Get Your Assets in Gear!

When we talk about assets, as in, asset-based community development, we’re not just talking about the neighbourhood. We’re talking about you. And you. I know you think you suck, cause you know what things you’re no good at and they rattle around in your head, popping up just when you wish they wouldn’t. You try to fix them, get better at them, hide them. It doesn’t really work that way – unless you’re a type A in which case I don’t envy you your road!

If you focus on what you’re good at, give us more of that, give yourself more of that, then it’s not even about giving yourself a break, it becomes about reveling in your talents, skills, quirks and idiosyncrasies.

The Strategic Coach would have us delegate the things we are not good at, that is, if you are a highly successful entrepreneur and can afford to do so. For the rest of us that’s what family is for. Yay family.

If you look at the average anything you see a straight line, and yet that line is made up of dots above and below it, probably in equal number.  Nobody’s average at everything. And chances are the people who represent the dots below the line, are above the line on the next average. If you focus on your above the line skills and share them with the rest of us, you strengthen the average.

And anyway, averages are like money (and debt!) – it’s all imaginary. But those things you do so well, they’re as real as it gets. As Don would say, “More please!”

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Brian

The world changed the year Brian was born and most folks likely thing that is a coincidence. The world changed for me that year into a place I didn’t have to be so lost in, didn’t have to be so afraid of, didn’t have to be someone else in. Maybe the world hit a tipping point in the paradigm shift from old-school to new-school outlook or maybe it’s the end of the world. Ever notice how your last few days at a previously unbearable job or house or relationship are not so unbearable? Maybe that’s what happened to little planet earth that year; it became less unbearable.

Brian was born into a large extended family (mine) where might was right, kids were to be seen and not heard, and various forms of intimidation were perceived as good leadership, but Brian doesn’t respond to any of that. Brian is four years old and they say he lives with autism. I happen to think Brian lives with himself, but there is no doubt that his family lives with autism.

I remember the picnic that his mom and I had by the water. You will likely think it harsh that I took Stella the wonder dog off of her 20-foot leash and clipped it to Brian’s backpack. We tied it to a tree half way between the picnic blanket and the water and talked about how odd it was that the dog wont run away but the boy will. I still think of Katherine as my little cousin though she is Brian’s mom now, and though she never cries about how hard it is, she did that day – it was the first time she didn’t have to chase him since who knows when. Wouldn’t we all run away without our leashes?

At each visit Brian warms up slowly and I rejoice that unlike the old-school days, the family members compete for his attention and affection on his terms. He responds to music and texture. He loves books. Cindy Currie will be glad to hear that those romance novels are among his favourites. He pours over each page carefully like he is examining a microfiche and then tears them out one by one. We wonder if he could read pictographs or hieroglyphs and where we could find someone to teach him how.

In all kinds of mythology /religions/beliefs they talk about heroes being born in the future who will change the world, change us. Brian was born into the future four years ago and is changing us – our values, our perceptions, our sense of normal – and consequently the world around us just by being himself.

Would that more of us could do that.

Hugs

After my mother died we were like six orphans living in an empty house looking after each other. It wasn’t exactly like that but that’s how it felt.

Most of us have lost family members and we all know that people deal with it differently. Some wear their hearts on their sleeves and others keep it to themselves. I remember being a hard-case teenager, driven to move forward and forget about the past. I remember when whats-his-name’s behaviour was once explained by having lost his mother and my reply was “What!? That was over a year ago!” as if everyone else in the world just bit the bullet and moved on. People come, people go. Next!

When my mother died my sister Rachel was fifteen and she didn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve, she wore all her organs, feelings, needs and wants right out there for the rest of us to share in. Not only were we expected to embrace this but to adapt, conform and get in touch with our own emotions as well as hers.

“I haven’t had my three hugs today!” She would declare. What could you do? The girl had just lost her mother so fine, I’d give her a hug. I guess my mother must have hugged her a lot for her to need all of us to fill that void, but this angry teenager wasn’t really into it.

At first.

The thing is, Rachel wasn’t taking hugs, she was giving them. She was preventing us from each living in our own little worlds and having only living quarters in common. She was making sure we each connected with her daily, acknowledge her, her presence, her person and consequently ourselves. And of course, you can’t go around just hugging Rachel when there are four other people in the house, can you?

Eventually I wasn’t just acquiescing, trying to make Rachel feel better. Eventually I was participating. Initiating. Needing hugs of my own.

Then I moved to Montreal where people kiss each other all the time instead of hugging. Left cheek, right cheek. (My left not yours – it would take too long to keep figuring out which is your left cheek!) Suddenly hugs became a very intimate thing, just for family, and all this cheek kissing is what you do instead of shaking hands. In fact, shaking hands is kind of insulting in some circles. When in Rome…

Then I came back to the land of hugs and suffered in limbo for a time as I readjusted: people would lean in for a hug and I’d be leaning in for a kiss there’d be this awkward collision of noses and chins, unintentional gropes.

And now I find my world is pretty huggy; family, friends, neighbours, Santa Clause…

But sometimes, I just have to say, “I haven’t had my three hugs today!”

Stella and Artois

In the summer of 2008 we got Stella the Wonder Dog from Pet Rescue in Toronto. She was a really well-trained seven year old mix of Boxer and Rhodesian Ridgeback with a beautiful temperament. Stella loves people and animals alike. Even people who don’t like dogs are won over by Stella’s magical charm.

We speculate that she was a sort of domestic guard dog in a past life, or maybe it’s instinct that causes her to be always on duty when others are around. She guards the house when we are sleeping, herds all the children when we are camping. I expect she enjoys her alone time.

However, it wasn’t long until we thought she might like some animal company (besides Kitty Cat who hates everybody) so the following summer we started looking at the Pet Rescue listings again, thinking another dog just like Stella but younger might do the trick. Or a Pug for her to play with, she seems so fond of the small dogs, even the ones that bite her nose. But Stella had other plans.

One day as she and Mike set out for an escarpment run Stella unearthed a tiny little kitten under a bush and wouldn’t leave it. “Come on,” says Mike, “we’re here for a run.” And off they go. But on the way back Stella goes back to the bush and this time she wont leave without the little kitten. Having seen a coyote on the trail, Mike supposes that this is the last of an abandoned litter that has already fed the coyote, so he pops it into a Tim’s tray and brings it home with Stella, the proud new mom, beaming at his side.

Artois was a beautifully striped grey and white tabby with markings that made him look like he was wearing Egyptian eye makeup. Stella brought him home, licked him clean from head to toe, pushed him over to her food and water, litter trained him (!?) and then curled up around him on her cushion. I guess that’s how some families grow. Kitty Cat, however, was not so thrilled.

Kitty would park herself in front of the food whenever Artois wandered near it. Stella, being defensive but gentle would edge her way between the two cats, never meeting Kitty’s gaze but with a body language that said “I know you’re the boss Kitty, but don’t make me do it,” and eventually Kitty would wander off with as much incensed dignity as she could muster.

Stella and Artois were inseparable to the point that we had to take Artois with us when we went to Montreal, to the cottage, out to visit friends. Stella would herd her protege at each location, making sure he didn’t leave the yard or campground. We laughed a lot watching him learn to climb trees; he would fling himself up about two feet and cling to the bark waiting for Stella to wander over sniffing for his whereabouts and then launch himself claws-first onto her back. Wrestling ensued…

Soon, Artois was more comfortable roaming on his own and Stella let him, and he began to throw up in the car so we stopped taking him. He was on his own against the fierce Kitty Cat, erstwhile terror of Glenlake night life.

One night, sitting in the living room watching a movie, with Artois sitting upright beside me, Miss Kitty sauntered by and paused in front of Artois. Her expression said “Boy I really hate that you have come into my space, and made friends with that dog that hogs all the attention. I hate that you’re young and cute and I am getting old and cranky, but I just want you to know that I am still the boss here.” But Artois just sat there with his big wide-eyed gaze, unfazed. Faster than any of us could react Miss Kitty whipped out her down-but-not-out right hook and raked his face three times in succession with her claws. Artois’ head buffeted and bounced back with each blow and still he just sat there, unfazed. It was over before the scream left my mouth, before Stella could do more than just stand up. He just sat there looking at her with those big innocent eyes. Miss Kitty eventually walked off. It was hard to tell what she was thinking then…

Artois grew older and made friends all over the street both feline and human. He learned to stand on the ledge of the screen door across the street and ring the doorbell for treats. He learned to ring the Christmas bell on the doorknob at our house when he wanted out. I think it is safe to say he was a neighbourhood favourite.

After opening the cafe in Dec of 2009, I seldom saw the cats as a result of a new and unexpected schedule. By the summertime, when I closed up for a break, I hardly recognized Artois. He was much bigger, with faded markings and was less affectionate than previously. At least with me. I was sad at the realization that I had missed half of his first year of life. And yet another half a year went by until one day not too long ago Mike said, “I haven’t seen Artois in a few days,” and we wondered if he’d found greener pastures. But would Artois really leave Stella?

After a few days Mike said “I think Artois is in the apartment next door,” but I assured him that they had a cat who looked like Artois, who sat in that window facing ours all the time. Stella’s behaviour was hard to interpret. At the end of the week Mike reiterated his notion that Artois was next door so I asked Betty who lives downstairs there, “Don’t those people have a cat that looks just like Artois?”

“Those people moved out!” said Betty.

“What?! Betty, get the key, call the landlord, it must be Artois!”

The next morning Betty knocked at my door with tears in her eyes. She was holding Artois, who had not only been trapped in the appartment for a week, the window had fallen on his paw, which was split open and shaped like a pancake with a dent in it the size of a window frame. His leg was extra long.

I put Artois onto Stella’s big cushion and put a small dish of water there. I poured a whole bag of cat treats onto it and Stella sniffed around at the stinky cat. As he ate the food I saw sparkles in it and it looked as though broken glass were falling from his fur. But no, it was tears. Big round tears were running down Artois’s face as he ate. On either side of his nose a crusty black trough channeled them, probably the crust of a weeks worth of crying. Who knew that cats had tears? His eyes were not the big wide-eyed innocent ones they used to be.

Mike took Artois the vet who bandaged the foot. A week later the vet said that his foot was dead and that it would spread and kill him. The vet said that for $2000 he could amputate the leg before it spreads or for $200 he could put him down. Mike brought the cat home.

Two grand I didn’t have. Two hundred is the sort of thing one can juggle; pay some bill or other another time. But, because of the cafe, I am in debt to neighbours, neighbours who sorely need $200 for their own cats, their own kids, mortgages, you name it. What a dilemma.

Amid speculation that this was all the fault of Miss Kitty Cat, that she had lured him over to the empty apartment, found a way in, said “hey look Artois, you can see our house from here!” and then slammed the window on his foot, Julie said “If you’re going to put him down, why not wait till he looks like he needs it? Right now he looks ok.”

It’s true, I thought. It’s one thing to put a creature out of its misery, it’s another to put it out of an anticipated misery. So we waited. And Artois slept with me. And he couldn’t get enough attention or affection. And as the bandage got stinky and left soggy footprints on my sheets, I thought I should cut it off, but Stella wouldn’t let me. Every time I went near him with the scissors, Stella would come over and nudge him out of my lap. Eventually Artois got the stinky bandage off by himself.

And underneath was a foot. One that looked just like his other foot. And the leg wasn’t any longer. And though he favoured it, he was soon walking and then running on it. And though the fur looks green, which is hopefully my imagination, his claws seem to grab on when I pick him up.

He seems to be getting his big wide-eyed stare back and even the affectionate nature that left him six months ago. In fact, it looks like he is not only surviving, but thriving.

The lengths that some creatures go to for a bit of attention…

The Star of Magalie

Every night after dinner Magalie and her family would sit in the living room and do “quiet things”.  Her mother graded the students’ homework, her father pretended to be doing important things on the lap top, but Magalie knew he was playing video games, and Magalie was supposed to be doing homework, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the Christmas tree.

This year the tree was decorated with gold and silver and white ornaments, white ribbons and gold beads and silver tinsel.  Magalie’s mom said there were too many decorations so from now on she would do theme decorations.  So Magalie’s dad said the same thing about the lights.  As a consequence the tree had only two strands of white lights on it and the lights on the front porch went only half way across.  Magalie suspected they were both getting lazy in their old age, but since she didn’t want to hang the lights herself, she decided that it looked just perfect the way it was, a little pathetic, but perfect.  What she did want though was a star for the top of the tree.

The Santa heads which sometimes adorned the top of the tree were all mostly red, so they had been put back into the boxes with the rest of the unused ornaments and were now stored under the tree like early presents.  A single branch stood up from the tree and Magalie could see that there was just enough room for a star on top.  So instead of doing her homework she sat quietly and looked at the Christmas tree and thought about how perfect it would be with a star on top; pathetic, but perfect.

The last day of school was also the day when the family began to arrive and Magalie watched eagerly to see people’s reaction to the new “theme decorated” tree.  Aunt Amelia always brought chocolates to hang on the tree and Magalie wondered what would happen when she was confronted with a theme, but to her amazement, they were all made of white chocolate this year.  Was everyone in on the theme thing?

After supper Uncle Charlie went out to the store.  “Pick up a star while you’re out” Magalie’s Dad called to him as he left.  She couldn’t believe her ears.  She waited and waited for him to get back, watching the tree, imaging the star.  But when he came back, he had only a newspaper.  “Where’s the star?” Magalie asked when Uncle Charlie came in.  He laughed when he realized what she meant, and he explained that the newspaper was called The Star.  “Come with me”, he said and led her to the kitchen.

Uncle Charlie rummaged through the drawers for a while, took out some tinfoil, some wooden skewers, a paper plate, green cookie sprinkles, and white fluff from an old jewel box.  He cut a star out of the paper plate and Magalie began to get an idea of what he was about.  He glued a wooden skewer to the back of it, and while it dried they had cookies and hot chocolate.  After the cookie break Uncle Charlie covered the star with tin foil and then glued the green sprinkles to the edges.  The white fluff was glued to the back of it so that it stuck out around the edges.  To Magalie, it looked exactly like a tinfoil star with green cookie sprinkles and white fluff.  They took the new star and some twist ties into the living room and unplugged the Christmas tree lights.  When nobody was looking uncle Charlie stood on the good chair so he could reach the top of the tree.  He propped the star up by the wooden skewer and twist-tied it to the lone branch that stuck up.  Then he stepped back down.  He could see that Magalie was sceptical, looking up at the tinfoil star, but when he plugged the lights back in the Star was shining forth; the tinfoil reflected the glow of the Christmas lights, the cookie sparkles shone green and their light also danced off the tinfoil, while the white fluff created a halo all around the Star.  It was breathtaking.  A little bit pathetic if you saw the back of it through the window, but it was perfect.

When everyone had gathered later that night to sing Christmas carols, Uncle Charlie suggested that maybe next year Magalie should choose the theme for the Christmas tree decorations, and they all agreed.

Bedstemor’s Buttons

Bedstemor was 94 when she died and though she had ten children, 32 grand children and who knows how many great grand children, I got her jars of buttons.

My Grandmother made quilts. I suppose she made a thousand or more and gave each one away. She used to cut old clothes into squares, sorting and storing the buttons and whatever else was removed. Once our hand-me-downs had been handed down as far as they could go they usually wound up in a quilt. “Hey that’s Nellie’s dress! That’s my poncho!” There were woolly ones and silky ones and even furry ones. When she could she would buy the quilting to go inside, but the outsides were pieces of all her people, backed by so many 70’s flower-power sheets. It was a way of sewing all of us together, though I believe she never intended it that way. “It’s not a bed spread,” she would tell me, “just throw it in the trunk of the car for emergencies.”

Not only did she give away all her quilts but everything else too. It was kind of a family joke that if you gave her something you were sure to see it on someone else at the next event. I was a delinquent grand-daughter with grandiose ideas about visiting regularly, documenting all of her stories, writing a book about her, sharing her with everyone. Through her quilting and her prolific letter-writing she shared herself farther afield than she could ever have traveled and became a one-woman hub of family news. When she died she left a simple collection of items and somehow I ended up with buttons.

Jars of buttons that represent not only her, but all the people whose clothing was cut up to make the quilts. I have often spread them out, sorted them, admired some and recognized some. I figured that someday I would do something with them but had no idea what.

Recently, a neighbourhood jeweller was looking for vintage buttons so I passed the jars to her, sure that they would have a new life. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I suppose it is what Bedstemor would have done. But maybe there is a little bit of Bedstemor in all of us for Julie returned with a charm bracelet; a cluster of Bedstemor Buttons, each link hand-made in a tightly woven pattern like a family, or a community.

Each one unique and the whole a stunning creation.

Mom

Oh crap. I just realized that June went by without a Mom’s day thing.

I think this is the first year of… twenty or so that we have missed it. No picnic, no get-together, no graph paper or Joe Louis’.

I remember her letter about caring for each other, about doing our work well, about getting together at least once a year and I suppose we are still doing all of those things if not in a linear fashion. I tell myself that is the main thing. That it’s about celebrating the living.

Happy Mom’s day, family.