Remembering reality

Reminiscing.  Every now and then I hear about trends in many colleges and universities that tend to stifle and even punish open debate or discussion of controversial ideas.  Recently there has been some hullabaloo around the issue of using transgender pronouns in class, with at least one school moving to shut down open discussion. My response is, “So what else is new?”

Humans do not seem to be wonderful in regard to mutual respect if there are differences of any kind.  That’s the way it was when I was a student and today’s loud political correctness on campus is only another version of the hostility that has always been there.  And sometimes in the past, different perspectives were avoided by simply barring attendance of people from the “wrong” background or sex.

Yes, reminiscing.  My first school of higher learning was a Christian liberal arts college, where there was the view that in order to prepare students for life in today’s society, they had to be exposed to the world as well as to a Biblical outlook.  Bertrand Russell’s influential book Why I am not a Christian was required reading, as were many other authors of various perspectives.  I recall that even a radical atheist was invited to speak to one particular class.  This school was no greenhouse and it developed many effective Christian leaders over the years.

Attending a secular college and a university later on, I assumed I would likewise be challenged with other points of view and would be encouraged to engage in debate grounded in research.  I found that to be true only to a limited degree.  It depended partly on the instructor’s professionalism and ability to guide student input.  Often I was targeted for special verbal abuse by some students or occasionally by a professor.  I expected it and usually did not take it personally.  I was a committed Christian, used to a certain amount of antagonism or unfair stereotyping, and knew I had to learn a spiritual way of dealing with these things.  Still, I was surprised when a certain department head withheld my examination paper at the end of the course, meaning I would get an “Incomplete.”  I complained to the administration and they, perhaps not for the first time, investigated the professor and found my examination booklet (with my name on it) lying on his desk!  I was allowed to write the exam late and passed the course.

There were other times when a clash of perspectives turned out for good in the end.  In one term paper, I decided to critique the narrowly-focused philosophy of one particular course and the way it was taught.  Predictably perhaps, the instructor was furious and gave me a very low mark.  Later on in the summer, I happened to be at a conference that she was also attending.  On seeing me, she walked straight up to me and apologized.  She said she had learned from the critique.

So even though I accepted opposition and sometimes had it work well in the end, I am quite aware that people do not love differences nor do they usually have real respect for others who truly are “other.”  These days, if someone wanted to be addressed by a new pronoun, I would do it out of simple respect and try to get on with the conversation, but in any case, protest demonstrations in the classroom or administrative punishments are not conducive to academic freedom.  Ideally, institutions of higher learning should be leaders in teaching respectful debate, but in real life it often “just ain’t so.”  Therefore I’ve come to acknowledge that regrettable fact and think, “So what else is new?”

 

On a somewhat happier note, my “Christmas card” to my readers will appear on December 1 (2017).

 

 

U.S. massacres and “mental health”

O.K., I lied.  I said my next blog article would appear on December 1st.  I have one waiting to be released on that day, but in the meantime there have been things said about the recent awful massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, that as a former mental health community worker I really do have to respond to.

At the time I’m writing this, the facts of these two shocking incidents and the two men who perpetrated them are not yet fully investigated.  We don’t understand at this point what really motivated these men.  Many people, however, have been saying that this is clearly “a mental health issue.”  What they mean by that is, as far as I know, not explained — and there is the problem.

The horrific events, by the speculation made about them, have the potential of rolling back much of the gradual progress that has been made in reducing the stigma of mental illness.  I can agree that the shooters “must have been crazy,” like Hitler or Stalin or Atilla the Hun were crazy — but did any of them have a genuine mental illness?  If you have read my previous blog of November 3rd, you know that I have been with people who spoke of killing others and who truly did have a mental illness, but I have not yet heard that a sound psychiatric review has been completed on the two shooters, so maybe people should back off from making hasty and ill-informed judgments.  And that includes the American president who has already notified the world that this was a “mental health” problem, not a gun problem — (not even a “right-to-a-personal-arsenal-of-military-assault-weapons” problem??).

Various studies have shown that people with a diagnosed serious mental impairment are not more likely to commit violent acts than the general population.  But here the question is: “What is serious mental impairment (SMI)?”  My mental health employer would not take on a client unless the person had “the Three D’s” — a doctor’s Diagnosis of a condition that was not momentary but had a Duration of at least six months, and which had caused significant Disability (by which was usually meant an inability to get on with regular life).  Having only two of the three, and certainly having only one, would not constitute the serious mental health condition that my employer was mandated to treat.

There are mental health concerns that don’t have all the Three D’s, but let’s stick for a moment with the definition of “crazy.”  The two shooters were both capable of rationally planning their massacres, even months in advance.  Should that fact in itself not make us hesitate to diagnose them as mentally ill before we have heard a lot more from reliable and certified practitioners?

Meanwhile, let’s get on with having a less fearful, more understanding, more supportive attitude toward those people in our community who bravely deal with their mental illness symptoms every day.

He said, “I am going to kill you.”

The large and serious man, who easily would have outweighed me, showed no sign of playing a joke on me, and there were few customers around us.  Previous to this time, I had studied at various schools to be a community mental health counselor and had learned what to do in a sudden situation of this kind.

“You are angry, I see,” I said to him as calmly as I could muster, “you want to tell me something about that?”

An immediate change came over his face and he relaxed slightly.  Perhaps he had not expected a response like this.

“Yes, I’ll tell you why I’m angry,” he replied.  “You are a doctor and you’re in cahoots with the doctor who planted a computer chip in my brain.”

Actually, I was no doctor, though this man was not the first person to think I was.  I wore glasses, a small beard, and usually had a quiet, serious demeanor, so people sometimes thought I was a doctor of either the medical or academic sort.

“I know that’s how you guys try to control me,” he continued in all solemnity, “along with those people in India who send messages this way to my brain.  I no longer have a life of my own.”

 

As we talked further, I found out that he had spent time in a nearby psychiatric institution.  That can be a terrifying experience for anyone.  The patient temporarily loses most civil rights and I had found that the doctors may not be too concerned with obtaining informed consent from their patients.  Of course, getting that sort of consent for any treatment option is often easier said than done with the state of mind that a person may be in upon entering the hospital, but the lack of clear communication only adds to people’s sense of being victimized.

I didn’t challenge the man’s interpretation of reality.  “No longer having a life of your own,” I said, going back to his earlier statement, “that has to be a terrible thing.”

“You better believe it is,” he replied sullenly, and after a moment’s pause, added, “what can you do about that?”

At this point I thought it necessary to tell him I was not one of the doctors at his hospital but that I was pleased to have spent this time with him.  We finished our coffees as he spoke to me about how scary his life had become.  He even suspected that the cash register was trying to send him a message.

 

As we were wrapping up our conversation, he said, “I know now that you’re not a doctor, you’re actually a victim just like me.  I’ll see you again sometime?”

He had no car, so I offered to drive him home to his apartment, partly also to ask about his meds and confirm his support system.  Walking to the parking lot, he looked up the whole time.  “Let’s get a helicopter,” he suggested, ”you can fly me out and we can escape from this pain together.  Know where the airport is?”

In a strange way, he was making a lot of sense.  No, not entirely rational sense, but he had been communicating things I could well understand.  It was a reflection of what he had truly experienced.  I hoped that his faulty interpretations could, in time, be replaced with something more grounded in reality.

An inkling of unusual friendship

Summer is long gone, and I’m back writing.  The last time I blogged, I recommended  that untutored, impoverished artist Maude Lewis and the new movie about her life.  Since the DVD came out this fall, I have called several stores but they all reported being sold out of Maudie, and even their second ordered supply had been quickly snapped up.  I will have to get my copy by an on-line supplier; the demand has been remarkable.

Wondering about that, my mind went back to some of the books I have read this summer and fall.  For example, there was a cheaply-produced local first effort at a novel by a woman from the Annapolis Valley.  I don’t read a lot of novels, finding many of them too high-brow for me, too “literary” I guess, while many others are too low-brow, too blatantly escapist for my taste. But this one, despite poor printing and editing, kept my attention to the end because the writer expertly painted a picture of the emotional reactions, tragic misunderstandings, and wrong hasty conclusions that bedevil human relationships — and the setting was the same culture and almost the same locality in which Maude Lewis lived.  (The book:  The Long Bridge, by Nancy Kopulos).

That book had me thinking about relationships which last long enough to cut through the reactions, misunderstandings and wrong conclusions  —   the kind of tenacious relationships that form very small but very important inner circles of supportive, forgiving, and humble friends.  All other connections and acquaintances, however helpful and valid they may be in some ways, shrink in significance when compared to a trustworthy inner circle.

It just so happened that a volume then came to my attention entitled The Inklings, the name of the unstructured and unofficial but very close and fruitful little club of writers that included the now famous J.R.R. Tolkien of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia and many other excellent books.  Lewis may have been referring to the name of this small group when he once wrote, “Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling….”  But an inkling of what?  Of what you are really about?  Of the requirements for having a close relationship?  Of the mere possibility that this friendship will become special?

Or maybe the inkling he meant had to with some specialty, a certain shared skill or knowledge or personal experience that some people immediately understand they have in common with you, but which others may not clue in to or may find dull or even repulsive.  Said Lewis once, in a poem, of a possible event:

We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I  /  in a Berkshire bar.  The big workman  /  Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe  /  All evening, from his empty mug  /  With gleaming eye, glanced towards us;   /   “I seen ’em myself,”  he said fiercely.

The three shared a serious attention to the subject of dragons, Lewis and Tolkien because of their love of northern myths, and the “big workman” (whom Tolkien later identified as a historian named Brightman) because of a religious connection.  When Brightman was asked where he had seen a dragon, he had answered, “On the Mount of Olives,” and left it to the others to ponder the meaning.

A significant “inkling” of a more than typical connection with another human being, and the strong friendship it sometimes leads to is a golden event and opportunity in our human pilgrimage along life’s twisting paths.  Unfortunately, for many of us these happy foretastes are also very infrequent.  Over the span of a lifetime, these may only result in “3 or 4 old friends in old clothes.”  But no matter, they will be the few who help us to feel that our life was, after all, truly meaningful.

 

 

My summer wish for you

Summer is almost here, and I am going to give Bookends a bit of a rest.  Oh, I don’t mean I’m going to stop reading.  Since retiring, I rarely read for any other reason than pleasure.  All I mean is that I won’t be blogging about what I’ve read.  Not for a couple of months at least.  For much of my life I have read a lot and have written a lot, just like singer-song-writers who are always picking out a tune, like crafters and artists who are always creating a piece, or like the “Chariots of Fire” runner who said he runs because it is then that “I feel His pleasure.”  It’s just something that people do because they’re who they are.

Speaking of artists, have you seen the new movie “Maudie” yet?  Highly recommended!  Nova Scotia’s now-famous Maude Lewis was always painting, despite having had no training and despite her various disabilities.  When I walked into her little house many years ago, long before the entire structure was moved to the provincial art galley in Halifax, it was fascinating just to see the impressive result of her compulsion to decorate everything in her home and to ornament her soul in the midst of a difficult life.

My reason for blogging is perhaps not so very different from her motivation or that of many writers, musicians, artists and runners.  I read and write largely for pleasure, but make no mistake about it, I would indeed want a few folks to read at least some of what I write.  And  here it has been my observation (not criticism) that genuine one-on-one communication among people is actually quite rare.  Lots of things are said, laughed over, gossiped, raged about, and penned  –  all the time  –  but I have seen that in all that verbal exchange there can be little of real substance.

Before the blog, I experimented with encouraging more worthwhile discussion by placing on Facebook suggestions for conversation under the title “Coffee Time.”  For a while, this really worked as people were sending back-and-forth comments on certain subjects, generally in a friendly manner.  That was great, though it didn’t last.  After a couple of months, it just petered out.  The Bookends blog has done marginally better.

I also enjoy hearing about old friends and am interested (and often grateful) to learn how their lives are turning out, but summer is just around the corner and it’s time for a change of pace.  I hope to do some travelling through picturesque Newfoundland — maybe even see my first iceberg.  And of course, I will also be reading quietly in the backyard of my home, no doubt making notations of one kind or another, but I’ll spare you the report about it.

Thanks to all you who took the time to read some of my blog articles.  Here’s wishing you a healthy, pleasurable summer, with lots of good friendly conversation!

 

A true ghost story

I don’t know why, but whenever I have relocated, I always had to scout around my new environs.  The urge went well beyond needing to become familiar with the streets and roads.  It was just something about wanting to explore around my home.  That also included finding out who lived there in years past and what the local history was like. Sometimes I uncovered strange or violent stories, though the one I’ll tell you has a happy ending.

Years ago, I lived in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, just down the road a piece from the hamlet of Pereaux, and not much further from the villages of Habitant and Canard.  These community names, of course, are French, though this is not at all a French-speaking area.  Beyond these settlements lay a large lowland that we called “The Flats,” first created by people now long gone, who built dykes to keep the sea water out.  And past those fields stretched the district of Grand Pré, a purely historical site because those who used to live there all disappeared.  Some say it was murder en masse.

It was not not like other mass killings, as “only” one-third of the thousands of the French settlers lost their lives prematurely, though all of them were forcibly moved away, “merely” transported in the naval equivalent of cattle cars.  Many of these people perished for lack of food and fresh air, or from contagious illnesses in the dark holds of the ships, while many others drowned in mishaps on the stormy seas.  The families of these unfortunates were often split up so that the children sometimes came to exist like slaves as they were put to work by foreign masters.  Terrible stuff.

This almost unbelievable tragedy took place all around where I lived and it was made more real to me through a book entitled The Acadians – a people’s story of exile and triumph, written by Dean Jobb.  As always in such matters, the culprits behind the deportation of the Acadians (history books don’t call it a massacre) were very few in number but many soldiers and allies did the dirty work.  Five years after the upheaval, the Nova Scotia authorities invited British-American farmers, who had no hand in the deportation, to come and settle the silent, emptied lands.

What about the ghosts?  Well, apart from a few monuments and French place names, there are only spooky, whispy traces of these original Acadians.  Their houses were burned down, their cattle stolen, their stories were forgotten, and the memory of their settlements was deliberately erased.  I have “seen” an Acadian cemetery, kind of creepy, not because of weathered headstones viewed in dim evening light, but because even in broad daylight there was nothing obviously there but grass and weeds  — all signs of the dead having been removed by man and nature.

Lots of Acadians are now living elsewhere in the Maritime provinces, descendants of those who came back years later, and there are many American “Cajuns,” as they are called down in the state of Louisiana where some of them ended up.  But no one was allowed to return to the original fertile farms and familiar sites of former villages.

There is still an unreality about it.  The area of my present home has, like the Valley where I once lived, dyked lowlands formerly owned by Acadians.  The name of my town is Bible Hill, in part because British settlers who came after the deportation found an old French Bible near a well that the former inhabitants had used.  This was just one more fleeting indication that Acadians actually lived, worked, worshipped, and raised families here.  They seem like whispers, barely heard sounds in the wind, ghost-like hints of a once thriving people.

Some have said that Acadians of old were terrorists who deserved to be punished and deported.  Sure, a few actively resisted British rule over the colony, but most of them apparently just wanted to be left alone to tend their farms.  It has also been said that since they were all Roman Catholics, they could never be loyal to the nominally- Protestant British government.  Maybe, maybe not.  It should be added that the British were the newcomers, not starting to settle in Nova Scotia until at least a century after the Acadians had begun to live there.

Time has moved on and relations have now vastly improved.  Queen Elizabeth made a royal proclamation to acknowledge the unjust suffering and she made July 28, which was the date of the deportation order, an annual day of commemoration.  This summer, Acadians will invite their English-speaking neighbors, especially in this year of Canada’s 150th anniversary as a nation, to the historical site at Grand Pré, for remembrance and celebrations.

Yes, a happy ending, but wouldn’t it be good if in our day we would never hear again about the fear of other ethnic groups, about present religious bitterness, and even the threat of mass deportations?  Here in the Maritimes, much of the bitterness of the past has been overcome, thank God — but please, no more true ghost stories.

 

How I found the cover-up of an airline disaster

Full disclosure here.  Everything I know about a cover-up of the cause of the crash of Swissair 111 in September of 1998, the second worst air disaster in Canadian history, I learned from Tom Juby.   When I first met Tom, it was about a year after that crash near Nova Scotia’s famous Peggy’s Cove.  He was then a forensic identification investigator with the RCMP, having been assigned to examine the physical evidence of the crash.

I could tell right away that Tom Juby was no opportunist, seeking to profit from the disaster.  That day, his mind and feelings were much troubled and impacted by events relating to the investigation.  Not only was he affected by the horrible scale and details of the human loss of life, he and the lead investigator for the federal government had uncovered evidence of an “incendiary device” on board the fatal flight, and also a number of strange facts about the flight itself.

But perhaps worst of all, for Tom, was the fact that his own bosses in the RCMP had wanted to shut down his sleuthing of a criminal cause. They wanted him to alter his notes in order to delete any reference to possible criminality (just like the Transportation Safety Board later ordered their expert investigator, Dr. Jim Brown, to change a similar reference in his own report).  In a tired and depressed tone, Tom started telling me technical and scientific facts that I barely understood, and also suspicious details of the flight that were much easier to grasp.  Among the latter was the passenger list, which included a Saudi prince and several United Nations officials, and there was a missing cargo of diamonds.  Later, he would add further disturbing bits of detail, such as first class passengers having been inexplicably moved to the rear of the plane, and a missing airport worker who had been in the plane before its take-off  but who, after only one shift on the job, had vanished without a trace except his false identity in the airport employee file.

Despite these and other anomalies, RCMP brass decided already on the third day of the investigation that there was no point to further examine the passenger list, and indeed before long they decided the Swissair crash was only an appropriate study from a safety perspective, not from a forensic/criminal one.  Yet the names of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda had been mentioned, more than two years before the destruction of Manhattan’s Twin Towers on 9-11.  Tom wonders how history might have unfolded differently if the Swissair investigation had been handled better.

At his home last year, Tom filled me in on his plans to publish a book of his findings.  In the intervening years, he had retired from the RCMP, taken a different job, and had been the focus of an episode on CBC’s investigative journalism program, “The Fifth Estate.”  Now about to resign from his other work, he could concentrate on the book and the expected publicity, some of which could well be hostile.

The book is finally available, called Twice As Far: the true story of the Swissair 111 airplane crash.  Readers who may be especially interested in the story can get further details and news on Tom Juby’s web site at  www.swissair111.ca

A Street Cat and a Sad Song

Recently, there have been reports in some of the media saying that young people are now more stressed than before and are having more mental health issues than ever. Various reasons for this are proposed, including the addiction to social media.  I won’t dwell on these statements but whatever the state of youth stress may be, it has been an observation of mine for a few decades already that there seem to be fewer traditional calming influences and ordinary emotional supports, perhaps especially for urban youth.  Let me tell you what I mean.

Take music, for instance.  There is lots of the usual rebellious rock and social-commentary hip-hop, but how often are the young exposed to contemporary versions of soothing ballads, quieter blues, and other tunes that help the soul and mind to work through hurt, loss, and pressure?  This has been, for eons, one of the great benefits of music.   I recall as a young man crazy about the Beatles, being very moved by Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” with its soothing lament over a lost love, not unlike the Beatles’ own “Yesterday.”

There appears to be a lot of loudness, whether of anger, passion, or praise, and (to me) far too little of the softer, thoughtful, singing that has healing power.  The poet G.K. Chesterton once said the following about the ages-old features of the Celtic character ….

The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.

The Irish are particularly talented at making good sad songs, perhaps in part because so many of them seem equally talented at drinking and arguing.  Check out the Irish ballad called “The Dutchman” in the previous blog, as just one example of many, of their renowned skill.  Sad and thoughtful songs can help a mind under stress open an emotional safety valve.

I am not suggesting to the young what their taste in music should be, but only that there are in the general culture and in nature various calming, therapeutic sources of strength and stability …. if we only open our eyes and ears to them.  Besides music there are pets, quiet walkways, forms of mindfulness, meditation on good things, and so much more.

Earlier this month, I watched a wonderful movie called A Street Cat named Bob, about a young homeless drug addict who meets up with a stray cat, leading to health for both of them.  I then read the book by the young man himself, for the film is based on his true story.  Who knew that someone who had been living on the streets of London for a decade would be saved by a cat?  If puzzled, read the book or watch the movie.  Taking care of Bob the sick stray helped James Bowen to have, as he says, “an extra purpose in my life, something to do for someone – or something – other than myself.”  The story has a certain similarity to Marley and Me, another inspirational best-seller about a man and a pet.

I have to disagree with the view that stress and depression must always be met with optimism and the upbeat.  Often a quiet word of empathy or an opportunity to shed a few tears is far more helpful.  I tend to avoid social groups or churches that are forever pumping the positive.  Great pieces of poetry, including the Psalms, show a wide range of emotions, and a good Irish lament, or a needy street cat, can do a world of good.

 

 

The Dutchman

 

Every Wednesday I meet with a bunch of guys to hear one of them or a speaker they bring.  The “speaker” this time brought his guitar and a good friend of his also with a guitar.  They entertained us with a dozen or so great melodies, finishing with a hauntingly favorite, entitled “The Dutchman.”  For my blog this month, I am treating you to a rendition of this memorable song, sung here by the late Liam Clancy.  Just click on the triangle above and have your speaker on.

What’s the song about?  You won’t find much accurate information about Holland here, but the human pathos of the Dutchman will move you as it has countless others.  As so often, it’s about love, a special kind of love.  Figure it out for yourself.  The lyrics appear below.

The Dutchman

Words and lyrics by Michael Peter Smith

The Dutchman is not the kind of man    /    who keeps his thumb jammed in the dam    /   that holds his dreams in,    /    that’s a secret that only Margaret knows.

When Amsterdam is golden in the summer    /    Margaret brings him breakfast,    /    she believes him    /    (he thinks the tulips bloom beneath the snow).

He’s mad as he can be,    /    Margaret only sees that sometimes,    /    sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes.

Let us go to the banks of the ocean    /    where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.                 Long ago I used to be a young man,    /    dear Margaret remembers that for me.

The Dutchman still wears wooden shoes    /    and his cap and coat are patched with the love    /    Margaret sewed there    /    (sometimes he thinks he’s still in Rotterdam).

He watches the tug-boats down the canals    /    and calls out to them    /    when he thinks he knows the captain.

Margaret comes to take him home again    /    through unforgiving streets that trip him    / she holds his arm    /    (sometimes he thinks he’s alone and he calls her name).

        Let us go to the banks of the ocean    /    where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.                 Long ago I used to be a young man,    /    dear Margaret remembers that for me.

 

 

The winters whirl the windmills ‘round,  she winds his muffler tighter,    /    they sit in the kitchen,  some tea with whiskey keeps away the dew.    /    He sees her for a moment , he calls her name.

She makes the bed up singing some old love song,    /    she learned it when the song was very new,     /    he hums a line or two, they hum together in the dark.    /    The Dutchman falls asleep,    /    Margaret blows the candles out.

        Let us go to the banks of the ocean    /    where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.                 Long ago I used to be a young man,    /    dear Margaret remembers that for me.

 

 

 

A Butterbox Resurrection

The things we don’t know about the places we live in.  The things we don’t know about each other.

My wife and I have recently been reading the long-hidden story of the now internationally infamous Ideal Maternity Home of East Chester, Nova Scotia.  It is a bittersweet story with personal connections for us.  In 1990 we moved from Ontario to Squid Cove, just a short distance down the road from that Home, the main building of which was still standing.  For thirty years it had been the location to which frightened young unwed mothers and shamed families turned for secret births followed by the loss of babies, either from questionable adoptions and illegal sales of infants, or from frequent infant deaths (some of which may have been deliberate for those children who were “not very adoptable”).  In 1990 the scandal had just been breaking out into the open.

Malcolm Phillips we knew as a very kindly senior living by himself, a grandfather figure to our two little children.  Not until we read the book did we know that he was one of the key journalists who put the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation onto the story of the butterbox babies.  Moreover, I had exchanged my old K-car for a newer used car at a small dealer in nearby Fox Point, not realizing that I stood very close there to a cemetery of unmarked little graves where a hundred or so babies from the Ideal Maternity Home lay buried in creamery boxes, secretly disposed of, all but forgotten.

My wife and I found it strange that the local church we had begun to attend in Chester did not show the least interest in us.  The pastor promised to visit but never did.  The congregation would leave me completely alone after the service to get my wife into her wheelchair and our two tiny toddlers out of the emptied church and onto the freshly-deserted parking lot.  We were newcomers and it seemed there were things we were not supposed to know.  When my mother and sister came to visit us, they stayed at the Casa Blanca Inn, a gracious old bed-and-breakfast run by an equally gracious and old Isabel Marshall, of whom mother spoke very highly.  None of us knew that the Casa Blanca’s guest book contained the names of scores of American couples who had come here to adopt children, paying well for the privilege, and being escorted to the Home by the well-intentioned innkeeper.

The baby business had brought much needed cash into this remote community, beginning in the Great Depression of the 1930s and continuing into the war years. Even when a reluctant Nova Scotia government finally closed down the Home after many years of investigations, reports and court cases,  the baby business carried on quietly.   I asked my wife, not long after our arrival in the area, why she had for so long raved about Nova Scotia’s “down-home hospitality” when we only experienced furtive glances and secrecy.  She concluded that the area was an odd exception to the well-known Maritime friendliness.  The book about the Butterbox Babies now gave us one possible reason for that difference, back a few decades ago.

But things did change.  Surviving children of the Ideal Maternity Home began to investigate their origins.  Dozens of people, especially Americans, began travelling to the Chester area, hoping to find some clues to their own birth names and true identities.  Sometimes this brought about tearfully happy reunions with now-elderly natural mothers, and other times it led to disappointment and closed doors.

We moved away from the area in October of 1992 in order to settle near Canning in the Annapolis Valley, and so we knew nothing of the emotional first gathering of survivors in a Chester church in November of the same year, an event that began to put many puzzle pieces together and shine a ray of healing light on lives that had known the darkness of earlier days.  Not aware of that reunion, we also did not realize later on that a new pastor who came to our church in Canning, Andy Crowell, was one of two ministers leading that first gathering of healing and hope.

So often, life’s earlier pain eventually leads to a deeper appreciation of life’s most important things.  Those who turn away from the journey of discovery because of the suffering often lose hope and miss out on the freer life that awaits.  But what a confusing and tiresome journey it can be, and how much we might have learned better if only we had known then what we know now.