Sunday, April 25, 2010


My favourite word used to be LOVE. It’s a feel-good word, loaded with sentimentality. This is a word we associate with our heart, and the heart is what keeps us ticking and kicking. We need love. We need it in our relationships and in our daily life. We may love our country, our province, and our neighbourhood.  In the Bible the word love is used to tell us how to live: love your neighbour as yourself, love your enemies, love God.

Love brings people together. At a wedding people congregate to celebrate the couple’s love and also to express their love for the bride and groom. The ultimate love is for our children. Parents around the world would do anything to protect them.

But love also has its pitfalls. Love can fall apart. It can start as a spark, turn into a flame, and suddenly obliterate as if extinguished by a torrential downpour. Love is often conditional. You may have my love if you do this, do that, and toe my line…but if you don’t, I may withhold it as punishment or take it away forever.

The opposite of love is hate. There is a very fine line between the two. Anyone who goes through a divorce or a break-up will likely experience this feeling. How deep does love really go? If you betray me, slight me, slander me, or hurt me, any love that I’ve sent your way, I’m taking back. Love is not enough to sustain a relationship. There also has to be respect, consideration, sensitivity and appreciation, among other things.

And what does ‘love’ mean, really? It’s so much more than the word implies. My Oxford Dictionary has a very long description for ‘love.’ As a noun it includes everything from ‘warm affection’ to ‘paternal benevolence’ to ‘sexual desire.’ The definition of the verb ‘love’ includes: to hold dear, to delight in, to admire and be glad of the existence of. All can slip away slowly or die with a crash.

My new favourite word is GRACE. I’ve always thought it was a nice word, a pretty word, but hadn’t contemplated its meaning until I read a book called, What’s So Amazing about Grace? Can you imagine a 280 page book about one word? Everything Philip Yancey says about ‘grace’ boils down to one unadulterated definition: an unmerited gift. If I do something for you and I have no ulterior motive other than to please you, help you, inspire you, or make amends with you, that is grace.

Yancey uses the example of a kindly bishop in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to illustrate. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, is a hardened ex-convict who spent sixteen years in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread. When he is released from prison he has nothing but the shabby clothes on his back. A bishop takes pity on him and gives him shelter in his home. In the night, Valjean steals the family’s silverware and disappears.

When the police apprehend him and bring him back to the bishop’s home, the bishop tells the police that he had given the silver to Valjean, and he runs to get two sterling candlesticks that, he says, he’d forgotten to include. By this single act of grace, Jean Valjean’s life is transformed. From that moment on, he devotes himself to helping others in need.

Where do we see grace in our world? There are volunteers who devote time and energy to helping others; there are affluent people and some not so affluent people who donate to charities; neighbours help neighbours and sometimes strangers help strangers. I know that grace is out there but perhaps we have to look a little too hard to see it, and think too much to practice it ourselves.

I have a friend whose husband lost his job, became an alcoholic, had an affair and finally left. My friend had to support their three young children on her own, pay the mortgage, and manage the home—all under the stress and emotional upheaval of a broken life. The father became an inconstant presence in the children’s lives and made no financial contribution for years. All the while, my friend encouraged her children to maintain a relationship with their father, and she refrained from speaking badly about him. She wanted her children to know that they were loved by both parents and though he had done some bad things, he was not a bad man. For many years he was invited to share Christmas morning with the family. This is grace in action. I don’t know how she did it, or where she got her strength, but one can see the power of her grace in the three very fine children she has raised.

Grace can be found in the neighbour who mows your lawn (without being asked) when you’re out of town because he knows it’s the last thing you’ll want to do when you get home.

We see it in people who spend more time than they have to spare, helping someone with a personal struggle.

We see it when people open their minds to other perspectives despite their own strong opinions.

It’s in the person who lends a hand when it's the worst possible time for them.

We find it in forgiveness, especially when we don't think it's deserved.

If only we could see, and practice, grace more often. If politicians, business people, and faith communities paid closer attention to the significance of grace, perhaps we’d have a little less strife in our world. I still like the word ‘love’ but it has lost its first place standing. Unlike love, grace cannot die. Love, forgiveness, kindness, joy, and compassion emerge from GRACE. I hope it becomes everybody’s favourite word.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Flying...What?

Before having children, my husband and I frequented the theatre, the symphony, and museums, taking advantage of the cultural offerings in Toronto. And when I was single I went to the ballet, Shakespeare plays, and on occasion, the opera, buying a last-minute discounted single ticket. I’ve always enjoyed the arts in any form, and although I like movies and concerts, I’d prefer to see a play or an exhibit at a museum when I have the opportunity.

When our children were small our theatrical outings tended towards productions like “Barney” at the Skydome and “Disney on Ice” at Maple Leaf Gardens. One evening, in desperation for a more cultural diversion, my husband and I booked a babysitter last minute and made plans to see a play. “The Master Builder,” by the renowned 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen, was playing downtown, and when I called about tickets, there were still some available.

As usual, getting out the door was a challenge; we arrived at the Hummingbird Centre (now the Sony Centre) at 7:55, with barely a minute to spare. I hurried to the box office to buy the tickets while my husband parked the car. Relieved to have made it in time, I quickly paid for them and waited by the door. When my husband arrived, we grabbed a program and dashed to our seats.

As we congratulated ourselves for our perfect timing, the lights dimmed, the curtains opened and the production began. A huge wooden ship loomed on the stage, rocking up and down against the backdrop of a stormy night; several ghost-like figures hung precariously from the ship’s rafters.

How strange; wasn’t “The Master Builder” supposed to be set in the home of a middle-aged architect in Norway? I’d read the reviews and was expecting a drama about a man who had built a great business at the cost of his relationships and his personal life. Where did a ship on a stormy sea come into the story? Then the orchestra played and the singing began. In German.

I looked at my program, trying to make out the words in the dark: “The Flying Dutchman” by Richard Wagner? This was no Madame Butterfly or Carmen, with colourful costumes and pleasing operatic tunes. From the start, this was a tale of doom, the music as morose as the ominous setting.

In our crazy rush to get to the show on time, I’d mistaken the venue. As it turned out, the Ibsen play was at the St. Lawrence Theatre, two blocks down the street. I couldn’t believe it.

I squinted to read the synopsis: “The story comes from the legend of the Flying Dutchman about a ship captain condemned to sail on his Norwegian ship until judgment day.” The only thing the two shows had in common was their Norwegian setting.

I tried to open my mind to the possibility of enjoying this opera, but without success. All I could think of was how I wished I was watching “The Master Builder” instead, and how painfully morbid this opera was. Having paid a good penny for the tickets, and having planned to infuse ourselves with a dose of culture that evening, we stuck it out until the end.

Reading The Globe & Mail Special Interest Supplement yesterday, I saw that “The Flying Dutchman” is back in Toronto. The headline calls it, “Wagner’s most gloriously romantic opera.” Either my memory serves me wrong, or I completely misinterpreted the production I saw twelve years ago. The article points out that in the end the female protagonist, Senta, saves the sailor by killing herself when she realizes he thinks she is not faithful to him. “It’s a very peaceful ending,” says Johannes Debus, music director of the Canadian Opera Company.

Either I have a lot to learn about opera, or Debus’ definition of peaceful is different from mine. I cannot remember one peaceful aspect of this production or any “gloriously romantic music.”

“The Flying Dutchman” has been performed to appreciative audiences throughout the world for over 150 years. Perhaps I should see it again, but when I’m not so rushed and when there are no surprises. Who knows...maybe I’d enjoy it the second time around.

Interesting note: While researching Richard Wagner, I learned that he composed “The Flying Dutchman” in a desperate attempt to re-invent himself after squandering all his wealth through an extravagant lifestyle. He had run up huge debts and tried to flee his creditors by escaping from Germany to Paris via London, where he hoped to make his fortune. The only way to escape was by an illegal crossing over the Prussian border, which turned out a disaster because his wife had a miscarriage en route. They found a ship that would take them without passports, but the sea journey was hindered by storms and high seas. The supposed eight-day trip took three weeks.

In Paris, Wagner couldn’t get work as a conductor and the “Opera” was not interested in producing his most recent piece, “Rienzi.” With no income, the Wagners had to rely on handouts from friends to get by. At the end of his rope, Wagner came upon the idea of the Flying Dutchman, (inspired by his horrible sea voyage) which would ultimately turn his life around.

The first production took place in Dresden in January 1843, with Wagner conducting.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Grace in the Gutter - Part 2

Continued from last week...

A woman ushered Martha into the lawyer’s office and asked her to sit down. Oak paneling framed the room with wall-to-wall bookshelves on one side. The only furniture was a mammoth desk in the centre of the room with two large leather wing chairs on either side. A heavy-set man in his fifties sat behind the desk, immersed in a cell phone conversation. There was a computer on the desk, a file, a pen, a glass of water, and nothing else. Martha had put on make-up and she wore her black “interview suit,” but she still felt underdressed in the formal office environment. The man smiled at her reassuringly, but scrutinized her in a way that made her uneasy.

Everyone seemed pleased to see her—the receptionist, the assistant, and the lawyer. Surely, there’d been a mistake. She put her hand to her chest, trying to calm her racing heart. Her mouth was parched and she craved the glass of water sitting on the desk.

The lawyer set his phone down. “Well,” he said, smiling at Martha as if delighted in his superiority. “Do you know why you’re here, Ms. Grange?”

“No, sir,” she said, her voice almost a whisper.

His executive assistant entered the room carrying a silver tray with a pitcher of ice water and a pot of coffee. “Can I offer you something to drink?” she asked.

“Thank you, yes, some water would be fine,” Martha said. She gripped the glass with both hands.

The lawyer cleared his throat. “I will get right to the point.” He leaned back on his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. “You have inherited some money.”

“It must be a mistake.” she said. “I don’t know anyone with much money.”

“No, Miss Grange, there is no mistake. You are definitely the beneficiary of a large sum indeed.”

Martha shook her head.

“We apparently had a mutual friend.”

She stared at the lawyer blankly.

“John told me you wouldn’t know his name. But he was sure you’d remember him. You met him a few months ago…found him in the gutter, he said.”

Martha gasped. “The old man.”

“A very rich old man.” The lawyer took a swig of coffee and leaned forward as if to share a confidence. “Your life will never be the same after today.”He pulled a paper from the file on his desk and held it between two fingers. “This is your ticket.”

Martha half expected someone to jump out from under the desk screaming, “Ha ha, jokes on you!”

“This is exciting for me,” the lawyer continued. “I have never had the pleasure of dispensing this kind of inheritance before.” Then, like a game show host, he pointed at her and said, “You, Martha Grange, are a multi-millionaire!”

She froze.

“Apparently you made quite an impression on our friend, my dear. A big enough impression to leave you ten million dollars.”

Martha dropped her glass of water, spilling it on her skirt and on the carpet. She jumped up from the chair, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry!”

“Never mind about the water. I know this is a shock. “No less of a shock for his family,” he said. “Sit down. I’ll read you John’s letter.”

The intent of this letter is to explain in writing why I have modified my will. As discussed, I am bequeathing ten million dollars of my estate to Martha Grange, the young woman whom I met on the street last November. This woman is not related to me nor does she know me beyond a chance encounter on that miserable fall day.

Having slipped on the frozen sidewalk, I lay immobile with a cracked rib, multiple bruises and scrapes, and a sudden awareness of my mortality. People passed me, staring down as if I was a drunken, unworthy sod. But then an angel came along, speaking tenderly and reaching out to me with her warm hands and kind heart. She led me, a frightful curmudgeon that day, to a coffee shop and tended to my wounds. She provided nourishment and cared for me with compassion.

I’ve experienced a great deal in my life, while building my company from scratch, dabbling in politics, and raising a family, but nothing like this. This girl taught me something new, the meaning of the word “grace.” And for that, I am indebted to her. Even a stubborn old geezer like me can still learn a few things.

No doubt, my family will contest my decision. However, they are all well provided for and are not entitled to a penny more. Read them this letter and make sure George, particularly, hears you loud and clear. Martha Grange is more worthy than the lot of them. She is to use the money to take good care of herself and to fulfill her dream of helping the less fortunate children in our world. I know she will cultivate more angels like herself.

And when George makes a fuss, tell him to stuff it.

John Kirby

“So,” the lawyer said, putting the letter back in his file. “What do you think of that? I've already spoken to George, by the way, and his father was right. He's not happy. Looks like we'll have a battle on our hands.” He hesitated, and said, almost gleefully, “The angel versus the devil.”

John Kirby’s son may be a threat, but Martha was not afraid. For the first time in her life, she felt her calling. She’d do her best to serve the old man. If grace had brought her here, then she had to believe that grace would protect her from the Georges of the world. She’d devote the money to the purpose for which it was intended. Helping underprivileged children was a good place to start.

Martha left the lawyer’s office with a clear mission and a determined mind. Passing through the reception area, she felt eyes following her. She turned to see a sharply dressed dark-haired man looking right at her. Fury spewed from his pupils.

“Are you Martha?” he asked, in a polite yet hostile tone.

For a second her heart stopped. John Kirby’s voice resonated in her mind: “Never trust a man with a sword in his gaze.”

“Are you George?”

He smirked. “How nice to meet you.”

The lawyer knew what he was talking about. Her life would never be the same again. Thanks to John Kirby, she could truly make a difference in the world. George would likely come after her with swords and invectives, but grace was surely on her side.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Grace in the Gutter - Part 1

For something different, I'm posting my short story "Grace in the Gutter" in two installments. The second part will be posted next week.

Dashing towards her office building, Martha held her jacket closed. She was always rushing, but seldom late. The biting wind had picked up and the night’s rainfall created a slick icy surface beneath her feet. Her purse slipped from her shoulder as she chomped an apple—her meagre breakfast. A few shrivelled leaves, dangling from spindly maple tree branches, clung desperately to their host.

Every morning was the same, a frantic scurry to shower and dress in time to catch the bus and the subway, leaving no time to check the weather report. The one window in her basement apartment was too foggy to provide clues and she was left to guess the forecast. Naturally she’d often get it backwards, wearing her good leather shoes on rainy days or a wool coat when a light jacket would do. Martha had no sense of style, always appearing presentable, but somewhat mismatched.

She scrambled along with one purpose in mind, to get to work on time. Navigating the slippery spots on the sidewalk, people rushed past on their own daily trajectory, sometimes brushing her arm, sometimes smacking into her. She counted the blocks to her building. Four more to go. She’d be a few minutes late today. Damn.

Something unusual caught her attention two blocks ahead. She stepped up her pace to investigate. Others scrambled past with hardly a glance at the motionless figure lying in the gutter. As she approached, the man, a vagrant it seemed, struggled to get up. Not one person stopped to help him.

He wore a tattered jacket and boots with long laces hanging at the sides. His cap had fallen off and his thin gray hair was dishevelled. He was not wearing gloves and his unbuttoned jacket had slipped off his gangly shoulders.

Martha crouched by his side. “Sir, Sir, are you all right? Are you in pain? Is anything broken?”

Her voice startled him and he turned towards her with glazed eyes. Focusing in on her he said, “I’m fine, I’m fine, just took a tumble on the ice.”

“Should I call an ambulance, to be sure?” She rifled through her purse for her cell phone.

“No! I said I was fine,” he growled. “I just need to get up.”

She dropped the phone back into her purse. “Please, let me help.”

He scrutinized her for a second, as if to determine if she was trustworthy, and then grabbed her arm to pull himself up to a sitting position. Martha draped his jacket over his shoulders and handed him his hat. His face was scratched and bruised from the impact on the pavement, and his trousers were torn at the knee, exposing bloodied and bruised skin. He winced when she touched his arm.

“I think it’s broken,” she said.

“Nonsense,” he muttered. He reached out a hand and she slowly helped him to his feet, using both arms to steady him. Martha maintained her grip to keep him from toppling over. She was close enough to smell his breath, a blend of coffee and peppermint.

By now she was late for work, but she didn’t care. Why hadn’t anyone else offered to help? It was like they were invisible, or alone on a deserted road. He looked so straggly and weak that she didn’t have the heart to leave him.

Martha pointed to a coffee shop a few meters away. “How about a cup of coffee?” She picked up a small worn leather bag that he had been carrying; alcohol, she assumed.

He mumbled something indecipherable, which sounded like a protest. Ignoring this, she slowly led him in the direction of the coffee shop. Limping, he struggled to walk the short distance. The morning rush had subsided and Martha found a place to sit away from the draft of the door.

“Coffee or tea?” she asked.

He gave her a dismissive wave, “You can go, I’m sure you have things to do.”

“First let me buy you something to help restore your strength. That was a really nasty fall. Coffee with cream and sugar?”

He nodded. Martha ordered two large coffees and hurried to the restroom to get some moist paper towels for his wounds.

When she returned to the table he was immersed in the newspaper left behind by a previous occupant. She placed the cup in front of him and he continued to read. When she handed him the towels, he took them and carefully dabbed the scratches on his face and hand. Then he brought the drink to his mouth and sipped with eyes closed. After a second sip, he put the cup down and stared at Martha, making her feel like an intruder.

She had done all she could and he obviously didn’t want her there, but something compelled her to stay.

After a few silent, uncomfortable moments, he said, “Don’t you have somewhere to be, somewhere more important than sitting here with a cranky old man?”

“I should be at work, but I don’t think it will hurt anyone if I’m a little late today.”

“What do you do?”

“Administrative stuff. One of the girls can cover for me until I get there.”

“What kind of administrative stuff?”

“Answer phones, take messages, make appointments, word processing and filing. That kind of thing.”

“Like it?” he asked.

“No, not really, but it pays the bills for now.”

“You’ve got plans?” he asked, coughing.

Martha noticed him covering his mouth when he coughed. “I’d like to be a teacher. I’m taking night courses, working towards a degree.” She wondered if the old man had much of an education. Doubtful she thought. A war veteran perhaps.

The weather was deteriorating; the sky had transformed from a hazy gray to an oppressive black rooftop over the city. Best to leave before the downpour, which was sure to begin any minute. But she didn’t budge.

The old man saw her looking outside and said, “Better be on your way.”

The skies suddenly opened and Martha’s decision was made. Not disappointed, she called work to say she’d be delayed.

She ordered two more coffees and a bagel for the old man, forgetting to buy one for herself, despite her hunger.

“I guess we’re both trapped,” the old man said as he nodded thanks for the offering. Martha was pleased to see him devour the bagel. He smiled for the first time, exposing yellowed teeth.

“What’s your story?” he asked, catching her off-guard.

“What do you mean?”

“Your life. Tell me about your life.”

“It’s kind of boring.” She fiddled with her coffee cup. “I’m from a small town way up north. My father left us when I was three and my mom raised my brother and me by herself. I came to the city when I was seventeen to make something of my life. So here I am, five years later.”

The old man continued to ask questions. His queries were short and to the point. Martha found herself blathering on and on, giving more information and detail than she intended. At times she hesitated, embarrassed by her constant chatter, but the old man kept signalling for her to continue. No one had ever expressed such an interest in her life before.

She vaguely noticed the customers coming and going, chairs being pushed and pulled, the pounding rain, and the hum of conversations around her. A few patrons peered amusedly at the scruffy old man sitting with such an unlikely companion. Trying to ignore their stares, Martha continued talking.

She told the man about her childhood. How her mother had struggled to raise two children on a minimum-wage salary after her father left; that she worked two jobs during high school to help her mom out; and after graduating, she’d moved to the city, thinking a whole new, exciting world would open up to her, but not realizing how lonely and difficult it would be. She found a job in a flower shop, rented a room in a sketchy area, and eventually got a job at the bank.

She confessed to feeling sad a lot, almost hopeless sometimes, but she was determined to never let life beat her down. One day she’d get her teaching degree and use it to make a difference in the world. Maybe move to Africa or India to help the children there. The old man seemed to be listening, but she wondered if he could follow her rambling narrative.

When she asked the man about his life he said it was a jumble of good and bad. His biggest disappointment was someone called George, but he didn’t elaborate other than to say, “Never trust a man with a sword in his gaze.” Then he turned the conversation back to her.

Martha checked the time and gasped. “It’s almost noon! I’ve gotta get to work.”

The old man stood up at the table as she gathered her things.

She handed him her umbrella. "Please take this. I'm only a block away from my work and I have another in my desk," she lied.

With a grateful nod, he accepted the gift.

“Will you be all right?” she asked.

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” He extended his arm, wincing. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss—,” to which she responded, “Martha Grange.” Gently shaking his hand, she smiled, suddenly feeling shy. “Nice to meet you too.” She let go of his withered hand and dashed out.


Months passed and winter came. Martha worked days, attended night school, and studied feverishly on weekends. Occasionally, she thought about her encounter with the old man and wondered how he was doing.

On February 27th she received an official document from Goswell Parkins and Dean, Barristers & Solicitors. Was she in trouble with the law? What had she done? Had something happened to her mother? She tore open the envelope, cutting her finger on the paper’s edge. The letter simply asked her to come to the law office at her earliest convenience.

Part 2 of "Grace in the Gutter" will be posted next week. Please stay tuned!