park and heard it again:

Someone needs you.

Determined, I double-backed and set off for a yet another loop of the park.

That’s when I saw him.

A navy toque covered his curly sandy blond hair, as he rolled his soggy, limp sleeping bag with meticulous care. Two police officers, having just visited his encampment, were making their way up the crest of a small bluff to complete more wake-up calls.

Where does one move along to? Where does one find belonging here?

Once again, I parked the car and waited for the traffic to clear. I crossed the street. The white grocery bag swayed in my hand as I approached him, my heart pounding out of my chest.

Uncertainty barrelled into my thoughts. How would he react? No matter how disadvantaged we find ourselves, we all seek and deserve to conserve our dignity. My intent was pure, but I was fearful of offending him.

“How are you doing? Would you like something to eat?” I offered, tentatively.

“Please…yes. I am so hungry.” His eyes lingered on the contents in the bag and warmth spread across his face.

Relief washed over me, as I was struck with the realization that there something familiar about him.

I asked if he would be willing to share the food with others who might need it, too. Nodding his head, he stood up and motioned to a nearby escarpment behind us. “I have a few friends up there who would appreciate something to fill their bellies this morning.”

Handing him the bag with smile, I turned in the direction of my car. Just as my fingers gripped the coolness of the door’s handle, it hit me.

Indeed, we had met before.

Years ago, he and I had attended the same classes, in the same high-school.

Handfuls of Hope

Old-and-Young-hands

“Why would God make me this way?” he threw his hands up exasperated, standing in the middle of the grocery aisle as she stood beside him.

My 84-year-old friend, Kate, a devout Christian, had spotted Sam immediately upon entering the grocery store that day, hunched over as he squinted at the ingredients on a box of cereal.

A resident in her senior’s complex, he had been struggling with presenting his true identity to the world. Born a female, Sam had recently decided to bravely transition in the last act of his life, through hormone therapy, to the man with whom he had always identified.

Adversity was no stranger to Sam. He struggled daily with depression and anxiety. He could be seen frequently breaking down publically, shouting angrily at passers-by from the steps of his apartment. Other residents in Kate’s complex tended to avoid Sam, unable to grapple with the uncertainty and erratic nature of their interactions.

He was often solitary.

He walked alone.

Shopped alone.

Spent every holiday alone.

Kate was always good to him. She made sure to honour and call him by his chosen name. She always acknowledged him in passing.

This day was a little different.

“Oh, I just can’t today,” she thought initially when she saw him standing there. She was exhausted after a long week of medical appointments and the last thing she wanted to do was navigate unpredictable waters with her neighbour. She began to turn on her heel for the opposite direction, to avoid Sam before he could see her.

But, in that moment, something stopped her.

She knew he needed her today.

So, she angled her cart toward Sam, and made her way over to him, greeting him sincerely with a big smile and a friendly “hello.”

He looked up, surprised, then, upon recognizing Kate, his face broke into a wide grin.

As it turns out, it had been a particularly difficult day for Sam. He had been contemplating his identity, struggling with whom he thought he had to be for the world to accept him, questioning his worthiness and existence.

They stood together, for a long time. She listened. He talked. She validated him as he revealed his fears. He felt safe and heard. Sometimes, that is all we seek.

There were tears and even a hug.

Before he turned to go, Sam stopped her suddenly, grasping her hand, “You know, Kate, I was feeling miserable earlier, but after talking to you, I feel…hopeful.”

My 84-year old friend, leaned in a little closer, placing her freckled hand on his shoulder and whispered gently, “God doesn’t make mistakes.”