On being ... my favourite things

By Ingrid Sapona

Yes, it’s that time of the year… The time when many struggle, wondering what to get different people on their Christmas list.

Knowing that many can use a little guidance in this department, Oprah Winfrey does her bit to help with a show she calls: “My Favorite Things”. During this show she “reveals” dozens of things she just loves, many of which, she reminds the audience, “would make great gifts”. The show, which is always one of the highest rated shows of the season, usually airs in late November (as it did this year) – just in time for holiday shopping.

Though I like Oprah and often tune in to see what she’s talking about, this is one episode I purposely avoid. Truth is, I find the whole thing a bit distasteful (conspicuous consumption comes to mind) -- $398 handbags, $1,900 diamond earrings, $29 mail-order macaroni and cheese? I also find it a bit irritating that with the title of the show, Oprah’s co-opted -- and commercialized -- the idea behind one of the sweetest songs from the Sound of Music.

So, in keeping more with the spirit of Rogers and Hammerstein’s song, I offer my list of favourite things, in no particular order -- and definitely not in rhyme.

Coincidentally, two things mentioned in the song make my list: sleigh bells and snowflakes. Just the other day a friend and I were driving somewhere and, as I was scanning through radio stations, intent on avoiding those that had already started playing Christmas music, I heard the unmistakable sound of sleigh bells. Despite the fact that my friend and I agreed we didn’t want to listen to Christmas music, I couldn’t switch the station. There’s something about the sound of sleigh bells that always brightens my mood and puts a smile on my face.

As for snowflakes -- well, they’ve always been a favourite -- regardless of whether they’re on my nose or eyelashes (or anywhere else). And, as far as I’m concerned, the bigger the flakes the better. (I’ve often wondered whether being born in Buffalo was just a happy accident vis-à-vis my love for snow, or the reason for it. Who knows…)

I also love unexpected little bonuses -- like discovering that the milk you just poured in your coffee didn’t curdle, despite the fact that the “best before” date on the carton was yesterday. Or glancing at the clock from bed and realizing you can roll back over because it’s not time to get up yet.

Though I don’t see them that often (I’m an early riser, but not that early -- besides, my condo faces south-west), sunrises are on my list of favourite things. Though sunsets are often quite beautiful, I like sunrises better because they always seem ripe with possibility.

Laughing so hard that tears roll down my face is also on my list. I think what I like most about this type of laughter is that it’s so unpredictable. I can’t name anything that’s guaranteed to provoke laughter strong enough to make the tears roll, but when something does -- I relish it!

Peace and quiet also has a place on my list. I was reminded of this the other day when I was walking home and I heard the sound of a child screaming in the distance. It was a blood curdling scream that grew louder as I walked. Eventually, as I came within view of the little girl, I saw that she didn’t appear to be in any danger, which was a relief.

As I got closer still, I noticed a woman that was probably the girl’s mother standing nearby, holding another, smaller (thankfully quiet) child. As I passed the woman, I heard her frustrated plea: “Shhhh. Please hush. Please…” Hearing the child and the woman’s weary reaction made me realize how precious peace and quiet can be.

Those are just some of the items on my list of favourite things. Though not things one can make a gift of, I think you’ll agree, they are gifts all the same.

As you ponder what to give people this Christmas, go ahead and check out Oprah’s list, and the malls, and catalogues, and on-line stores -- I’m sure there are lots of neat things to be had. But remember that for many, their favourite things can’t be bought. Once you realize this, I think you’ll agree your time might be better spent making a list of what you might do, or be, for the people on your list, instead of thinking about what you can get them. And, if you then act on that list, I guarantee you’ll end up high on their list of favourite things.

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... remembered

By Ingrid Sapona

November has always been special to me. Growing up in the States, November meant Thanksgiving, which was my favourite holiday. I love the idea of giving thanks and, of course, gathering for a feast. I also love the fact that it’s celebrated by everyone in the U.S. in much the same way. As American readers know, it goes without saying I’m talking about turkey with all the trimmings. And the quirk of it being on a Thursday helps make it special too, I think. (Monday holidays always seem more about having a long weekend than celebrating a particular event.)

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada that I realized the extent to which Thanksgiving is part of the American culture and psyche. I’m not just talking about school children across the country drawing or colouring in turkeys and pilgrims, or every magazine featuring recipes for stuffing or pumpkin pie. Every damned t.v. show has a storyline about going home for Thanksgiving -- it’s enough to make anyone homesick!

“Canadian Thanksgiving” is also meant to mark the end of the harvest and to give thanks for the bounty of the land. But Thanksgiving isn’t as big a deal here as it is in the U.S. For example, though the holiday is officially on the second Monday in October, people celebrate on whatever day that weekend they feel like. And, if this laissez-faire attitude about when they have Thanksgiving dinner isn’t odd enough -- they’re also flexible about what they eat! I don’t just mean there are vegetarian options -- some folks make ham, some do turkey, some eat lamb, etc., and they often vary from year to year. Go figure…

Despite the fact that for me November is no longer synonymous with Thanksgiving, there’s a day we observe here that I find very moving: November 11th -- Remembrance Day. Though it’s Veterans Day in the U.S. -- a federal holiday -- for most Americans, the observance of Veterans Day is trivial by comparison to Remembrance Day here. For example, Remembrance Day is never referred to as a “holiday” -- not just because it’s a regular work day in some provinces (like Ontario) -- but because it’s seen as a solemn day to honour the sacrifices of those who died serving the country. The theme of the day is “lest we forget”.

Canadians, as a group, seem to know a lot more about World War I than Americans and I think that’s because of the rituals related to Remembrance Day. Pretty much every Canadian can tell you the date marks the official end of fighting on the western front in World War I, which happened in 1918 “at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month”.

Unlike Veterans Day, there’s a widely-respected symbol for Remembrance Day: the red poppy. The first year I lived here I had no idea why, starting about November 1st, old folks (men, mostly) stood on corners selling red poppy pins and why nearly every person wore one. I soon found out the poppy sellers were veterans and the proceeds went to charities that support them.

I also learned the symbol’s significance: the proliferation of poppies that emerged from the disturbed earth of the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, and the famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, which was penned by a Canadian. I don’t know how old Canadians are when they learn it -- but pretty much everyone can recite at least the opening of the stirring poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row …

Two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. is another Remembrance Day tradition marked across the country -- and not just at formal ceremonies in cemeteries and at cenotaphs. My second or third year living here my sister was visiting and we happened to be in the Art Gallery of Ontario on November 11th. Just before 11 o’clock there was an announcement over the P.A. asking for silence. Everyone stopped right where they were. My sister was surprised when I told her that happens in workplaces, schools, and even on radio stations everywhere.

These days there are fewer veterans selling poppies, but they’re available at banks and coffee shops. And, sadly, a friend reported that her office didn’t observe a moment of silence this year. But something I saw on t.v. a few days before the 11th gives me hope the stirring tradition will continue: Rick Mercer, a popular, hip, comedian, did a commentary about Remembrance Day on his show. For those familiar with Mercer’s show, it was the topic of “The Rant”.)

In his commentary, Mercer said that last year he almost forgot Remembrance Day. Apparently the significance of the day dawned on him a couple minutes before 11 a.m. as he sat getting a hair cut. When he realized no one there was going to observe a moment of silence, he went outside and marked the occasion by himself. On his return, the stylist asked if he had gone out for a cigarette -- he set her straight.

At the end of the Rant, Mercer suggested viewers set the alarm on their cell phone (or ask their kids to do it for them, if they don’t know how to) so they remember to pause at 11 o’clock on Remembrance Day. Great idea, don’t you think? Though I often blame techno gadgets for fostering mindlessness, clearly they can also help us reconnect to things that matter -- even if we just use them to remind us to stop to remember.

As it happens, since 2005, November 11th has special significance for our family -- it’s the day my father died. So, though the month is tinged with sadness for me, I still love November because my heart carries the true meaning of thanksgiving and remembrance.

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona