joy found in the oddest places…

When I first moved to P.E.I., I had never heard of a wake.  Well, I had heard of a wake, it just was not the funeral kind.  Wake was a verb that my father used on school days when I wasn’t getting out of bed in time to do the essential morning prep before school, and it sounded something like this, “Wake up and get your shower started and don’t use too much water.”  Or, “you did not wake up in time for breakfast, so no toast for you.”  The usage of the word wake as a noun was something new for me, and to find that this noun was also an event was a bit mind-boggling.

The summer of our wedding, my husband and I attended wakes with his parents almost every weekend.  It was a rush to get to the wake on time so you would not have to stand outside in inclement weather while the line of mourners snaked around the outside of the funeral home.  Often times, the wake was the only chance to catch up with the locals, one’s neighbours and friends, on who was doing what, with whom and how often.  In other words, the wake as an event was much more than just imparting soft words of sympathy to grieving families, it was, and still is, an important social event in the community wherein one is able to, as secondary to offering condolences, catch up on a bit of information and news in the foyer.

In the last week, I attended two wakes, both of which were for people I have never met.  It is always interesting going to a wake for someone you meet for the first time in the coffin.  There are some very informal, yet absolutely necessary rules one must understand when proceeding to attend a P.E.I. wake.  Here is how it all goes down.

First of all, in the event the circumstances of the death are normal, the receiving line is often short enough for a gathering of well-wishers in the lobby.  It always helps to have a group to walk in with, especially when you might only know one person in the receiving line.  This almost never happens in P.E.I. because usually everyone knows someone you might be distantly related to; but in the event you are “from away” like I happen to be, the chances of not knowing a grieving soul in the funeral parlour astronomically increases.  At times like this, it really helps to be married to an Islander.  It also is helpful to form a line with people that have the greatest chance of knowing someone on the inside, with the person who is the best acquainted with the family at the forefront.  That way, you are able to sneak in behind, on the coat tails of someone with connections, thus reducing the amount of talking required and putting the emphasis rather on the handshake.  Which leads me to the all-important viewing of the slideshow.

Of late, there is usually a picture collage and slideshow in the corridor leading into the parlour.  The second rule of etiquette for the wake has to do with these photographs and images on display.  The slideshow is of utmost importance for those whom have never met the deceased.  This is your opportunity to acquaint yourself and get the five minute “history-in-a-nutshell” account of the person’s life so that you might be able to make a fleeting connection in the event the handshake fails.  Let me give you an example.  Often times, if the deceased was an older person at the time of their expiration, you are able to get snapshots that might date back to sweeter, happier times, like the departed’s childhood.  So, you can make reference to the fact, if there happens to be a lull in conversation upon your sympathy offerings, that so-and-so was a sweet little cherub of a dumpling when she was five.  And my, how time has flown .

The third understanding of all wake attendees is that one must give some attention to the deceased.  It is acceptable for one to view the remains for a moment or two prior to moving along to the receiving line.  However, one must never make comment on the price of the casket or urn, as cremation is becoming the custom for Island funerals, in such a way as to draw attention to the fact that so-and-so is being buried in little more than a pine box whilst the extended family is already planning their trip to the Bahamas.  Save those conversations for the parking lot.

Upon the viewing, one must needs go through the most difficult of all customs at Island wakes, that of the handshake and condolences to the family.  I have been seized in a death-like vice grip by grieving wives of men I have never met.  I have hugged sisters and brothers whom I never before laid eyes upon.  And, I have watched my husband become enveloped in a stifling embrace, all the while I stood nearby trying to find a place for my eyes to look other than at the spectacle of my husband in another woman’s arms.  Such is the custom of the wake.  It is all good.  One never quite knows what to expect, and thank goodness because how could one ever prepare for the emotional baggage one ends up carrying out with them at the end of this life altering experience?

Finally, there is the etiquette surrounding one’s exit out of the parlour, back into the main lobby.  The rule of thumb is this: do not join the receiving line unless you happen to be a member of the family.  I have heard of, and even shaken hands with, unsuspecting folks who just happened to sit down for a moment in one of those inviting, over-stuffed chairs to wipe a sweaty brow and dig out the soggy tissues, only to find they have inadvertently joined the receiving line.  This is not just an embarrassment but can literally end up putting you and the grieving family on bad terms in very short order.  Believe me, I know someone to whom this actually happened.   Recently.

One last word of advice, one should never, ever forget that the wake is not over until you are in your car headed for home.  Many the thoughtless person has made the mistake of confusing the lobby with the local watering hole or coffee shop and thus over-extended their welcome.   Such can be the case when one arrives in a group and uses the time after the viewing to discuss the money one owes to whom for the over-priced flowers on display in the parlour next door; or even more distasteful, to us this time to discuss funny things that might have happened that day or plans one might have for tomorrow.  This can be particularly awkward if those plans do not include attending the funeral.

To summarize, the wake as an event is a cultural Island experience, and one cannot say they have truly experienced the Island way until they have made their way to an Island wake.   Please note: for those who happen to be from away, prior connections to the deceased are helpful, but not necessary.  It is possible to leave a wake with more associations, family or otherwise, than one had when they arrived.  As well, one will never use the phrase “wake up and smell the coffee” and other such colloquialisms, again without giving thought to the proper native usage of the term, wake.  Of that, you can be certain.

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joy found in literacy…

The dog is jumping excitedly around my oldest daughter’s feet.  She is trying to teach Lucky, our four and a half month old Mini Australian Shepherd, how to shake a paw.  Although, I think at present the lesson has disintegrated into a jumble of paws, feet and hands going every which direction.  The four-year old sister joins the ruckus, and I hear her say, “Just let me distract her for a minute.”  I look up, and I see my youngest prancing around in circles, her arms waving in the air, while the oldest does what she needs to do as the dog-distracting is underway.

Distract.  Not a simple vocabulary word for a preschooler to pronounce, let alone understand the meaning of which.   According to a study conducted by Camille L.Z. Blachowicz and Peter J. Fisher, along with Susan Watts-Taffe, in a document titled Integrated Vocabulary Instruction: Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners in K-5, vocabulary used for the purpose of knowing word recognition as well as word meaning is directly related to acquiring knowledge; no matter what extent to which a child is achieving, vocabulary instruction will bring them further along in learning. (www.learningpt.org/pdfs/literacy/vocabulary.pdf)

In another article titled Effective Vocabulary Instruction written by Joan Sedita, she cites well known documentation that student’s word knowledge is strongly linked to academic success.  Reasons for this include the fact that students with a great knowledge of vocabulary are able to comprehend and understand ideas and concepts more quickly than those without. (article published in “Insights on Learning Disabilities” 2(1) 33-45, 2005) This just goes to show how important it is to read to our children from birth and beyond, as they are taking it all in; that is to say, they are being exposed to sounds, letters, sentence structure and fluency, word choice and voice and more, during those early years and this will lay the foundation for academic success in the years to come.

Prior to the birth of our last child, I attended a playgroup in the area with my then three young children.   One particular day, there was just one other mom and myself in attendance at the center, and we were chatting with the day program activity facilitator.  The subject of reading and books came up.  The day-program facilitator asked us both if we read to our children, to which I replied a resounding “yes.”  When she asked the other mom the same question, the woman replied no she did not read to her children, and it was insinuated that she did not have the desire nor time to do so. The next moment was for me an embarrassing one because I remember the look of disdain that came over that facilitator’s face, and the incredulous exclamation that blurted out.  I wanted to fade into the woodwork, as I am sure that other mom did too.  Although I secretly felt surprised at her seeming lack of interest in her children’s literacy, I also felt mortified that she had been made to feel “less than” and not a good mother.  I later called her up on the phone and apologized for the humiliation she suffered by the ill-timed response from the facilitator of a program that was suppose to help mothers support their children’s growth, not tear them down when they made a misstep along the way.

Although early parental involvement is crucial, we still need to find ways to support the parents who are unable, for whatever reasons, to support their children’s literacy development.  Making parents feel “less than” and guilting them into reading to their children is not the ticket to creating a literacy rich pre-school environment for children.  There must be ways of helping parents to believe in the process of literacy, so that they are not just going through the motions of reading because that is what good parents do.  And what of the parents that simply cannot read?  Are there ways to support them in their children’s education? What present supports are out there for them?  Otherwise, the achievement gap widens and another generation of illiteracy is the result.

There is a little boy in my class that reminds me of why I must believe that all student’s have the right to learn to read and be literate.  He has very little in the way of home support for his academic learning, yet he generally likes school and mostly wants to be there.  He struggles to keep up with the rest, and there are times that I can read on his face an awareness that he is not at the same level as the other children.  Yet, he perseveres.

Last week, I was doing some testing on one of my students, and the little boy I was testing was breezing right along.  Meanwhile, the other little fellow who struggles was noticeably copying and mimicking everything the one I was working with, was saying.  This little boy got a little peeved at his little echo and reported to me that he was saying everything the same.  I looked at both boys, and I said this to the one I was testing: “He wants to learn all that you know, and you are helping him to discover new things.  When he copies you, that is his way of learning.  Isn’t that right?” I said turning to the boy who struggles with learning.

He looked at me and nodded.  I saw in his eyes that he just wanted to be like the other student and know the same things as the one who had been given a better start than he.  I could already read shame on his face.  I could see in his eyes that shame would one day lead to anger, anger to resentment and resentment to apathy.  The spiral of illiteracy.  In that one look, I got the motivation I needed, and I am determined to do what I can to help this child.  But I am no saviour, and there is only so much a teacher can do in a given year for a child.

My two youngest children snuggle around me.  It is night time, and we are cozy on a bed piled high with pillows, blankets and books.  We negotiate which stories, who chooses and how many.  As I read, I tell myself how blessed I am to have these moments with my own children.  To read, to discover and to grow young minds.  I am truly grateful, and humbled by this awesome responsibility.

joy found in the Golden Arches…

She skates away from me toward the far end of the ice, a tiny doll dressed in sparkly teal and purple costume.  Spindly legs swathed in nude-coloured nylon extend from the white boots on her feet.  I stand behind the glass and wait with her, wait expectantly for the music to begin.  She is poised and ready.  I lean over to get a better view.   The familiar strains begin to play on the tinny sound system, and I hum along.  I strain to catch her if she falls, as ridiculous as that is from my vantage point.  It is a relief to see her heading toward center ice, signalling to me that her routine is half over.  I wait for a pick to catch on the ice.  It never does.  In fact, this is one of the best skates I have seen from her this year.  I hold my breath as she enters the final turn.  She holds her stance and smiles.  It is finished.  I exhale.

She glides off the ice, all smiles.  I am beaming.  So proud, I am.  I tell her so.  I try not to boost her expectations, but I am so relieved she never fell this time that I say it.  “You did your best skate yet this year, “ I gush.  She seems to exude confidence, now that the pressure is off.  I know she thinks this was one of her best too.

We wait on the stands, and watch the pairs dance to the Dutch Waltz.  My husband smiles at me and then mouths that he thinks she will probably place first, second or third, and that we will be here at the rink for a while yet.  We both exchange chuckles over the fact that a 4th place standing would be the best scenario, and we could make a quicker exit.  With award presentations still two hours away, fourth would be the ideal situation.  She would still feel pleased with her standing, and we would be proud regardless.  In addition, we could get on the road and head for home just a wee bit earlier than expected, thus able to enjoy more of this beautiful, Sunday afternoon.  I find myself looking over towards the hallway where the results are posted.  I lean over and tell my husband that I am going down to check.

I am standing in the main hallway where the results are soon to be posted, and I turn to see the scoring technician with papers in her hand.  It is only a matter of seconds now.  I try not to appear too interested in those results she carries,  as I don’t want to be seen as “one of those parents.”  But, I get close enough to the wall to read the results.

I scan the page, a bit dumb-founded.  Not only has she not placed fourth, she is ranked 7th.  I re-read the standing to be sure I have got this straight.  Yes, she is 7th place.  I breathe deeply, then wrack my brain for some easy way to deliver the news to her.  Then, I go to my waiting family on the stands.

She is visibly upset as she reads the writing on the wall.  “You had my expectations up, “ she says disappointedly.  I am dumb-founded.  Did I really lead her to believe she would win?

I try to re-assure her that she did her very best and that is all that matters, but it will take time for her to believe this to be true.  She looks deflated.  I tell her that we are proud of her, and I try to think of many other wise things to say.  I know I cannot win her over with my words or opinion, and this won’t end happy until she is ready to let the disappointment go.

I wonder how it is that we support our children in their endeavours.  We want them to fly free and unobstructed, able to soar on the wings of confidence and courage.   We want them to believe in themselves and their abilities, yet we must balance their expectations with a liberal dose of real-life practicality.  Life is not always fair.  We cannot always win.  Sometimes we don’t even get close to winning.  Worse still, sometimes we lose.  Badly.   And the losing can happen in roller-coaster succession, so that life really feels discriminatory and unfair.  Yet, we tell ourselves and tell our children to try not to focus on the results to warrant happiness or success, as results are finicky.  But rather, focus on the experience itself.  To be sure, we cannot all be the best, but we all can do our best.    We may not all win, but we must not lose our sense of self to pity and discouragement.  To do your best, and show pride in a job well done, yet never look for any public glory or recognition is to be platinum in sportsmanship and character.  And that is no small feat for anyone.

We went to MacDonald’s and never mentioned the standings again.  A few fries and a hamburger later, life was all good.  Her face was no longer downcast.  We small-talked and enjoyed the new high seats, complements of renovations made to the popular family restaurant.  Which just goes to show how beautifully children handle hurt.  How very resilient they are.  And sometimes, under very special conditions, hurts and disappointments can be remedied with a trip through the Golden Arches.  And when they are remedied at such a small cost, we all win.

I’m lovin’ it when that happens.

joy found in the storm…

It is suppose to be a storm day today.  The alarm sounds at 5:45ish with a twangy country tune blaring, reverberating sound off the walls and into my half-awake brain.  I already have a child glued against my left side, and another knocks on the door when she hears the party going on in the bedroom.   I decide that the computer downstairs is a better prospect for hearing the local weather forecast and cancellations than hanging out in the country saloon-wannabe that is our bedroom.  I plan to get the news, and hopeful cancellation report, then surreptitiously go back to my nice cozy, albeit crowded bed.

Storm days do not always bring out the best in me.  I have such high hopes, such high expectations.  In my mind, I envision a gloriously, quiet day spent in my silk jammies, under the bed covers with a good read.  And a steaming cup of coffee.  And the laptop.  And maybe my cell phone and landline within reach.  I could elaborate.

Curiously, in this little fantasy of mine, the kids are always spending the day at their grandmother’s house.

What actually happens on a typical storm day, is this: I spend part of the morning drifting in and out of consciousness while trying to keep the little one from constantly kicking me, after which I crawl out of bed, wearing my flannel penguin jammies and fuzzy striped socks, destined for the kitchen; at such time of my arrival, I will start and then continue to spend a large part of the morning cleaning up the big breakfast that my darling husband has cooked especially for celebrating storm days.

Ah, the big breakfast.  Crusher of storm day dreams.

We are sitting around the table.  My husband puts a plate of round pucks in front of us that faintly resemble hard-cooked eggs.

“That’s not scrambled eggs,” says one.

“No, it is not,” he patiently answers. “I had to cook breakfast while I was outside putting wood in the furnace, and the eggs cooked in the oven during that time.”

“I don’t like these kind,” she whines.  She looks distastefully at the heaping plate, a vision of circular gelatinous wonder.

Meanwhile, another happy chorister joins the breakfast ensemble.  Brian is still trying to get his body to the table, and l see a look of panic come over his face.  Breakfast is cooling faster than an ice flow in Florida.

“Who set the table?” complains child number two, while noticing there are no utensils at his place setting.

As I shoot a look that would kill, he quickly adds, “…I was just going to say that the person who set the table did a GREAT job.”

I am at one end of the table looking every bit the burned-out mama I am.  Since I have neither showered nor brushed my hair, I am sure I do not look the vision I had pictured in my storm day fantasy.  My husband, looking more awake than I, dashes around the kitchen, all the while getting more and more testy by the minute as the eggs are now nearing a freezing point.  As they look like pucks anyway, they might have a future planned for them other than the table, in the event that the picky eaters sitting round the storm day feast actually follow through on their sensitivity to different textured eggs.  My husband, undeterred, has a place set for himself at the other end of the table, showcasing a plate overflowing with eggs, toast and bacon that are unfortunately getting colder by the minute.

We say grace.

As we partake, the dog steals a sock to chew on under the table causing general alarm from yours truly, as anything the dog has ingested then regurgitated lately, has ended up looking like a hamburger.

As there is only a certain amount of bacon to go around, it is carefully rationed.  I give my share up as I had a few too many chips and dip last night.  The one who doesn’t eat eggs but loves the bacon promptly drops her piece on the floor shortly after we begin, and again the eggs are re-offered and refused.   At least the dog has something other than socks to chew on now.

There is something to be said for tenacity, coupled with a good dose of patience.  That would be my husband.  Where I would have offered a box of Fruit Loops and a glass of juice and called it a wrap, he has the ability to pull off the storm day breakfast and make it look easy.  I grumble and complain about crumbs under the table, and he just thinks that’s what we have a dog for.

In the end, it is all worth the while as the kids head outside to build snow forts and lose mittens in the freshly fallen snow.  The kitchen is clean, the beds are made and I have finally had a shower.

The only thing left to do on this storm day morning is make potato salad for lunch with none other than the leftover eggs from the storm day breakfast.

Not eggs-actly what I had fantasized I would eat for lunch on the perfect storm day.  But I’ll roll with it.

joy in escape…

I am dressed in grey lined track pants, a ski jacket, dressy brown gloves and a white woollen hat that the dog chewed a few weeks back.  It is Friday night, and I have the steering wheel of our mini-van pointed toward the side road as I head out for a night on the town.  That is down town Mill River, for all you folks from “away”.  Destination: Tranquility Lane.  To this tired, frazzled mama, it sounds like a little piece of heaven.  The name sounds as sure as a promise.

As I make some tracks out the lane, I glance over to see my daughter lying in the snow bank, flat out and wailing.  All the while, the dog is running circles around her head.  In the meantime, my husband and son are on a mission to retrieve a lost hat that the dog, which has a fetish for hats, has hidden in the steel building behind our home.  The girls are inside avoiding their chores.  And I am now heading over to the snow hill, for some possible tubing followed by a traditional Newfie meal cooked by one of my colleagues.  Could a Friday night get any better than this?

I love when I get together to spend time with other women.   Hanging out with the girls.  There is nothing like it, really.  Many of us, especially those with young children, view this opportunity as THE most exciting social event of the week.  Not discounting Facebook time after the kids hit the hay.  But I digress.  To get out of the house must be what Freedom 55 feels like for the seniority club.  And I’m not talking about the party scene, neither, ladies.  I got to escape the zoo twice over the last two weekends.  Once to go to a Tupperware party, and again tonight to go eat moose.  I must say I jumped ship both times quicker than a drunken pirate and seized upon both opportunities as if they were a piece of good fortune.

It is always interesting to have a get together with all girls and one guy present.  The guy is privy to conversations that some guys just don’t want to ever hear.  Never.  Ever.  Yes, there are those rare breeds of men that can handle such delicate matters, but these men are few and far between. Such was the case with our guy tonight, as he is of the latter category.  But even with a very open-minded male present, it is funny how the female talk just naturally reverts to the lowest denominator.  I have spent a fair chunk of time this school year telling my Kindergarten students NOT to fixate on potty talk or body parts as a fun snack time conversation piece.  And yet.  SOME of us love to sit around eating nachos and dip and discuss ta-tas and derrieres.  Just sayin.’   Personally, I think we women do not get out of the house enough.  I came home tonight, and I was pacing.  I needed more time out.  Two hours is just not going to cut it anymore.  To leave and be social with other adult human beings is to bring about a yearning to exit the house more often.  A friend recently told me that she had been out every night for six nights in a row.  And I think I have been gone an eternity when the two-hour mark hits.  I believe we sometimes starve ourselves of social interaction until it is a binge, and then it is all or nothing, baby.  It may be the only way some of us can handle having a social life at this stage of the game.

I get in the door, and my anxious child comes over and gives me a big bear hug.  I hold her close to reassure her that I am home, safe and sound; I am still reeling from my rendezvous sans kids.  I actually phone another friend to see if she will go skiing. As in: tonight.  She has other plans for this evening, which is to say she will be staying home with the family.  Which is what I plan to do, too.

Next weekend.

Joy in naming…

I am driving the side road tonight, the lanes are dark and slushy.  The rain hits the windshield with a whack and a splash.  Big, heavy drops.   It is 2 degrees.  Not yet cold enough for snow.  I am thinking, while concentrating of course on the roads, and my thoughts are bent on the subject of naming.  Naming people, specifically.  Not naming, as typically we associate naming with our given names, but rather naming people by their characteristics.  The notion crossed my mind that by naming people by their personality strengths, one is able to appreciate that person in a whole, new light.  I started to think of the little people in my classroom and how I would name them.  One was named perseverance, another resilience.  Another was just named JOY, she is such a delight to my heart.  One more is identified as fervour and another as mystery.  The last two are called tenacity and hope.  So many ways to name a child.

It must have been such a pleasure to have been given the special job of naming.  I bet that’s how Adam felt, if I could be given some licence with interpreting the first human being’s thoughts.  He had the privilege of NAMING all those animals in God’s new creation.  Can one truly appreciate such an awesome responsibility?  I think of the names we have given our own children, each one carefully thought-over, almost fought over in the end, so cautiously they were chosen.  Yet, we still are naming them, identifying their unique personality traits.   Fragile, confidence, intelligence, spunk.  Courage, enthusiasm, gifted and passion.  The endless ways to name a child.

As I name, I view each one as specially designed.  I appreciate the one I am naming, not for what they do, but for who they are.  They are, in a world of people, one in a billion.  One in a bazillion.  For all the stars in the heavens and all the sands on all the seashores, not one shines the same nor is one granule like another. So it is with children, with all of us.   There has never been, and never will there be, another me or another you.

How spectacular.

Can pain bring joy?

We often are witness to those painful aspects of life, those which bring hurt and damage to both the victim and the inflictor.  The former, intertwined in a web with the latter, woven around injury, only to be confounded by an inevitable tangle of lines and curves.  It can be hard at times to see the beginning point of this labyrinth, as often is the case when a web becomes intertwined with debris and the remains of the wreckage.  The symmetry vanishes.  Things fall apart.  Such is the way of life sometimes.

An anxious little one told me from the get-go that his belly was sore today.  Could he go home please?  I knew immediately why.  It was the “incident.”   The violation that occurred yesterday.  He was not overtly referring to what had happened, but a teacher knows these things without even being told.  I read fear all over his little face.  I could have sobbed myself for his loss of innocence, the free-spirited clarity of yesterday.  I wished for nothing more than to go back in time and reverse those memories, subliminal as they might be even at this given time.  For him, they were still there.  Below the surface.

How tender are one’s feelings, how easily bruised.  How raw our emotions, and how heartfelt the apologies that ensue.  To witness, one who hurts another and to see the aftermath, the collateral damage for both parties involved.  It is painful.  It hurts.  We all feel the searing knife.

Another little one sat in front of me later in the day and cried.  He, the inflictor.  He thought he would be sent away, never to return.  Someone would come and take him far away because he had acted wrongly.  It was then, when the tears welled up in his eyes and burst forth, that the dam of my heart too broke for this little one.  My Mommy heart wished to do nothing more than comfort and love away the pain, the memories.  I could not change the actions, the course of time already had unfolded and time can never be reversed.  The damage has certainly been done.  But now is a time for forgiveness and a new beginning.

This change inside, the pulling on my heart strings, surprised me.  Moments before, I had sensed no pity from myself toward this little one, and might I say I had even felt slight revulsion toward the child.  And yet, as I watched the course of an interrogation take on a life of its own, I experienced something akin to understanding.  This I understand: to be a pariah is to feel loneliness, fear and isolation.  To be without.   To be on the outside, yes, for some good reasons.  Yet there are decisions in our lives of which we are unable to fully have control.   Sometimes our path is already laid before us, it was chosen for us by others.  We can do not, but to take the path down which we were destined to sojourn, no matter how unfortunate that choice might be.