This is not a life without regret.

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Today I heard a writer being interviewed on the radio. He said that what makes his life perfect is his little family, that sharing stories around the dinner table are the moments of perfection in his life, of pure happiness. He also said he has no regrets. He listed all the things that could have been regrets for him had he not anticipated and corrected them before they had the chance to become tiny stones in his shoe to worry him forever. I googled “no regrets” and there are so many famous quotes, so many people who claim to have lived a life without regret. Imagine that.

I think that’s an interesting idea, living a life without regret. I understand the sentiment, or  at least the desire. Who wouldn’t want a life where nothing from the past ever popped up holding a question mark aloft like a birthday balloon?  No regrets. It’s a great anthemic sort of sentiment… a tune I could hum or a chorus I could holler with a crowd at a concert, but how real can it possibly be? In a life lived fully and imperfectly how can anyone truly get from one end of living to the other end without any collateral damage, with nothing you wish you could take back or do over?

If I run at life with my eyes and arms wide open, full of any sort of passion inside of me, how can I hope to regret nothing? I will hurt people, say things I wish I hadn’t, make decisions that were absolutely wrong when they seemed absolutely right. There will certainly be, at the end of my life, a long list of atonements I must make before any pearly gates will open.  So what does “no regrets” mean, besides being a really cool tattoo?

Does living without regret mean doing whatever you want and not taking responsibility? Does it mean filing for moral bankruptcy and walking away from debts of the heart or spirit? Is it a kind of YOLO for the enlightened ? I genuinely don’t understand it. Is it about self forgiveness, maybe? About acknowledging past errors or lapses and setting them down? I don’t know how to do that either. I have a nicely packed little basket full of “what I did, what I said, what I should have said, what I shouldn’t have imagined, what I should never have tried, who I should have been kinder to” and there’s no convenient place to put it down.  It isn’t the kind of load someone else can carry for a spell, and let me off the hook either. And yes, I’ve had it suggested to me by the no-regret campers, that “should” is a word best left along with the basket of regrets.

Perhaps the people who have no regrets have lived kinder lives than I have, or maybe they have managed to make peace already with the sins of their past selves. I have a soul unwilling to let go of those sins and in a way I am glad. I don’t dwell, I don’t mope or spend nights staring at the ceiling feeling dreadful, but I do carry that little basket. It’s a reminder to me of who I have been and who I wish to be. A reminder of where I have gone and where I hope not to go again.

I think we need to feel regret. I think regret informs our decisions, informs who we become and how we behave. It’s a guide through the dark and rocky patches, where the easy path seems so tempting. Regret is the burn that reminds you the stove is hot.

At the end of it all, I won’t be able to say I have nothing to regret and that’s okay with me. Instead I’ll keep working to make sure I have nothing NEW to regret… that’s all I think I can honestly hope to achieve.

Cross your heart and hope you’ll remember?

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If you want my respect, say you’ll do something then do it. Don’t tell me what you’re going to do.  Don’t say you’ll do something then forget, or blow it off. All we have to go on in this life are our instincts and our faith in good people.  We have to trust that people will do what they say they will; what else do we really have?

I think we have to remember that we are what we say, we are what we do. When we follow through on what we promise, we are saying that we’re worth trusting, worth believing in. When we think we can decide what is and isn’t important to others and fail to do what we’ve said, we let ourselves and those counting on us down. Saying you will do something you have no intention of doing is a lie. Saying you’ll do something you make no effort to do is disingenuous. The good feeling you get from pleasing the person you’ve promised evaporates pretty quickly once you know you’ve disappointed them.

You don’t have to pinky swear, cross your heart and hope to die  for your word to be considered a promise. The simple act of saying you WILL is a promise. When you say you will, and you can or could and don’t, you’ve broken your promise.   Not fulfilling is a choice… conscious or otherwise. Sometimes there is a really good reason, sometimes not. Circumstances may prevent you from accomplishing what you intended, but if the effort is genuine, honour is maintained.

Men used to be judged on their word; in my world, they still are. What’s your handshake worth?

Lessons in Grace from the Gas Bar

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I stopped for gas this afternoon, cold and complaining to myself, huddled deep into my coat as I waited for the tank to fill. A flash of neon green caught my eye; one of our town’s more infamous characters was pulling a sled with a hot pink skipping rope handle. The sled carried a couple of black garbage bags, open to receive the day’s bounty of discarded cans and bottles retrieved from sidewalks, dumpsters and trash bins. As I watched, she approached the black plastic garbage can at the pump island where I stood.

My instinctive reaction was distaste. For some reason the sight of her and her sled made me feel something unpleasant for a moment. The idea of going through other peoples’ trash makes me so uncomfortable. It’s dirty, it’s dangerous and it just makes me shudder.  I am (I think) more generous of spirit than that, usually. In that moment though,  I was small. I’m not proud of that.

I watched her, as I pumped my gas. I could only see her bare hands from where she stood on the other side of the pump station. Such a cold day today, -25 and colder, and she dug into that garbage can with bare hands. I watched as she bent over, head going deep into the bin, digging deeply for whatever she could salvage. She retrieved a few water and pop bottles, an empty vodka mickey and a McDonald’s bag worthy of further investigation. While I watched, I started to worry. I met a street fellow in Vancouver a couple of years ago with a raging infection in his hand; he’d cut it on something while rummaging for recyclables this same way. I worried for how cold her hands must be, doing this work in the frigid weather.

As she finished up, she did something I won’t forget. She straightened the garbage bag out, making sure the sides were properly stretched down over the top before she carefully replaced the lid. She pulled out a few paper towels from the dispenser and wiped her hands clean. Most memorable to me? A small square of paper towel tore off and fell beside the garbage can. Her red, cold fingers tried four or five times until she was able to get hold of it to toss it in the bin. She moved on to the next can and started over, tidy in her work.

The cautious, careful way everything was set to rights when she was done affected me very much. The small piece of paper, so difficult to pick up with frozen fingers was not left as litter on the ground. I felt, still feel, shame for my initial reflexive distaste. While I hope I don’t have to do that in my lifetime, there is a quiet honour in what she was doing. From an environmental standpoint, she was doing us all a service. Through the salvage efforts of people like her, many discarded cans and bottles make it to recycling centres instead of the landfill. From a self sufficiency point of view she is doing something honourable too; working to earn some money despite the challenges. That effort makes liars of people who point fingers at “lazy” recipients of social assistance. From where I sit there is nothing lazy about crossing the city day after day on foot, pulling your harvest behind you in the depths of winter to make a few bucks.

I don’t ever want to have to dig through garbage to make money, but I need to feel and show respect for the people who do. All work has honour, all work has value. All people have honour and value. I need to work on empathy. It’s  easy to look away, to feel different, separate, more, better, to look for something that provides safe distance between me and “them”.   She did her work today with dignity and I respect that. I hope I don’t mean that I wouldn’t respect her if she’d left the lid off, left the trash where it fell. I hope I’d respect her no matter what, but the  grace shown in the small act of leaving the space tidy moved me in a powerful way. I hope never to be judged the way she is likely judged, every day of her life.

 

Nothing that matters

When I was a teenager I used to go with my friend Sonia to Gastown, Vancouver’s historic, cobblestoned tourist Mecca. We would poke through shops, sip tea and generally act cool. One shop captivated us with its wall of small drawers…an antique cabinet filled with curiosities. Each stubborn old drawer revealed another odd, creepy or comical surprise; spare parts for dolls, mini whoopee cushions, fake vomit and vintage postcards. We spent ages systematically opening and closing each drawer, only disappointed when we came across rare duplicates or an empty tray.

I stumbled across the same shop this summer on a solo morning stroll through Gastown. Though the shop has changed hands at least once, the antique treasure trove remains, and I gleefully began the nostalgic opening and closing ritual. It’s rewarding to discover some things really do stay the same, even after so long.

As always, I left the shop with a small bag containing an inexpensive treasure; this time, a beautiful box of oversized matches. The box was creamy white with a lovely botanical print, all lavender flowers and butterflies. I was living in the city this summer, and savoured every opportunity to celebrate the simple beauty of a bouquet of fresh flowers, or a pretty candle on the mantel of my apartment.

I am the mother of three teenagers. My home is less decorated than reclaimed…it is a constant act of sheer will to ensure sanitary conditions and uncluttered thoroughfares. There is no decor, per se….rather a kind of chaotic visual thrum that can lead to maternal mumbling and gnashing of teeth.

The tiny act of purchasing a beautiful box of matches to light my scented candles was an act of defiance…a statement that even for me, even in my life, beauty matters. I have lit each of those matches with a kind of reverence. These matches were special, and once home in my chaotic Yukon home, I was reminded each time of the peace and pleasure the summer away brought me. I have used those matches solely for the purpose of lighting my candle…rationed them and kept them on my dresser, mine alone.

And then winter hit, and it was time to light the fire in the wood boiler. My husband spotted the matchbox….perfect! Extra long wooden matches! When he forgot to put them back, my son spotted them in the kitchen…perfect! Excellent for firing up his….glass sculpture he thinks I don’t know about.

I found the box, crushed and broken, containing two matches, on the counter. My reaction was out of proportion to the item’s significance. I was so SAD! No one understood. I took the box back upstairs and reverently lit my candle, breathed the scent and tried to recall the sense of peace.

Tonight I found the empty box discarded on the hearth, a fire roaring and the Christmas tree lit and decorated. My husband apologized, said he couldn’t find a lighter. My son looked at me like I had two heads. Mom….it was a MATCH! What’s the big deal.
I can’t explain it. It just was, to me.