Remembrance Day

Each year on November 11th, nothing can keep us from our memories.

Growing up in North Vancouver during the 50s and 60s, we children were taught to respect and honour heroes. Of all the admirable ones around us, none were considered more courageous than the WWI and WWII veterans. My dad, John, and his brother, Lewis – my mom’s 3 brothers, Douglas, John and Bill – and Auntie Chris (who was also Uncle Lewis’ war bride) – all saw active service in Europe for six long years.

For most of WWII, Mom was still a student at Queen Margaret’s School. She and her family, who lived in Canada – an ocean away from the fighting – practised rationing so that the troops could receive more food. She rolled bandages, knit socks and wrote letters to cheer up her brothers as well as lonely recruits.  

My dad returned from six years of brutal fighting with “shell shock”, a condition we now call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) He was only 19 years old when he shipped out and not quite 25 when he returned to Canada. Afterwards, he said that he would dissuade anyone from going to war. He didn’t believe it was the answer to disagreements between nations. Attending the Veterans’ Day parade wasn’t an activity our family took part in.

Dad belonged to a division of the Royal Canadian Engineering Corp that took part in the Liberation of Amsterdam, his father’s birth place. He knew that one of his cousins, an artist named Gisele, lived in the city and he wanted to meet her. He did in fact do so – in the living room of her small flat – surrounded by the Jewish friends she’d hidden during the entire Nazi occupation. He and the army buddy who went with him to his cousin’s home could hardly believe how terribly underweight and weak they all were. “No one weighed more than 80 pounds,” Dad said. The two Canadian soldiers returned to their base and “liberated” food and other supplies from the Division’s larder. Aunt Gisele later told me that those provisions saved her group from starvation.

After their brief time together in Amsterdam, the cousins never met again. But they exchanged letters for many years.

Sometimes Dad would compare the nightly news stories about Vietnam with his experience during WWII. My city, Vancouver, had become home to an unknown number of “draft dodgers”. Dad always encouraged me to be kind to any homesick guys I met. “I know they are missing their families more than anything and you should bring them home for supper whenever you think it will help,” he said. He too met a large number of these confused young men at his work place. At the time he was personnel manager for Seaspan International at the Vancouver Shipyards. He couldn’t give those boys a job without proper paperwork, but they always got lunch or dinner with dad, and he would allow them to use his office line or our home phone to call their parents.

My dad died young. After the funeral Mom gave me some of the letters he exchanged with Gisele, and I carried on correspondence with her. Finally we met in 2003. Her curiosity and generosity, her art and the friendship she and Dad shared, deeply impressed me. So much so, that I wrote a book about Gisele and her bond with my father, the man she called, my tall Canadian Liberator.

I smiled the first time I heard Gisele describe my dad that way – he was 5 foot 6 – but height is not the only feature that can cause a man to be called, “tall”. Conversations with Gisele – and my own loving memories – helped me to understand that he indeed fit all of them. The sacrifice asked of him was a “tall order”. He could tell a “tall tale”. He always “rode tall in the saddle”. And when it came to character, my father “stood tall”.

Today I honour John Robert van der Gracht. I feel grateful for his brave service, but I also hope we will learn to resolve our differences with compassion and tolerance, instead of guns.

YEAH FOR PRESIDENT-ELECT BIDEN

First off, I am not an American citizen, but my life and well-being have been negatively impacted by the Trump presidency. Many Americans do not realise that the USA’s policies on everything affect the whole world. So this is why so many of us non-Americans have felt such a vested interest in the outcome of American presidential election.

Secondly, a great many of my friends are Americans and it has pained me to see how unhappy and embarrassed they have felt over the past four years. Their president made many of them say they are ashamed to be United States citizens. How sad is that?

Never has the familiar phrase, “United we stand, divided we fall” been more painfully illustrated than during the past four years. The Trump presidency created more separation in the United States of America than anyone else during any period in my memory. Now, we have HOPE that the new president will right many of the wrongs… and the list is long.

By backing out of long-standing international accords, Trump drove wedges between the USA and its traditional allies.

Trump’s divisive rhetoric caused rifts between family members. I have several friends whose siblings are not speaking to them because they did not blindly follow Trump. I have been told of one case, where a mother has disowned her daughter.   

On one hand he swore to defend the workers but in fact he repeatedly betrayed them by allowing corporations to cut back on-the-job protection, fair pay and benefits. His policies made it harder for workers to have health insurance, to save for retirement, and have access to training programs. Under Trump workers had less of a voice in their workplace, and minorities were more discriminated against.

The environment took blow after blow from his “squander-now” policies.

The drug trade, human trafficking, illegal organ harvesting, gun escalation and the harbouring of criminals. All this is too unsavoury to contemplate, but even a single internet search will show how stats for these heinous crimes soared through the roof during the past four years.

Trump immigration policies destroyed minority communities and can we even bear to think about the children who have been separated from their families? When the parents could not be located he had the gall to say – Guess what those mothers and fathers don’t want their kids back – in reality, few refugees have addresses.

The brazenness he demonstrated is appalling. He openly snarled and dismissed all those he considers his inferiors.

Trump’s “tremendous” mishandling of the Corona virus pandemic is responsible for 100s of thousands of deaths in the USA

Trump incited hatred between racial groups. Remember when during the first debate he told those Proud Boys, Stand down, but stand by. People of colour have never been angrier, and with more justified reasons.

Trump insulted, multiple times, the leadership and citizens of the USA’s northern and southern neighbours with the insidious wall, unethical trade practises, and more. He was the most powerful man in the world – but he never understood, that with power comes responsibility. He was a bully.

His attitude of scorn towards women is obvious not only in the press accounts, but also by the way he treats his wife. She may be many things but no one deserves such disdainful behaviour from Hubby.

His questionable business and investment dealings are legend, before and during the presidency.

And how about the way he toodles off to play golf whenever he gets too stressed-out. And even today when he knew Biden would be confirmed as the winner of the presidency. What a user. What a loser.

I could go on and on, but to me the two worst things Trump did are:

He subliminally urged his constituents to allow their base insecurities, prejudices, and fears to rule their behaviour. He “showed” them it’s OK to turn a blind eye to the negativity and cruelty that surrounds us. When he says, America First – he means ME first – hardly the Christian values he espouses.

Secondly, he used his Svengali personality to trick nearly half the US voters into choosing him. I am GRATEFUL to slightly more than half the voting population who did not get sucked in.

I know I will still be looking at his offensive, bloated mug for a while longer. He has once again insulted the highest office of his country with his boorish, ill-mannered behaviour. He claims he will not leave the White House. This idiocy makes him look like even a bigger fool.

I cannot wait until he is yesterday’s bad news. I hope that all Americans will soon be able to put him out of their minds, and that they’ll all try to erase the stain he has left behind, and truly make America a great and prosperous country for all..

Trump Baby – you have been DISMISSED – FIRED – LET GO – forever !

Art IS the answer…

Today, one of my dearest friends forwarded a post by Devon Baker and her words resonated so much with me. At the end of the post you’re reading, I have reproduced the piece. So if you want to… scroll down and savour every word.

The story begins in 2006, with an English teacher’s idea. She had her class write letters to famous authors. They were to ask these paragons of literature for advice about their craft. Of the many missives sent, a single author replied.

Kurt Vonnegut was the only one who took the time and effort to respond. And the master advised the young acolytes:  

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reporting, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow… and do it for the rest of your lives.

I believe this is the most valuable counsel a young whipper-snapper, or a middle-aged fuddy-duddy, or a cranky old goat can ever receive. The act of “doing art” AKA “being creative” is the best gift you can give yourself and others around you.

Art makes you a better person. Art softens the edges of your hard-fast attitudes and allows your body, spirit and mind to stretch out and grow. It humbles you because to see improvement in your ability, you have to practice a lot. To me, the definition of “doing art” is the attempt to construct anything you can envision.

Your vision can be conventional or eccentric (or both at the same time) For example, you may want to cook a meal that you see on internet, paint the flowers in your garden, sing a song you absolutely love. Re-string a bunch of beads to make an exciting original piece, write a birthday greeting to someone special, or compose a eulogy that honours a deceased person you loved… redecorate your living room. ALL of this is “doing art” and “being creative”.

The second part of my friend’s message was about ayoung adult who was “doing art”. But she considered her efforts too inexpert to be considered as such. A person she admired found out about her interests and when she confessed to being very much a beginner, and “no good” he said:

I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.

This young person said that statement literally changed her life by altering her self-image and giving her the confidence to move onward and upward.

Regular readers of “Changes in our Lives” know that I “do art”, and that I am creative. The results of my attempts to produce what I initially set out to achieve, are rarely one in the same. But I LOVE what I do, even the not-quite-what-I-envisioned pieces. But I don’t care. I put it all out there anyways.

My friend that sent me the forward is someone you may know… Colleen Casey Leonard is her name. She is an artist and she has achieved a level of expertise I yet aspire to. But she has been working at art her whole life. When I met her she had only recently arrived to live in Yucatan and one of her greatest concerns was finding an art community and a place to work at her art.

I did some art while in school, but when I moved here, I didn’t know where to find supplies and so I stopped. I always felt there was something locked up inside me. But my son, Carlos found the key. Almost 15 years ago, at Christmas, he gave me an easel, some paints, brushes and canvases… with a note that read: I think it is time for you to take up painting again.

I had no confidence that I could “do art” but if my son gave me the tools, I figure I could not waste his gift and I began. I was shocked at what I could remember about form, perspective and colour. I was equally shocked at what I could not. But I plug away… and as I have already said… I love it, no matter how it comes out.

The same is true with my writing. I plug away and I love it.

If you are wondering how you could get started “doing art”, just pick up a pencil and a piece of paper and draw what you see, or write what you feel. If you still need help getting to the starting place (or even if you’ve already passed that initial step) I can highly recommend two books.

The first is “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron and “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by   Betty Edwards. Both these books will rev´ you up.

I could also get into many recommendations for writers. Natalie Goldberg’s,“Writing Down the Bones” is my favourite

Cooking, Crafting, Decorating … the intrnet is full of great sites. Do a search and find one you love.

Singing, dancing, gardening, decorating and playing and instrument… Ditto

One other thing. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t create for a while. . I certainly do this far too regularly. I let life’s “stuff” take up my time for art. Big mistake, because I turn into the wicked witch of negativity. But then a miracle occurs… I remember my art. Then I close my door (literally and figuratively) and I… do art… I do what I love. I am far happier for it and Woo-oo- Baby, my loved ones are happier too.

This is the author of the post forwarded to me. Devon Baker can be read at: https://www.facebook.com/aurora.baker.96. Read, savour and repeat…

***

In 2006 a high school English teacher asked students to write a famous author and ask for advice. Kurt Vonnegut was the only one to respond – and his response is magnificent: “Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.

And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”

And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”

And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.