Category Archives: Living life to the fullest

A fire wishing for wind: Gifts from randomness

wishing-for-wind“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.” —Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

My husband and I had to roll with randomness twice recently.

The first time was two weekends ago when we planned a trip to London, ON to see my son at university. It was my birthday, so we were fulfilling my wish to get a birthday hug from both my children before the weekend was out. Our plan was to get up on Saturday morning, relax, do some reading, maybe some gardening and then meander down to stay with some friends in Kingston, ON on Saturday night. From there we would rise early on Sunday morning and drive to London to watch my son pitch from the bullpen in baseball game and have a quick visit.

Then . . . at 9:45 on Saturday morning my son sent a text: “I’m in Toronto with the team, and I just found out I’m starting the 2:00 game.” We live a 4-hour drive away from Toronto. I hadn’t showered or packed or prepared in any way, but we ran with it. We threw a few things in an overnight back, contacted our friends in Kingston to adjust the timing, and drove like stink to Toronto.

This unexpected series of events worked out better than our original plan. We got to watch our son be the starting pitcher in a game instead of coming in out of the bullpen, I got to see him on my actual birthday instead of the day after, and when we arrived at our friend’s house in Kingston later, we had nowhere to rush off to, so we enjoyed a leisurely visit and a walk in the conservation area behind their house.

The second gift of randomness arrived on our wedding anniversary. Our plan was to attend a presentation that a friend of ours was giving at the Chateau Laurier for the Canadian Public Relations Society and then go out to dinner. We started our anniversary evening at the Chateau Laurier and enjoyed the event and the opportunity to see our friend.

But when we walked him to the front door where he planned to catch a taxi to the airport, we discovered there was not a taxi in sight. We tried the hotel down the street, where a line-up of taxis always lingers. No luck. There is unrest in the taxi industry in Ottawa at the moment. Our friend was starting to panic about missing his flight, so we said, “We’ll drive you.”

After we dropped him off, my husband and I said, “What now?” We hadn’t anticipated being in the airport part of the city. We decided to head back to our neighbourhood and go to a restaurant that used to be one of our haunts when we were newly married and childless.

Again the surprising series of events worked out better than our original plan. We would never have thought of that restaurant otherwise, so we would have ended up somewhere less meaningful. Now that we are long-married and into empty nest childlessness, we felt like we had come full circle, and the restaurant felt exactly right.

“If you are not a washing machine or a cuckoo clock—in other words, if you are alive—something deep in your soul likes a certain measure of randomness and disorder.” —Nassim Nicholas Taleb

While all this was happening, I was reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain from DisorderHe suggests that systems—and people, marriages and families are systems—need some stress and agitation. Instead of resisting uncertainty, chaos, chance, volatility or disorder, or being extinguished by them like a candle, we should feed off them.

Not just survive, but thrive. Be the fire and wish for the wind. Sometimes it works out better than the original plan. 


Pumpkin spice “predictable novelty”: The science of loving fall

maple-leafI love this time of year, when the Earth’s spin and the tilt of the planet carries us into cooler temperatures, shorter days and colourful leaves. And wool socks. And the smoky aroma of logs burning the fireplace. And cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves.

The cooler weather rejuvenates people. The shorter days give us more time to read. Pumpkin Spice Lattes warm chilled hands. (My daughter works at Starbucks, and she spends much of her time these days preparing Pumpkin Spice Lattes. People love them.)

Most of us love these things without understanding why, but scientists have theories about our affinity for fall. Catherine Franssen wrote about it on Huff Post Science.

According to Franssen, we like “predictable novelty.” In other words, fall gives us the two things we need all in one package: change and stability. It brings change that doesn’t make us anxious, because we know it’s coming. We also associate fall with pleasurable things, like pumpkin pie and walks in fallen leaves. Those pleasurable memories trigger neurotransmitters.

“The neuroscience behind that love is the trifecta of pleasurable neurotransmitters fired: dopamine (pleasure), serotonin (contentment) and norepinephrine (alertness). When all three are going at once, you’re in a heightened state of awareness in a really good way.” —Catherine Franssen

Apparently, many of us float through autumn high on dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine—not to mention cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves—as we eagerly anticipate football victories, Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas parties.

Sounds good to me. I think I’ll have a latte . . . 


Faith, whether we claim it or not

More food for thought from Bishop Steve Charleston


“We do not know what is around the next corner.

We do not even know what will pass in our lives between sunrise and sunset. Therefore, whether we claim it or not, we live each day in faith.

We believe. We believe in ourselves. We believe in our family. We believe in others who are close to us.

Some of us believe beyond that, to name a loving power that guides us, to walk with others who pray with us. But we all believe, in some way, in our own fashion.

Let that thin thread, that simple affirmation, bind us in a shared respect. We are not strangers in shadows, but believers searching for the light.”

—Bishop Steve Charleston


Can’t see the tree for the forest

When people preoccupy themselves with minutia instead of thinking “big picture,” the popular saying goes: “They can’t see the forest for the trees.” Upon hearing it, worried people step back, let go of insignificant concerns and observe situations from a broader perspective. That’s a good thing.

Sometimes, we need to flip that saying on its head: “They don’t see the tree for the forest.”

ancient-treeLast weekend I walked in Gilles Grove near Arnprior, ON, and I came upon a bright spot in the forest. The sight of one mighty ancient white pine all by itself in the middle of tiny saplings struck me. There were no other trees even close to its age and size nearby. The picture cannot give you perspective on just how mighty and ancient this tree was. When I attempted to wrap my arms around it (yes, I hugged the tree) they would not even reach half way.

This tree is hundreds of years old.

I imagined our First Nations people brushing up against it as a they moved through the forest centuries ago. I thanked the powers that be for sparing it from the blades of the lumber barons who logged the area beside the Ottawa River, felling the much-favoured white pines by the hundreds.

I spent some time appreciating this one tree, and I thought, “How often do people really notice, think about and appreciate one tree when they walk in a forest?” Usually we stride by them. They pass in a blur.

Sometimes we don’t see the tree for the forest.

It’s a reminder to take time to stop in the forest of our lives and really examine closely one extraordinary thing around us that we might otherwise stride by mindlessly.

It’s an enriching way to spend some time, even if your arms don’t reach.

Roads to Atlantis: Moments that define us

Most parents don’t have to stretch far to reach a particular kind of memory. Certain memories spring easily,or rather, uneasily to mind.

I’m talking about the kind of memories that begin with a momentary—oh so brief—lapse in attention. During the time sucked up by distraction, a child vanishes from sight. Initial annoyance (Where did she run off to now?) grows from mild alarm (He was just here. Where could he be?) to gut-gripping anxiety (frantic calling of the child’s name) to full-blown panic and the early stages of the denial that lives at the border of grief. (No. No. No. No. No.) 

In most cases, the child reappears laughing from a happy lark and parents respond with relief so profound it manifests as anger. (Don’t you EVER do that again!) But sometimes the happy lark has a tragic ending, and when that happens, a lapse in attention becomes a visceral before-and-after that defines the lives of the parents. The moment is the main feature in the highlight reel of their life story. The event gloms onto the parents like an extra unwanted shadow.

Leo Brent Robillard writes about such a moment in his new book, The Road to Atlantis: The main characters, David and Anne, lose their daughter, Nat, to drowning.

RoadAtlantisFNLweb“Nat had been gone more than a year and her death was still the event that defined him. He suddenly knew it would always be like this. He, and everyone around him, would delineate his history as before and after Nat.”

Robillard’s book got me thinking about moments the define lives, and the way that people respond to them. Sometimes those moments arrive smack out of nowhere, and sometimes people’s bad choices lead to Atlantis-like sinking results: think Christopher Reeve, Tiger Woods and Richard Nixon. Their names trigger automatic associations with life-turned-upside-down incidents. We know the main feature in their highlight reels.

I can think of people in my community who have similar highlight-reel events as part their life story. I’m sure you can come up with some of your own too. And if I were to meet those people on the street—the parents who lost a toddler to cancer or the wife who shot her husband while he lay in bed—their tragic life events would loom like living things between us.

Robillard’s book relates how David and Anne navigate the “shoal of mud,” as Plato called it, that arises out of such a sinking loss, and how they manage to resurface. When life-altering events occur, a muddy quagmire of guilt, blame, denial, obsession, addiction or depression inevitably oozes in and rises around the feet. Those left behind must learn how to suck their feet out of that mud and keep walking.

Sometimes people do more than that. When 11-year-old Sandrine Craig was killed in an automobile accident, her donated organs helped other people, and her parents started the Sandrine’s Gift campaign to encourage life-saving organ donations. Two years ago, Rowan Stringer died after suffering a concussion during a rugby game. “Rowan’s Law” is now in the works in hopes of preventing other such tragic avoidable deaths. Since Terry Fox’s death, more than $700 million has been raised for cancer research, and the funds have led to otherwise unattainable advancements in cancer treatment.

Christopher Reeve showed us that moving legs aren’t required for valuable life, and his foundation is advancing research into paralysis and spinal cord injuries. Tiger Woods has never been the same since the upheaval in his life. Perhaps he’s still working his way through the quagmire. And Richard Nixon? He’s there to remind us that you never really make it out of the shoal of mud if you don’t own your actions.

All of these people show us that it is possible to craft a second even more important highlight for your life reel. The follow-up highlight is one of perseverance, open communication, family pulling together even when it’s hard, and work for the benefit of others.

Each of us has smaller versions of these Atlantis-like disruptions in our lives: getting fired, surviving cancer, losing a friend because we do something stupid. These aren’t newsworthy events—journalists don’t come calling—but they sink us for a while, nonetheless. The good news is, with perseverance, open communication, family pulling together even when it’s hard, and work for the benefit of others, you’ll end up with a really inspirational life highlight reel.


If you would like to meet Leo Brent Robillard and talk to him about the fine highlight reel he’s crafting for himself, you can find him and his books at:

The Kingston Writers’ Festival, September 26 from 9:00 to 11:oo p.m.
Word on the Street in Toronto on September 27
The Brockville Museum, October 8 from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m.
Octopus Books in Ottawa, October 14 at 7:00 p.m.
Chapters Kingston, October 17 at 1:00 p.m.


The bridge: Binding traditions

I have watched this video about the bridge at Q’eswachaka a few times. I find the twisting of the grass, the braiding of the ropes, the calloused feet holding ropes in places, the ancient costumes, the sense of community and the joyful completion of hard work compelling.

The centuries-old tradition builds a bridge between communities on both sides of the Apurimac River in Peru—and between generations together, one after another.

What centuries-old traditions bridge your communities and your generations?

Words By Montgomery

Sharon Montgomery: Author - Playwright - Lyricist


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