On being ... more than words

By Ingrid Sapona

Last week a political leader -- Jack Layton -- died of cancer at the young age of 61. Jack, as most people referred to him, was the leader of the newly-elected opposition party. Everyone knew Jack had been treated for prostate cancer in 2010, but this past spring he energetically campaigned and won a historic victory. (Jack’s party is relatively new and it has never been the official opposition.)

But, in July, less than two months after the election, looking remarkably frail, Jack announced that because of a reoccurrence of cancer he was temporarily stepping aside. There was little news after that, until the week before his death when I read that he was still planning on being at the September 19th opening of Parliament.

Then, with no warning, last Monday morning came the news of his death. Though I did not vote for Jack’s party, I was saddened by the news, as I thought his leading the opposition would be a good thing.

By mid-morning on Monday there was news about Jack’s “open letter to Canadians”, which he had worked on with his wife (who is also a member of Parliament) and his chief of staff over the weekend before he died. The first report I heard about the letter described his political recommendations regarding his party’s leadership and his comments to others fighting cancer, urging them not to be discouraged because his journey did not go as hoped. But perhaps the most quoted part of the letter was his closing comment to us all:

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

By the time the letter was published in the paper, I had heard quite a lot about various themes, but I was interested in reading it for myself. When I finally did, like many, I was moved by the message. But, more than that, I was overwhelmed by the sheer positivity of the words he used. The editor in me immediately picked up a red pen and I began underlining the upbeat words. Here’s just a sample:

thoughtful, inspiring, beautiful, spirit, love, renew, optimistic, focused, future, privileged, grateful, confidence, support, commitment, energy, determination, proud, justice, universal, continue, forward, beloved, always, highlight, seamless, solidarity, better, partnership, right, succeed, superb, remarkable, hope, great, inspiration, dreams, ideas, change, engaging, trust, belief, power, world, inclusive, generous, believe, vision, passion, heart, plans, present, hopes, can, equality, opportunity, build, prosperous, benefits, fairly, offer, save, restore, choices, matters, working, compelling, new, impressive, committed, team, careful, alternatives, equal, together, and friends

Can you believe all those powerful words (the list above has 75, with no repeats) in one letter that was just under 1000 words? For someone like me, who believes that the words we use help shape our reality, I can’t help feel that he must have been a remarkably positive person – the kind of person the world (not to mention the political sphere) could use more of.

And, finally, at his funeral the minister mentioned one other quote from Jack that really struck me and helped me understand that Jack’s vocabulary was really a verbal manifestation of his approach to living. The minister explained that Jack didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, but he knew Jack was spiritual, for Jack once told him, “… I believe how I live my life everyday is my act of worship.” No wonder his choice of words…

I know that to some, this column might sound like just another tribute to a political leader on his passing, but it’s not about that. This column is to say thank you to Jack for reminding me of the ability words have to lift us up and for making me want to try harder to suffuse my own writing and conversations with more words from Jack’s vocabulary.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... crestfallen

By Ingrid Sapona

Does this ever happen to you? A kind of offbeat news story about someone catches your interest and gets you thinking about how very different your life is from the person reported on. It happens to me a lot. (I think it’s my subconscious trying to divert my attention from all the horrible and depressing news that’s out there.) Anyway, two unrelated stories about newly granted coats of arms -- an unusual topic, I know -- distracted me more than many other stories of late.

The first article was by far less surprising -- it was about the announcement of Catherine Middleton’s coat of arms. The story came out in April, a couple weeks before the royal wedding. When I heard it, I smiled, as news of a coat of arms seemed just another charming royal affectation. (Rather like talk of which carriage to use and which tiara to wear.)

Then, earlier this month the Toronto Star ran a front page story about the awarding of a coat of arms to the Wong family -- or should I say, to the Wong Association of Ontario. Accompanying the article was a lovely graphic of the coat of arms (mistakenly labelled a “crest”, mind you) along with a fairly detailed -- and fascinating -- description of the various symbols depicted in it. The coat of arms was unveiled at the Wongs’ National Convention (yes -- their family gathering is a convention) here in Toronto in honour of their 150 year history in Canada and their contributions to the country.

There are so many things about this story that set my mind wandering, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, I guess, was the idea of the granting of a coat of arms. I immediately remembered the story of Prince William’s future wife being given one -- and the fact that Catherine getting one made sense to me (or at least didn’t surprise me). But the Wongs? I guess I always thought of coats of arms as something connected with royalty.

Intrigued, I decided to so some research on heraldry. In case you’re wondering, the only reason I knew that was even a topic was because one of the sources listed under the Star’s graphic was the Canadian Heraldic Authority -- so naturally I started there. It’s pretty interesting stuff -- lots of history, symbolism, and a healthy dash of pomp. The idea for such insignia dates back to the 12th century when most were illiterate and people needed a way of distinguishing friend from foe. Over the centuries coats of arms have become more elaborate and the various parts that comprise the arms all have names -- a crest, by the way, is a particular element of a coat of arms. (So the Star’s heading was a bit misleading.)

But, I think what really set my head spinning was the idea of there being a Wong Association and the fact that 1,100 Wongs would be gathering in Toronto -- and we’re talking about just Canadian-resident Wongs. Apparently there are an estimated 60 million Wongs world-wide. Imagine that…

There is only one Sapona in Canada -- and, thanks to sloppy paperwork at some point in my father’s travels between Greece and the U.S., I can say with absolute certainty that only five people have ever had this last name. My father’s first cousin, for example, who was the same age and has exactly the same first and last name as my father, ended up having his last name spelled more like it sounds in Greek: Sapounas. My father’s brother, who moved to the U.S. later, also spells it that way, so I’ve got cousins with that last name, but only my immediate family is named Sapona.

I honestly can’t imagine what it would be like to share a name -- and heritage -- with so many. I suppose it’s comforting to know your roots and to feel a part of something so big. But, according to the Star article, which was written by a reporter whose surname happens to be Wong, the reason the Wong family association was formed years ago wasn’t to celebrate family heritage. Instead, it was started to help newly arrived Wongs adjust and to “deal with the harsh realities of discriminatory working conditions…”. Clearly -- and sadly -- the Wongs shared many hardships as well as a name.

Coming from a relatively small family with a unique name, I can’t help wonder whether it’s more difficult to assert your individuality when something as simple as your last name is shared by millions of people. I know, name isn’t the same as identity -- but it’s pretty fundamental.

Anyway, I think the Wongs of Canada having a coat of arms is quite neat and I don’t mind admitting, I’m a bit jealous. Though I’m well past my preppy-wanna-be days of university, when I longed for a proper monogram but couldn’t have one because I don’t have a middle initial, and given that it seems unlikely I’ll ever get my own coat of arms, I guess I’ll just have to keep hoping for some sort of title instead…

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona

The Wong Family Coat of Arms
The description of the different elements that make up the Wong Coat of Arms really gives you an appreciation for the rich history of symbols: At the heart of the Wong Arms is a shield with a red Chinese dragon. A golden Chinese phoenix, a symbol of peace and prosperity, sits atop the shield. The phoenix is holding a red mace, in honour of members of the Wong family who served in the Canadian forces or in elected office. (Red and gold, which are featured prominently, are auspicious colours in Chinese culture, not to mention the fact that red is one of the two official colours of Canada.) To the left of the shield stands a panda holding a pickaxe – this represent Wongs who worked in British Columbia’s gold fields. To the right of shield stands a polar bear holding a hammer -- this represents Wongs who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The bears stand on red waves, which represent water and immigration. And, below the waves -- in English and Chinese -- is the motto: IN FAMILY WE UNITE.