the NUMBERS don’t lie

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Henry David Thoreau

Building our new house has always been about the numbers; square footage, the budget, the orientation to the sun, the property lines, the size of the windows, the budget, the number of cedar boards, the time it takes to frame, the start date, the degree of slant in the roofline, the closing date, the number of gallons in the rain barrel, the budget, the hourly wage for the trades, the temperature of the heat pump and oh yeah, the budget. For someone who prefers words to numbers, it’s been a steep learning curve, and while I am not sure of the percentage of growth, I know I have learned a lot! 

I have lived in nine houses over the past six decades, this one will be my tenth, and likely my last.  Some of those houses were brand new when I moved in, no one had slept in my bedroom before me. Most were on lovely streets and in ‘good’ neighbourhoods.  It never crossed my mind that I would ever be without a home; somewhere safe, and warm and dry. And while my parents, like many, emigrated with little, worked hard, and saved even harder, they didn’t ‘deserve’ those houses, they too were lucky, plain and simple.  It could so easily have gone a different way.   

Years ago, having recently moved to one of those nine houses, this one in Calgary, I chose to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, a global non profit housing organization committed to creating safe places for families to call home.  Inspired by Jimmy Carter, one of my favourite people, I became the Chair of one of the local committees and helped onsite with one of the builds.  The experience was humbling, rewarding, and a welcome reminder of just how privileged I had been to have grown up in so many wonderful homes. It was also an introduction to the fact that so many Canadians live in substandard housing, or no housing at all and that for many around the world, the possibility of any form of adequate housing remains unlikely.

The 2016 State of Homelessness in Canada report states that “approximately 35,000 Canadians experience homelessness on any given night, and that at least 235,000 Canadians are homeless in any given year.”  It is suggested that these numbers greatly underestimate reality.  The BC Homeless Count in 2020 showed 2,095 homeless in my province and the largest number of homeless street youths in Canada are in some of our largest and most progressive cities; Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

The United Nations identifies adequate housing as a fundamental human right, defining it as “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity,” yet it would appear that we are still a long way from a lasting solution for this complex problem.  And while sheltering in place has become routine for many around the world, and residents in BC are operating within provincial health restrictions, our family is able to continue to build a new house, while sheltering in our current one. We are blessed, and for no other reason than the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  I don’t deserve to have a home more than anyone else and I am reminded daily of my good fortune.  You will not hear me complain about having to stay home during the pandemic, at least I have one in which to stay.  

As we all look forward to better numbers in the coming months; fewer COVID-19 cases, higher outdoor temperatures, and more daylight hours, perhaps it would be prudent to remind ourselves that there are more than 7 ½ billion of us living on this beautiful big planet and each one of us DESERVES a place to call home. 

Henry David Thoreau’s house on Walden Pond

the best laid PLANS

circa 1995

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags! – Dr. Seuss

I can see it now. Everyone gathered together just like we have for the past 25 years, around our long dinner table, on Christmas Eve. I’m in the kitchen trying to keep everything hot long enough for everyone to sit down and enjoy it.  Surrounded by grown children, good friends, my older brother, and his youngest daughter; a familiar sight that we look forward to each and every year.  The menu varies ever so slightly; traditional items that the children love and long for, some vegan options along with a beautifully roasted turkey, soup to start and mincemeat tarts and shortbread for afters.  And so, it flows, conversation and cuisine, laughter and love, this is the story of our Christmas. It’s pure JOY.  

This year, is the last Christmas in this house, as we look to the future and a new home in the woods.  It’s a nostalgic time, filled with traditions and lasting memories. One final tree trimming, one last showing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, our grown kids sleeping in the same room, a neighbourhood stroll, and lots of lazing around, simply being together in this place, that holds so much of our lives.  Our children grew up here, my parents grew old here, and our love grew great here.  So many people gracing our threshold, visiting from near and far, sometimes staying on for days and weeks, knowing that our door is always open.  This beautiful container has held so much. 

There’s a feeling that I love at this time of year. It’s a fullness and a fondness and it arrives just a few days before everyone else arrives.  It’s a sense of completeness, that all is right with the world, and that we are surrounded by and filled up with a sense of place.  We belong here, and we belong together. We hold each other’s hearts here. This house has been a haven for much of our children’s lives, for the last part of my parents’ lives, and for the last 25 years of our lives.  It has seen and heard it all, been a witness to our very best selves, and to the sides of ourselves we long to forget and have long since forgiven.  It’s embraced our most beautiful offerings and held us close in our worst tragedies. It’s been our safe place to land. We haven’t just lived here, we’ve LIVED here.

This year our adult children will choose their favourite ornaments and pack them up in special boxes to take home, to their own trees and trimming parties.  They’ll select cherished items and art that we are not taking with us to our next home, and they’ll finally move those boxes out of the furnace room, the ones no one had an interest in or inclination to move when they left home.   

We’ll sit around the family room, start sentences with “remember the time…” and laugh at photos with bad haircuts.  We’ll reminisce about the years their grandparents lived here, the many friends who stayed over and hung out here, and all the great parties we’ve hosted here.  We’ll laugh a lot and loudly, and we’ll shed a few tears for what’s gone on here, for what’s been endured here, for what we might have changed here.  And it will be unforgettable. 

Well…. that was the plan.  But we all know what happens while we are busy making plans, life happens.  And happen it has; to you, to me, to us.  This year has bent us out of our familiar shape and demanded that we adapt or die, and in some cases, sadly, both have happened.  Nothing is familiar, and little is like it was.  And while I have not yet crumbled under the weight of it all, I have shed my share of tears, have had to renew my optimism often, and have constantly adjusted my sails to navigate the pandemic storm.   

With new restrictions in place here in BC and new rules around gathering for Christmas, we have a new plan.  No big dinner on Christmas Eve, no shared Christmas tree trimming, no group movie night or neighbourhood stroll, no ‘together’ in this space.  This, our last Christmas here, won’t be unforgettable; it simply won’t happen.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t be memorable.  It’s up to each of us to choose what we hold close.  The memories that dwell in this house, also dwell in our hearts, in the memory box we house them in, so they are available anytime we want to give them light.  That feeling of fullness I get around this time of year, will still find me here, not because of where I am, but because of what I already have.   

I am one of the lucky ones.  I am well; healthy when so many are not.  I am not hungry, cold, oppressed, lonely or afraid.  I have shelter, and we have each other, connected by blood and belonging and we can gather virtually when we feel the need to see smiles and hear laughter.  

Christmas will still come like it does every year, and this year, I will again be present; welcoming in what comes our way, knowing that there are worse things behind us, better things before us, and that all is right with the world… as right as it can be right now.