"Love calls us to many altars in the course of our life..."
~ Stewart McLean at the Vinyl Cafe on Leonard Cohen's song Coming Back To You
I sat in a small Gulf Island church on Easter weekend gazing into the wooden face of Mary. Presumably she was The Virgin Mary, Mother Mary, or as I was taught to call her in Catholic girls school, Mater Admirabilis – her eyes were cast heavenward, she wore long robes, looked patiently peaceful and she was hung with not one, but two rosaries, one colourful and one plain. She was unpainted, dark brown wood. The grain of the wood ran along her face and robes like rivulets of tears. She was both lovely and ordinary, simply carved and placed to greet people as they entered the church.
The plain rosary was made of wood as well and it hung about her like a garland, a festive addition to the robes she wore. The rosary looked just like prayer beads in the Buddhist tradition: they were large, each bead resembling a puckered flower. The beads reminded me of my neglected yoga practice, of the gift of sitting in stillness. As I clasped my hands in my lap, I found myself wanting very much to reach for the rosary so I could roll the beads soothingly between my fingers as they were surely intended to have been rolled.
Sitting still in the church I let the familiar pattern of the words roll over me, words I knew by heart but have not ever taken truly to heart. I refused to be confirmed at my Catholic girls school, preferring instead to visit many churches: the one my best friend attended with tea and cookies served in the church basement by soft-looking ladies in patterned dresses after the service; the Seder and the Sabbath tables around which I have gathered with our dearest family friends, sing-songing along with the words I knew to say but did not truly understand; sitting in elders circles at the Native Center, listening to the telling of the old stories in languages I spoke and some I did not; singing in the glow of stained glass or twinkling tree lights to Christmas carols which inevitably stir me to tears I cannot fully explain.
Do we need to explain at all? Or is it enough to recognize, and teach all of our children to respect, an altar when we see one?
The statue of Mary has lingered at the edges of my mind because I believe she is the closest I come to church: simple, strung with many beads, offering small daily graces, be they a greeting, a meal shared, the act of bearing witness, the mindful summoning of patience or the many shapeless prayers for which I have no name but which are directed nevertheless toward the divine present in our ordinary everyday.
Is every generation dismayed by the moral unraveling that seems to occur, like a meticulously cable-knit sweater with a loose thread, pulled a little looser year after year in the generations after our own?
A decade or so ago I watched my friend’s eldest daughter as she put up pictures of the Spice Girls in her room. She was perfect as all pre-teen girls are perfect: full of opinions and curiosity, a keen social observer. At that age they travel and preen in small flocks swinging between unselfconscious natural beauty and coy strutting. I eyed the posters, each one a somewhat appalling stereotype of femininity and wondered anxiously about the state of “girrl power”. As midriff baring shirts & peek a boo thongs came into fashion I pushed my little girl in the swings and thought smugly to myself “at least this phase will have passed by the time she is a teenager.”
Now we have Katie Perry & Lady Gaga and really, is there any body part left unexposed? Rhianna is all over the radio singing the praises of S&M, Brittany had a hit song about a threesome. There are video games like Grand Theft Auto and Mad World, which make atrocities interactive. Inevitably, we fret over the loss of innocence and imagination in the childhoods of both our boys and our girls.
Then, I read statistics like these in Backbone magazine: “Kids Can’t Swim, Tie Shoelaces or Make Breakfast” (more small children can navigate the web than can ride a bike)
or news items like this one: “Sixth Grader Arrested For Spilt Milk”
Ã‚Â (violence trumps manners)
… and I feel deeply afraid for our future. These are the things about which we truly need to be alarmed. Turn up the volume on the radio and sing your heart out with your kid, play the horrible game with them, talk through the stuff that worries you, laugh about the rest. It is gonna come, and to try to hold it back is to spit into the wind. Or guarantee your teen will pierce something you heartily wish they hadn’t.
Music and style and are as ever-shifting as hemlines, and like hemlines, they leave less and less to the imagination. But perhaps it is ever thus? Elvis after all, shocked a generation of parents.
Concern about the perils of a pelvis seems quaint in comparison to statistics about the declining health and moral welfare of our children. This generation of wired but inactive children may be the first to die younger than their parents. This generation of smart sassy hyper-informed kids is going to be in for a terrible shock when the world doesn’t clean up their spilt milk for them. Or worse, when they figure out that their sense of entitlement does not in fact guarantee them pay cheques or a clean planet to match.
We have a responsibility not to look on and tsk, but to hustle our kids out of doors, treat them like the children they are, give them boundaries and manners and a sense of what is right and what is wrong. In short, we need to teach our children how to live in the world like they just might inherit it.
A year ago we were raising money for Haiti. This year we are gathering supplies for Japan.
I find it difficult to hold my heart still when confronted by devastation beyond my capacity to help or comprehend. Alongside the daily bump and hustle to get my family through our days more or less intact, my mind circles around to conflicts I cannot solve, to grandmothers and the too-many babies they are raising because AIDS stole a generation of parents, I find myself thinking our next vacation should be spent swabbing oil-soaked sea creatures, I pick up and then put down clothes or food because of the hidden costs of their production in places whose names I hardly know to speak. Half a world away, which is to say only one or two degrees of separation from our West Coast, families have been torn asunder, children ripped from their parents’ arms by an unstoppable tide and swallowed without a trace in the maw of an earthquake. Pregnant mothers are lying in makeshift beds offering up prayers for the protection of their unborn babies from the radiation that no one can stop. In the face of all this I barely know how to breathe let alone write a blog.
And yet. Despite everything, it is in our nature to carry on, to abide, to go to the marketplace in search of the next meal. In his article Why We Travel for the New York Times, Paul Theroux tellingly observes “the way in which, in the worst situations, life goes on.”
Because I cannot lay a bandage across the knee of a child half a world away, nor will that bandage bring back her village, but because I do believe there is great good in small gestures, here are a few things I have found which might help to heal the visible tears and tangible bruises we all encounter as we cope with the every day living of family life:
Calendula Gel: This homeopathic gel works wonders for all manner of heat rashes, cuts, scratches and skin irritations. It is particularly wonderful for burns. There are many small beige smiles on my arms, singed bits of flesh to remember that too-quickly snatched-from-the-heat dish. Ever since being told to go and find calendula gel (by another infinitely wise mother who saw a particularly nasty blistered gash on my wrist which I was busy ignoring) my burns do not scar. They vanish as if by magic.
Ozonol: Remember the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding with his Windex cure-alls? I feel a bit like that about Ozonol. Smells like medicine, soothes like a salve. It really does work like a charm for one thing every single time: chapped lips. The kind your kids get after a fever, a bad cold, or too long in the elements. Mine were recently ragged from a winter of wear (and if I am to be perfectly honest, from being shredded with worry and fret). I had smeared them with fancy lipstick and poncy lip balm to no avail. Then I remembered the battered tube on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet: after one full day of the Ozonol treatment, I woke up with healed, perfect “kiss-it-better”-able lips.
Witch Hazel: Especially soothing if kept in the fridge. Great for cooling after too much sun, minor irritations, bruises and skin problems of all kinds, including hormone inducted-break outs (cause of periodic teen hysteria). It is also a cure for the occasional invisible hurts incurred after a pillow fight or too much tussling. A perfect go-to for the sorts of head-throbbing which require tending and sympathy and a little white witchery on a cotton ball.
BooBoo Bunny*: This simple ice pack works wonders. Even older kids cannot fail to smile when the chilly bunny comes out of the freezer. Immediate icing of a nasty wasp sting this past summer resulted in an almost-pain free recovery with no soreness or swelling at the site of the sting. Particularly good for extra-itchy mosquito bites and the kind of head bumps that leave a nasty swelling ‘egg’ and teary eyes.
A small Swiss Army Knife: Make sure yours has scissors. This is one of the handiest pieces of mum-equipment I carry. Great for everything from impromptu picnics to splinters, freeing wrists from those impossible balloon strings, first aid, peeling apples. Like the remedies above, when you whisk it out with the correct air of mum-efficiency the problem feels just a little closer to all better.
* When I searched a link for BooBoo Bunny I found them for sale at Amazon and elsewhere online. I also found several links for how-to make your own BooBoo Bunny. If you want neither to buy one nor to make one, a small towel or sock (BooBoo Turtle? BooBoo Snake?) wrapped around an ice cube with a little creative soothing would just as well."