Thursday, December 24, 2015

What Not to Buy Kids for Christmas

I was braving the Christmas crowds at Chapters bookstore when I saw it. Chapters, of course, doesn’t sell just books anymore (I wonder how long it will be before books are a decorative sideline for the main business of flogging gewgaws), but the tower of fort-making kits in the middle of the aisle took me by surprise, nonetheless. I thought of my daughter, now grown, the master fort-builder in our family. She made forts everywhere and with everything - at the beach with driftwood, in the forest with branches and logs, in the house with sofa cushions, blankets and boxes, in the back yard with a tarp tacked to the woodshed. The fort-making kit at Chapters comes with clips, posts and a colourful plastic sheet; on the box in bold letters is the catch-phrase - “a different adventure every fort.” Gone, however, is the best part of the adventure.

This Christmas, with the much anticipated and long-hyped new Star Wars film out, you can’t go anywhere without seeing stacks of Star Wars gear and toys (also available in Chapters). I was listening to an interview with the set designer of the original Star Wars. It was a low budget film. He gleefully described creating the now legendary light saber, a flash handle found in a box of junk in a photography store, bubble strip from an old calculator taped on, a d-ring glued to the top so it can fasten to a belt.

Creativity, surely, is in creating. The joy of making isn’t only in completing, but in finding, in arranging, in putting things together until you can say at last – that’s it, that’s better than I imagined. Children find a way to thwart the adults in their lives, of course, playing with the fort-making box, refashioning wrapping paper, building castles out of toys and light-sabers from cardboard tubes, but don’t you sometimes wonder why we seem bent on crippling our children with gifts.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


My mother and I travelled from St. Petersburg to Beijing by train this summer. It was an extraordinary adventure. One of our stops was in Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia). While we were there, we visited a monastery and listened to the monks chant, a joyful, colourful experience; it didn’t feel rehearsed or solemn, but instead like friends gathering to share music and laughter.

Afterwards, we turned prayer wheels, fed the pigeons to increase our karma, and allowed ourselves to be seduced into buying souvenirs. I bought a necklace with a brass medallion. Happiness is upon you, said the smiling man as he put it around my neck. Mom bought a bone bracelet. It wasn’t until later that we noticed the little markings on it were skulls. To our surprise, we learned that skulls are important Buddhist symbols, reminding us that because there are only two truths – we are born and we die – we should live in the moment. We used the bracelet for the rest of our journey, especially at the end when our minds began to turn to lists of things to do on our return; we touched the skulls and remembered to be fully present in the moment.

At home again, my mind is so busy that it’s only at night before I fall asleep that I see again the wide sweep of hills in Siberia, the sudden rainbow on the Gobi desert, the Great Wall of China stretching forever across the green, green mountainside. My days are filled with the struggle to understand teaching, but answers keep slipping away. Perhaps it’s the influence of my journey, but more and more I think that teaching is only moments in the moment, no matter how I long to pin it in place with theory, to tie it up in neat phrases and tidy lists of best practice.

Today, the moment – the soft wind blowing in the window, the pale pink sky, the blank page on a bright screen – keeps disappearing as my mind floods with memories of Marc. Eleven years ago today, my brother died. How he would have loved the stories of our mother riding a Mongolian pony up the steep slopes behind our ger camp and galloping a horse across the Russian steppes. I can picture him, sprawled out in a chair, laughing. I’ve seen him, just so, so many times. Our life and our love – and learning, too, I’m almost sure – are built on moments, moment by moment.  Even moments like this, saturated with sadness, remembering.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Pondering the Gift of “Nothing to Do”

I read aloud passages to my oldest son from the book I've purchased my son-in-law for Christmas – The End of Absence. The author, Michael Harris, suggests that we who are the last generation to experience pre-Internet life need to “reclaim what we've lost in a world of constant connection.”  He writes:
I think that within the mess of changes we’re experiencing, there’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also a difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence – the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.
I’m enjoying the book and sorry to have to wrap it at last but we are dashing out the door for our second big holiday dinner and there’ll be no time tomorrow before the rest of the family arrives (including my son-in-law) for the third dinner. We drive to Courtenay, a beautiful sunny mild afternoon and are welcomed by the houseful of guests – my father and step-mother, two of my step-sisters and five of their children ranging in ages from 12 to 17. We laugh, talk, tell stories and eat much more than we should.

On the drive home, David remarked on something that didn't even register with me at the time – the young people only engaged minimally with each other or us. It exemplified, he said, the premise of The End of Absence. David, not so far away from being one of the kids, noticed that the young people all had phones out, one was plugged in completely, using ear-buds, the youngest played an online game, the girls chatted in a desultory way and engaged with the “other” in their phones. No one went out to play darts, he said. They didn't bundle up to play tag or pull out a board game or put on a skit. In fact, they didn't do anything they might not have done any other day of the week. There was nothing special about the evening, in fact. They weren't bored. But the boredom of a long evening doing “nothing” didn't drive them to invent new games and challenges, to connect or re-connect with siblings and cousins. They didn't interrupt the adult conversations with questions about what to do or badger us into the inter-generational play that is always the first thing we all remember about past years.

It made me think. In eliminating “nothing to do,” have we lost the best part of being together?