Monday, April 30, 2018

"Moving House"

Summer break was less than two months away when Mackenzie announced she was moving. The child was one of Mr. Merkus’s kindergarten favourites, for she was helpful and fair, and reliably kind towards even the oddest of playfellows. In the way of children, her declaration was made with the same carefree tone that she might use to report the colour of her jacket or the name of a doll; she simply said it and moved on, appearing utterly unconcerned about her impending departure. Mr. Merkus squatted down beside the table where Mackenzie was working with playdough. “Kenzie,” he commented, “our class will miss you very much, you know. When does your family move?” Mackenzie mashed together a lump of red and yellow playdough while she answered. “We’re moving house tomorrow, but don’t be sad. We’re not going far. Just across the street, this time.” “Oh,” said Mr. Merkus, a little perplexed. “It seems an awful lot of trouble, just to move across the street.” Mackenzie smiled. “Not much trouble, if everybody pulls their own weight.” Mr. Merkus thought it was a clever thing that the little girl would know how to use that expression. He gave her a thumbs-up and sauntered over to another set of pupils. At lunchtime, Mr. Merkus went into the staff room to use the microwave. There he fell into conversation with the other kindergarten teacher, Ms. Gregory. “Have you heard that Mackenzie’s family is moving tomorrow?” he asked. “Yes! They live right around the corner from me. I’ve been looking forward to their move for quite some time. You’re planning to help, I hope?” Mr. Merkus furrowed his eyebrows. “Do you think it would be entirely appropriate?” “Appropriate!” Ms. Gregory said with a laugh. “If it was inappropriate, do you think the Mayor would be coming? The whole neighbourhood will be there! Many hands make light work, as they say. You really must come and join in, Chris. Don’t miss all the fun!” Mr. Merkus nodded his head slowly, considering this new information. The microwave beeped. He took his lunch back to his classroom without another word. Mr. Merkus didn’t live in the neighbourhood where he worked, though he did call the city his home. When the weather was warm enough, he would commute by bicycle, weaving through the residential streets and admiring the wide variety of houses present on each. Such was the case on the day that Mackenzie’s family was set to move. As he neared the school, he noticed a man using a big roll of yellow caution tape to close off a cul-de-sac. Mr. Merkus paused briefly at the sight. On the sidewalk, coiled up like an immense python snake, was the largest cut of rope that Mr. Merkus had ever seen. It was as thick as your arm, and the colour of dry summer grass. The man with the tape smiled and nodded, as though Mr. Merkus was already in on the secret. Mr. Merkus nodded back, both puzzled and intrigued by the man, his tape, and his rope. But the bell was about to ring, so he had no choice but to pedal on with his questions. The rest of the day appeared normal enough, and by mid-afternoon, Mr. Merkus had nearly forgotten his early morning encounter with the caution tape man -- until two o’clock, when there was a knock at his classroom door. He was greeted by the very same gentleman he’d seen on the street, arms overburdened by a wobbly heap of construction gloves. Several pairs fell from the pile as the man made his way into the room. “Afternoon, Mr. Merkus! I’m Kenzie’s dad, here to deliver the gloves for moving day! Every willing student and teacher gets a pair. You’ll be joining us, I hope?” Mackenzie stood beside her father and started sorting out the sets that were labeled extra-small. “I . . . will, yes,” said Mr. Merkus. He helped Mackenzie sift through the pile, and made sure that every child was properly fit with protective gear before finding himself a rather larger pair, and opening the classroom door for Mackenzie’s father once again. “Thank you,” the man said from behind his leathery load. “I’d shake your hand, but I haven’t a spare. See you soon!” Mr. Merkus closed the door behind him. At the end of the day, it was customary for parents and guardians to gather about the school in quiet groups, awaiting the release of their children. For Mr. Merkus, moving day was proving exceptional even in this regard. When he led his line of students onto the playground, he was met by a veritable horde of people crowding in around his kids. Each child was quickly claimed by their proper adult and then hoisted up onto shoulders so that they would be able to see over the growing mass, as a witness to whatever it was they were assembling to do. Mr. Merkus was swept up in the moment and, along with everyone else, he moved down the street and around the corner, coming to a halt in front of the yellow caution tape. It was a physically feeble barrier, but the community respected its symbolic request for cooperation. Mr. Merkus looked around. At first blush, there didn’t seem to be anything special or unusual about the houses on this street. Two rows of two-storey homes faced each other; each had a driveway, many with a car parked out front. About halfway down the road, Mr. Merkus noticed that the monstrous, serpentine rope he’d seen coiled up that morning had been fastened by hooks the size of battleship anchors to the underside of the house. Where the building’s foundation should have been, a layer of bricks had been removed to reveal a hulking set of wheels. The house was perched on four gigantic castors, of the style that is commonly found on office chairs, or mobile bed frames. Mackenzie was perched on her front porch, which was now suspended a good three feet from the ground. The bottom steps had been lifted away, set off to the side, on a neighbouring lawn. Just when Mr. Merkus was wondering what they would happen next, Ms. Gregory appeared at his side. “Got your gloves?” she asked, inspecting his hands. “Those ropes have been known to splinter in the past. They’ve been used for generations of house moving, so a little wear and weathering is to be expected. Almost time to pull your weight!” She gestured to the house, the rope and then over to the empty lot across the road. He hadn’t noticed it before. Suddenly the whole situation became shockingly clear. “We’re going to DRAG it?!” he gasped. “Of course,” said Ms. Gregory. “What were you expecting?” A well-dressed woman with an absurdly large pair of scissors came over to the crowd and ceremonially cut through the caution tape. The crowd formed itself into a line along both sides of the rope, bent in unison, and picked it up. “On my count,” cried Mackenzie’s dad from his driveway. “One, two, THREE!” Everyone heaved their hardest, and the house rolled a few feet forward. After a pause, Mackenzie’s father called out again, and then again, measuring their progress as he paced beside his home with each pull. It took them an hour to shuffle the house into the street, get it turned around, and then coax it up the driveway and into its new space. A team of people brought the bricks over and began burying the big wheels behind them. Another team of people handed out hot dogs and popsicles to everyone who had helped haul the house across the street. Mr. Merkus joined a group of people transplanting the garden beds, and he was up to his elbows in the dirt when Mackenzie’s father finally tracked him down for that handshake. “Thanks for helping us move. It’s a real blessing to live in such a supportive community. Sure couldn’t do this alone!” “Happy to help,” Mr. Merkus replied, surveying the scene. The whole street was full of laughter and friendship, a welcome reminder that human kindness was still alive and kicking, at least in little neighbourhood cul-de-sacs. He walked back to the school to retrieve his bike with a heart full of hope for the world. And he smiled as he pedaled, all the way home.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

"The Lemon's Aide"

Living a life in constant yellow can be a wearying existence.
When you're yellow, people expect you to carry on as though every moment of your life is bathed in sunshine from dawn 'til dusk, but the truth is that even Yellows have blue days.
Just ask Lemon.
Lemon was a tough guy to peel. Although bright and smooth in appearance, he often struggled to keep up with the expectation of being the life of the party. He compared himself too frequently to Banana and Passion-fruit (one admired for his form and the other for flavour), but even with this self-troubling habit most others in the fruit basket couldn't see past his goofiness to the sour pit he was feeding.
Lemon was sad. When you're so yellow, there's no opportunity to show off some of the other colours that are experienced just below the surface. The pinks of love, the blues of melancholy and the oranges of adventurousness never saw the sun on Lemon's peel... but before too long another colour began seeping out from his core.
"Lemon," Papaya commented one afternoon, "you're looking a little lime... are you okay?"
Lemon did what he could to let the comment roll off his back: "I'm fine, I just need a little more Vitamin D, that's all."
But sunshine wasn't enough to stop Lemon's greenness from spreading. In a few days, everyone had noticed – and they began to talk. "I know he's been hanging out with the Veggies recently," Apple said to Peach as they watched Lemon roll slowly from one side of the basket to the other. "Maybe the broccoli has been rubbing off on him a little too much?"
Lemon's friends tried to cheer him up and get his yellow back, but they couldn't figure out the root problem. Lemon was looking darker and darker every day, and everyone was worried.
"Is he rotting?" a little grape asked.
The response was uncertain and hushed. "He's sick, honey. Tired maybe... maybe more."
Two weeks after Lemon's hue had begun to darken, Radish got thrown in with the fruits.
"Are you an avocado?" Radish asked, unaware of the gradual pigmented depression Lemon had found himself in. She based her question solely on that which could be observed: the once yellow Lemon was now a very deep blueish-greyish-green colour.
"I'm a lemon," said Lemon.
Radish furrowed her eyebrows. "What has happened to your sunshine?"
Lemon sighed heavily, brimming with tears. The dimples that had once served to highlight his cheer now seemed to emphasize the depth of his creases and the weight in his eyes. "I've lost it," Lemon confessed. "It's been gone for a terribly long time."
"Well then," said Radish, gently, "I will help you find it again."
Radish listened while Lemon opened up. He spoke of the wear his friends had on him at times, and he recalled moments of frustration and fatigue often suppressed in order to serve his bubbly social role. He confided in Radish for a long time while she said nothing with neither smile nor tear. She simply listened.
Little by little, Lemon's grey lightened, the blue faded, and the green disappeared. Little by little, Lemon was yellowing. When he had explained everything he'd been keeping to himself, and all that pressure had been released, he laughed. Radish looked pleased, but also different, somehow.
Before Lemon had a chance to inquire, Radish nodded quietly and tipped her head to one side. "Did you know," she began, as though it were a question, "that colours are contagious? They have an amazing quality about them that is transferable – blues and yellows and even pinks – they can be passed on or pulled in by others. You've gotten much yellow back, and I've got some of that now too! But I also took on a bit of your blue and a little green, to help you get rid of it. So that's why I look a little odd – I'm brighter, but also darker than when I arrived here. More the colouring of an unusually ripe apple than a radish, you might say."
"But I don't want you to be blue or green!" Lemon cried, obviously distressed.
Radish smiled. "It's okay Lem. It's what friends do. We share the good and the bad, the blue and the yellow. We trade off and balance out and complement. It's our design."
Lemon gave Radish a hug. If this act seems impossible, consider that a radish is rarely a radish in such tales, and such tales are rarely told with the simple intention of entertainment. Rather, they often come prepared with an applicable punch:
When life gives you Lemons, be the Lemon's aide.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"Uncivil War"

If only you’d met them three summers ago, you’d have said they were peas in a pod --

So similar and so familiar were they, separate sightings had seemed rather odd.
Had you met them in winter two Christmases past, you may not have told them apart
For they wore matching outfits from headbands to socks. (They really had mastered the art.)
Last spring had you passed them on sidewalk or street, you’d have noticed them walking in sync
But by fall something dreadful had broken their bond, and their friendship had come to the brink.

Now Zoey and Sara did nothing by bicker and squabble and quarrel and fight,
And because they were sisters this tension prevailed throughout morning and evening and night.
As soon as the sunshine peeked over the trees, Sara leapt out of bed with a smile
But her joy was soon quenched by a shout from her sibling, of “Go back to sleep for a while!”
And that set them off for the rest of the day, ever getting at each other’s throats,
Grumbling and arguing under their breath, one pouting while the other girl gloats.

At breakfast one morning, Zoey requested for her eggs to be sunny-side-up.
Sara sniffed with distaste and asked for her’s scrambled, pouring OJ, not milk, in her cup.
They went back to their bedroom to pick out some clothes, and Sara chose a get-up in green
So Zoey wore Valentine’s Day pinks and reds, as though nothing could shake her routine.
Side by side in the bathroom, both brushing their teeth, they glared at each other’s reflection...
When Zoey lashed out, “Sara, you’re in my space!” With her fist, Sara offered correction.

“ENOUGH!” cried their mom, firmly taking control. “All this chirping and nagging must end!
From now on you will speak with politeness and tact. If you cannot? Then simply pretend!
You girls are making my hairs all turn grey from the stress and division you’re causing.
Battles rage ‘round the clock, and your tempers are flared every minute without even pausing!
Drop all the outrage, anger and spite, and let’s aim for some peace and tranquility.
Unless you would like to be grounded for life, you must practice the skill of civility.”

Then she used the old line about holding your tongue if you can’t think of nice things to say,
And both Sara and Zoey collapsed into silence -- cold shoulders, both looking away.
They kept their mouths closed on the short walk to school and all through the long day of classes
Which seemed to drag out longer than usual, time thick and slow like molasses.
Their quiet walk home, they stayed hushed over dinner and noiseless remained for three days
With neither girl willing to say a kind word, ending trouble by voicing a phrase.

At first, their mother rejoiced in the stillness, enjoying the muteness of daughters,
But she soon came to worry that nothing would be able to stir up such calm waters.
“Surely you can’t sustain silence forever,” she commented on day number two.
“You don’t have to agree on all things to be kind; a dose of good manners will do.”
Both girls nodded their heads and stared down at their shoes, feeling trapped, uncertain and sad,
For although they were mad, each girl knew in her heart that the other one wasn’t that bad.

How do you broker a truce when both sides of the war feel that they’re in the right?
How do you come back to peace talks when no one wants to look like they’re losing the fight?
For Zoey and Sara, the answer came down to inviting a mediator:
Their mom would give guidance to the conversation they had to have sooner or later.
On Saturday morning they went out for brunch and things got off to a civil start
When they all ordered pancakes and peach juice and quiche (which is a cheesy, egg-filled tart).

When their platters arrived, Sara knew it was time to put their differences aside,
So she timidly asked for Zoey to pass her the syrup, and Zoey complied.
A few seconds later, Zoey needed the salt and asked Sara to lend her a hand;
Sara found it easy to offer assistance, when phrased as request, not demand.
As three they talked over the trouble they’d had last August that caused their estrangement,
And with courtesy and tact the sisters worked out a new, civil and social arrangement.

So now when you meet them, you needn’t be wary of setting their tempers alight.
Though conflicts between them still surface near daily, they discuss them with words quite polite.
While each girl’s developed her own sense of style, they don’t go out of their way to clash;
They’ve come to appreciate ways that they differ, their dealings more like a dance than a crash.
Can we now find peace? Can we settle fights? Well, the advice of their mother proves true:
You don’t have to agree on all things to be kind; a dose of good manners will do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"Psychological Warfare"

A suit of armour used to be an obvious thing: a full-body shield of metal, used by knights in the face of battle. The wars of the past featured soldiers on horseback, raging against a physical enemy, and when spears and swords are the weapons to hand, you’d better have a way to protect yourself.

But the battlefield has changed.

In our modern times, we stand on a different line of scrimmage that requires a new type of armour. For the most part, the weapons that exist in our community are more ethereal, almost invisible, though just as dangerous and sharp. We fight against words and ideas. We fight against moods and attitudes. Our defences are, likewise, difficult to identify. While most of our armour has to be worn in the mind to protect the spirit, there are certain physical things that can bolster our inner strength and remind us of the powerful protection that cannot easily be seen. They can boost our confidence when we are threatened. They can help us to summon our courage.

Although he was quite young, Waleed was a veteran of this brand of war. He had suffered attacks that were just as frightening as any Medieval siege. Verbal grenades had left him with emotional scars, but that didn’t cause him to cower. For every wound he sustained, he had deflected a hundred blows, thanks to the strength of his internal armor.

On hard days (which was not every day, but which did come up from time to time), Waleed had a secret weapon, a piece of external armour that he could wear. It was an old, pink-and-purple polka-dot short-sleeved t-shirt that he kept at the back of his closet.

The shirt had once belonged to Kyran, Waleed’s older brother. Kyran had never shied away from anything; he was always up for a challenge, always seemed ready to take on the world. Kyran had also been a great encourager of others, whatever they were trying to do. When Waleed needed a confidence boost, he would pull out that old polka-dot shirt and find it a little easier to face the day ahead.

The last time he’d worn it, Waleed had been auditioning for a play at his school. He had worked hard on his public-speaking skills, but it was a nerve-wracking thing to climb up on stage and perform, especially before you’ve actually memorized any lines. He’d worn Kyran’s t-shirt under his hoodie, so nobody else even saw it -- but he knew it was there, and it helped him to fight off the whispers of self-criticism that swirled around in his head when he was quiet.

“I can do this,” he told himself. It’s important to be firm when you're talking to yourself. You have to speak hope and truth with boldness, because fear is often quite sure of itself, and doubt can be awfully convincing. “I can do this,” repeated Waleed. He got the role, and he wore polka-dots under his costume on the opening night, too, but found that he didn’t need his armour after that first performance. Kyran’s shirt had done its job.

This week, Waleed pulled it out again. He’d been feeling a little low lately, after getting back a test that didn’t go very well. His teacher had been sympathetic, but Waleed was still disappointed, and the little voice in his head had started to whisper discouraging things.

“I thought you were so smart,” hissed his subconscious mind.

“I am smart,” said Waleed. This conversation wasn’t new, but it was always difficult.

“You can’t do anything right,” taunted the voice.

“I can learn from my mistakes. It’s okay to fail, as long as I try,” Waleed told himself firmly. The boldness of this thought silenced his internal critic for a while, but this was a daily battle, and Waleed’s confidence was in need of an extra little boost.

There was another test coming up on Friday. Waleed wore his brother’s polka-dot shirt for the review on Wednesday, for the practice quiz on Thursday and for Friday’s actual test. It wasn’t a good-luck charm or a talisman, exactly -- he didn’t think wearing it would make him do better on the test or anything -- but when he wore it, he remembered his brother’s encouragement, and the strength of his brother’s character, and that reminded Waleed of his own strength, courage and character. Armour doesn’t win a battle, it just protects the fighter. To win, you still have to fight.

Waleed fought his doubts and fears all the way through the test. Those nagging thoughts were like distracting dragons, but he kept focussed on his quest and when he was finished, he felt pretty good. The rest of the day went pretty well, too. That night, Waleed was able to smile at his reflection in the mirror, even after he’d taken off his short-sleeved shield. The voices were silent, for the moment. The shirt had done its job.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

"Lady in Waiting"

Angelina’s baby sister was just about to turn one year old. Everyone had been preparing for a big family get-together on the weekend, where little Olivia would get her very first taste of birthday cake. Angelina had spent a great deal of time folding paper napkins into origami crowns and stars and flowers; her dad had spent his week hanging streamers from the ceiling all over the house, and various aunties and uncles were making up trays full of delicious treats and goodies for the party on Saturday. But it was Angelina’s mother who had the very best job of all: she was baking the cake.

On Thursday evening, Angelina’s mother started pulling out all of her baking materials and arranging them along their long counter. She had worked as a professional cake decorator once, so her supply cupboards for this type of work were full to bursting and every piece was of top-notch quality. There were pans and platters and bowls and brushes galore. She brought out her industrial stand mixer and a collection of spreaders and spatulas. She had a large, black tool box that was a treasure chest of highly-pigmented food colourings, piping bags and tips for making different shapes and textures of icing. Each item was laid out with great care, as a painter would carefully set out his paints at the beginning of a large project.

Angelina had watched her mother make many cakes before, but she rarely was invited to eat them when the decorations were complete. All sorts of people hired her mom to make cakes for their most special occasions -- weddings, graduations, retirement parties and the like -- but for Olivia’s first birthday, she would finally be allowed to indulge in one of her mother’s masterpieces. There had been a magnificent cake for Angelina’s birthday, of course, but that was so long ago now.

Angelina sat at the kitchen table, folding a few remaining napkins into delicate paper flowers. Over at the counter, she could hear her mother muttering to herself as she mixed the batter for her sister’s birthday cake. After a while, Angelina walked over to where her mother was working, hoping to watch, or help, or, if she was lucky, to taste.

Angelina’s mother carefully poured the thick, shiny batter into the waiting baking pans, already floured and greased. With a spatula, she scraped out the mixing bowl until it was perfectly clean, before handing the empty bowl and wiped-off scraper to Angelina for washing. Usually a bit of the batter would be left in the bottom or along one edge of these tools, but her mom had been especially careful today. Angelina sighed with disappointment. She would have to wait until the next phase of this process to taste-test.

The kitchen smelled better and better as the cakes began to warm and rise in the oven. Angelina peered through the window in the oven door to get a better look, as the gooey cakes transformed into soft and solid circles and goodness. Finally the timer went off and Angelina’s mother gently lifted the cake pans onto the top of the stove to cool. The aroma that escaped from inside the oven was absolutely heavenly!

“Patience, my girl,” grinned her mother when she saw the look of longing on Angelina’s eager face. The girl looked up a little sheepishly, and went back to folding napkins while they waited.

An hour later, they were ready to continue. The first thing that Angelina’s mother did was to pop the cakes out of their pans and cut off the rounded top of the cakes to make them nice and flat. Usually those cake tops were considered waste and so could be eaten immediately, but when Angelina reached up to break a piece off, her mother shook her head. “We’re going to use those bits to make cake pops this time,” she said. Angelina sighed again, resigning herself to more waiting. Surely there would be something to taste before too long.

Angelina’s mother whipped up a buttercream icing by combining a great glob of butter with several cups of icing sugar, a splash of vanilla and just a dribble of milk. Her mother dropped a dollop of white icing into several small bowls, smearing a coloured paste into each with a toothpick. Angelina mixed the bright pigment into each little batch while her mom layered up the cake and covered the whole thing with a thin crumb-coat of buttercream icing before setting it in the fridge to chill. More waiting ensued.

When the cake had chilled another hour, Angelina and her mom covered it in a rainbow of icing, using each of the colours in turn. They then used even more icing to make a dough out of the leftover cake tops, rolling them into round little balls, roughly the size of a Timbit, finally covering them in a smooth layer of white. They stuck them around the top of the rainbow cake and shook a tin of sprinkles over the whole thing. Angelina’s mouth watered as her eyes surveyed their finished masterpiece with pride. It was beautiful and it would taste wonderful, but how could she wait for two more days!?

“Thank you for helping me, and for being so patient,” said Angelina’s mom, once all the baking bits were cleaned up and the counters were once again clear. “Time to celebrate.”   She pulled two cake pops out of hiding. They were covered in sprinkles and extra large. Angelina took one and beamed. No. More. Waiting.