Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Choreography of Life

Every day we make decisions: what to eat, who to call, where to go. Quite often, we forget to do things: send an e-mail, bring the movies back (if you haven’t got Netflix or Rogers On Demand!), put the birthday present in the car. We decide and forget and then remember all the time. Choices and postponements and spontaneous actions are all part of a throbbing web of interconnected lives that influence any number of other lives in any number of possible ways.

We all play a part in someone else’s life, often without realizing it. We make minor decisions like pressing the snooze button twice more, taking a different route to work, forgetting the salad dressing when out grocery shopping and then having to go out again. These minor decisions can ultimately have a major effect on our lives. Have you ever run into someone you haven’t seen in a while, when you are out shopping? Perhaps you end up making plans to go out for coffee next week, and you end up having a real heart-to-heart talk. Or maybe through reconnecting with that person, you end up connecting with someone else you haven’t seen in a long time. Do you ever wonder at the fact that if you hadn’t had lots on your mind that certain week, you wouldn’t have forgotten the salad dressing, you wouldn’t have had to go out again to get it, and you may have never crossed paths with that old friend?

{This is the choreography of life.}

I’ve been pondering “the choreography of life” for several months now, and in doing so was reminded of my favourite scene from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a dancer, gets hit by a car as a result of a series of seemingly insignificant events. You can watch this clip on YouTube by clicking here. You should watch this clip, whether you’ve never seen the movie or already have. This little mini-story itself is beautifully choreographed, and it’s a perfect example of what I’m writing about here.

This scene in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button made me realize that there are so many events that occur to us that many other people have inadvertently, unknowingly participated in. There are so many things we do that inadvertently, unknowingly affect other people. Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) narrates this scene, and toward the end, he remarks, “but, life being what it is, a series of intersecting lives and incidents, out of anyone’s control, that taxi did not go by….” Do you ever wonder what you would see if you could zoom out and look at how your life has intersected with others, and how others’ lives have intersected with yours to bring you to where you are and who you are today?

Imagine how mind-boggling God’s perspective is on the world (except that it’s not mind-boggling to God). Imagine knowing how every little circumstance is woven together into delicate, flexible, ribbon-like strands of events that lead up to larger events—the twirls, thrills, spins, jumps, stretches, tiny movements and heartbeats of our lives and how they connect with everyone else’s—like a sometimes beautiful, sometimes tragic ballet.

There are so many positive and beautiful things that happen to us in our lives (such as having a friend who is just what we need, just when we need it). We can marvel at the wonderful choreography at work in life; we can wonder at our Master Choreographer and how He brings things into our lives in perfect time, synchronizing solutions for our needs. We can wonder at the simple occurrences that brought us together with the love of our lives, or the chance meeting with someone who in turn refers us to an employer who offers us our dream job.

I wish I could stop here, but then you would probably ask, “What about all the tragedies in life?” We live in an imperfect world, and we can’t control everything. The same concept of choreography, which is magnificent when referring to happy stories, can also weave seemingly insignificant events into a dark, nightmarish dance number (such as Daisy’s car accident). What do we do then? We wonder why. We blame this person or that event, we blame ourselves and the seemingly unrelated choices we made that day, even though the ultimate circumstance is beyond everyone’s control. We may even blame God. We lie awake going over the event countless times; we feel guilty; we regret the past.

This little blog post is not the forum for a really deep philosophical discussion, so I won’t go into much detail here about the concepts of fate, destiny, God’s will and chaos theory. I just want to share with you the first thought that came into my mind when I was pondering what I would write about the negative side of the choreography of life. We don’t know why so many tragedies happen, but we can be reassured by this Bible verse, which can refer to any negative circumstance we may find ourselves dealing with, however it happened, for whatever reason:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

None of us are immune to negative experiences. But at least we can take comfort in the fact that no matter what happens, how it happens, for whatever reasons (which we may never know or understand) and by whatever methods, God will work all things together for good.

We can also ask for instruction and guidance from our Master Choreographer. He knows how all the movements we make should be executed to achieve a beautiful outcome, and He knows how important timing is, so why not consult him when we aren’t sure ourselves?

When you walk out your door today, think about your role (the role you don’t often realize or may never know you are playing) and how you have participated and are participating in the great dance of life, at times the product of acutely timed choreography, and at other times the product of a series of intersecting events beyond our control. Either way, everything you do has the potential to be significant.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Long-Term Memories: What You Didn't Realize You Knew

Photo Courtesy of National Geographic

This week, when I was driving home after running some errands, a song came on the radio that I hadn’t heard in years. Thanks to Sirius XM, I immediately knew the song was “I Miss You” by Blink-182. This song was released in 2004. I thought, ‘Wow! I remember this song! I liked this song when it came out. I haven’t heard this song in a long time!’ When the chorus started, I immediately started singing along, and I remembered all the words without trying to remember them (“Don’t waste your time on me, you’re already a voice inside my head…”). The words flowed out of my mouth without any conscious effort whatsoever.

I’m sure this sort of instant memory recall has happened to you. I love being able to remember something that I didn’t even know I had known…or even didn’t know I had…forgotten?

Literally a couple of days before hearing that song, I was asked to remember someone’s name—a person I had both met in person and e-mailed back and forth about a year ago—and I could not for the life of me remember.  I wonder why sometimes you can remember things you have forgotten without trying to remember them, but other times you try so hard to remember things you know you’ve forgotten, to no avail?

I started doing a little online research about the human memory. A Scientific American article by Paul Reber from 2010 describes the capacity of our memories (link #1 below). In a nutshell, Reber explains that because each of the billion neurons in the brain can not only make a thousand connections to other neurons but also combine to help with many memories at a time (exponentially increasing potential memory space), our brains could store the equivalent of 3 million hours of TV shows (if our brains worked like a PVR/DVR). We have all of this “hard drive” space readily available, but we can’t remember where we left our keys???

What intrigues me even more than the concept of remembering is the concept of forgetting. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “forget” as “unable to recall.” Oxford Dictionaries online defines “forget” as “to fail to remember.”

According to those definitions, I wonder if I had actually forgotten that Blink-182 song. I wasn’t trying and failing to recall it. I wasn’t even aware that it was in my memory.

Do you have to remember that you knew something in order to know you’ve forgotten it?

There are probably thousands upon thousands of memories stored in your long-term memory, sitting atop a high, dusty shelf at the back of a closet—that you don’t even realize are there. Just because you are unable to recall a song, a person’s name, a childhood experience or what you did last Saturday night doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not there, in your memory. It's just a matter of access.

The question I have about forgetting is this:

Have you really forgotten something if you can’t consciously remember it, or you don’t think about it anymore, or is it still possible to retrieve a memory under the right circumstances, even if you can’t recall it by trying? Can anything be truly forgotten? How would we ever know?

Let me tell you the significance of these questions:

Of all the memories you don’t realize are stored in your long-term memory bank, you may only retrieve some, and you will only get to them if you happen to experience something that allows you to think along a certain path of interconnected neurons to access the memory. The path across synapses to a memory may be impossible to travel unless you stumble upon a memory trigger. Does this mean that some of what we happen to remember is determined by our experiences, our decisions and the uncontrollable things that happen to us? Is it that…random?

We probably have thousands upon thousands of memories stored away, but we may only happen upon a small percentage of them. Furthermore, the fact that we happen to stumble upon certain memories and not others may be determined by the things we just so happen to experience. This may not be a big deal in some cases (like remembering a certain song) but in other cases, remembering something may have greater significance (like remembering a conversation you had with someone, and what the other person told you).

Back to my story: If I had been listening to a different radio station, I wouldn’t have heard that Blink-182 song. Perhaps I might have heard it elsewhere at a different time, but perhaps different things would have been on my mind at the time, so I wouldn’t have been thinking about the recollection of memories, and it wouldn’t have been an inspiration for a blog post.

As it happened, I heard the song, and I was inspired, so I’m writing about remembering and forgetting, and you are just happening to read it.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Baby Beacon

4-Generation Photo. Clockwise from left: Grandma, my mom, my Little Oma and me

This past Tuesday, my mom, Emmett and I went to visit my grandma at Shalom Manor (a home for the aged) in Grimsby. Tuesday was my grandma’s 83rd birthday.

She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, and has been living in Shalom Manor ever since. In a nutshell, Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease and one of the most common forms of dementia. Thinking and memory are seriously impaired over time. As the years have progressed, so has the disease, and now Grandma mostly speaks an unintelligible hybrid of her native Dutch and English, and she only recognizes a handful of people, most of the time. Suffice to say that these past years have been difficult for our entire family (i.e. all of Grandma’s children and grandchildren)—and “difficult” is a gross understatement. It’s not easy watching a relative lose her mind, all the while realizing neither the scope of what she has lost nor the implications of losing it.

I have especially thought about the impact Grandma’s dementia has had on her children, and thus Danielle and I have written a song about her (stay tuned: the song will be on our next Zusters album).

My mom suggested that Emmett and I come along with her on Tuesday because Grandma, like many elderly people, loves babies. You bring a baby into an old age home and you would think a beacon was shining over the baby’s head, radiating joy and excitement throughout the building. Everyone looks, everyone smiles, everyone raises his/her speaking intonation and everyone walks away with an easier step.


I hadn’t seen Grandma in a while (several months), so I noticed that her beautiful bright green eyes (seriously, her eyes are gorgeous) were farther away, her stoop was more pronounced and she resembled more and more an empty shell of a person.

My cousin Cheryl (the Care Coordinator for the Gardens Apartments at Shalom) walked with us to pick up my grandma from her wing of the home. We found Grandma and asked her if she’d like to come for a walk to sit downstairs for a little while. She said, “OK” without hesitation. Cheryl commented to me that it’s interesting that Grandma so readily agreed to follow a group of "strangers" to wherever they decided to lead her. Her reaction was very childlike.

Another woman in Grandma’s wing noticed Emmett immediately, and she started stalking towards us with one arm outstretched, saying, “baby.” We stopped so she could squeeze Emmett’s cheek. You’d think Emmett was Shirley Temple or something, the way residents were gawking.

This is where my story gets interesting and why I chose to write about this incident. We sat in chairs around a table, and my mom was holding Emmett. Emmett was being his usual cheerful self: banging on the table, pulling off his socks and eating them, squealing occasionally and smiling profusely. Grandma couldn’t take her beautiful, green eyes off Emmett. I don’t know that she blinked at all. Then Grandma commented to my mom that she (my mom) had to be careful when holding the baby because he was squirming a lot and “you don’t want to drop him.” Wow. Kind of lucid for a woman at her stage of Alzheimer’s, isn’t it?

Emmett changed hands and sat in my lap next, where he was playing with Sophie (the giraffe). He dropped Sophie on the floor, and immediately Grandma told me to be careful not to give Sophie back to Emmett because the floor could be dirty and then dirt could get in his mouth and “that’s not good for him.” Another lucid moment.

What interests me is that to a person with Alzheimer's disease who is generally not lucid, a baby can "activate" brief moments of lucidity. All of a sudden Grandma remembered little things about taking care of a baby—things she practiced several decades ago. All of a sudden Grandma’s day brightened—just by watching a baby play for half an hour. One of the staff told my mom that Grandma would be happy for the rest of the day. Of course, Grandma had no idea that Emmett is actually her great-grandson, but that didn’t matter. I wondered what it was about Emmett—about babies—that was able to create a clear path to information that cannot normally be reached. Was it because the information about caring for a baby was originally second nature to her that just the visual of a real baby was needed to trigger that information? For someone who doesn't speak very clearly anymore, I also wondered how Grandma was able to so clearly express her "baby care tips" to us. It's one thing to be able to recall's another thing entirely to be able to recount what you've recalled.

You know how babies and small children seem to have an understanding with each other? Like on some level, they realize they are both of the same developmental age? I suppose Grandma and Emmett are on a similar mental plane. (Didn't Jerry Seinfeld have a comedy segment in which he talks about all the similarities between your first and last birthdays?) Grandma and Emmett are both sort of aware of what’s going on, but not completely. They can’t take care of themselves. They can’t really talk. They are entertained by simple things. They radiate childlike innocence. I wondered if my grandma has an understanding with Emmett—like she understood that they are more similar to each other than she is to me, to Cheryl or to my mom.

This event was a great reminder to me of how the pure innocence and joy of a baby is like a magnet. Regardless of how much someone’s thinking processes and memories have deteriorated, the sweet, simple lightthe bright positivityof a baby is still understood on some level. In fact, as in Grandma’s case, a baby brought forth brief snippets of lucidity in someone who barely seems to think at all. 

I’m going to make more of an effort to take Emmett to visit Grandma more often.

For more information about Alzheimer’s disease, follow the link below to the Alzheimer Society of Canada’s web site:

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Head Over Heels for Hayden

This week I fell in love with a song by Hayden called "Lonely Security Guard" from the 2008 album In Field & Town.

Most of you probably know Hayden from his 1995 album Everything I Long For, and the song "Bad As They Seem."

As this song weaved through my thoughts, my dreams and my everyday activities this week, I was able to categorize my ponderings into three interesting parts:

1. Falling in love with a song reminds me a lot of falling in love with a person. 

Most people are initially attracted to a song because of the music - which is what can be easily processed first. You love the sound of the violin in the chorus, or the drum beat of the intro, or the simple beauty of the melody, or whatever. When people fall in love, what do they notice first? "I couldn't take my eyes off her..." "He has the most gorgeous eyes that seemed to see right through me..." "The way she carried herself..." "His strong air of confidence..." "Her winning smile..." you get the picture.

Yet the real love develops when you find out more about that person. It's so exciting when you meet someone and then end up talking for hours and hours about yourselves, and discover that you like many of the same things and share many of the same opinions. You love his sense of humour. You love the way she gets excited about the little things. When you sit down and really listen to a song, or look up the lyrics, and find you love them too, your love for the song really blooms. When you find that the inside of a person, or the depth of a song is as beautiful as the outside of a person, or the music of a song, the internal resonates with the external, and it only makes sense that you love it wholly.

This is how I felt with "Lonely Security Guard." I loved the melody, and the way the first part transitioned perfectly into the second part. It made sense to me that the song progressed the way it did, as though we connected. When I found the lyrics, I was even more impressed with the song. They are solid and clever and raw and beautiful.  Then, much in the way that when you fall in love with someone, you can't stop thinking about him/her, I couldn't get the song out of my head. All week, it floated along with me as I fed Emmett, talked with Joel, went grocery shopping, folded laundry and read/replied to e-mails. Much as life seems to get brighter and you seem to feel lighter when you first fall in love, I fell into step with the song and I think it made my week a little happier by playing in my head wherever I went.

2. I wondered at the idea of random discovery.

I owned a copy of Everything I Long For, from way back in the 1990s. I really love several of the songs on the album, including "Bad As They Seem" and "Stem." Overall, the album is really sad, though, so it's not something I loved to listen to all the time. Maybe when I felt depressed - it's great to listen to when you're depressed. So somehow, the excitement for this album died down eventually and the CD collected dust on my shelf.

A couple of years ago, when Joel and I pooled our CD collections (which was great for me because it multiplied my collection by at least 10x), we realized we both had this album. We listened to it together a couple of times. I noticed that Joel had a couple more Hayden albums. After that, we never happened to discuss Hayden again...

...until this past Christmas, when Joel randomly happened to buy a couple more Hayden albums off iTunes, including In Field & Town. And one day, we were sitting in the living room, and Joel put In Field & Town on. I happened to really like it. Now you have to realize that Joel has upwards of 10,000 songs on his iPod, many of which I don't know, so if I don't know the artist, I won't ask who it is unless I really like the music. I really liked In Field & Town. Joel told me it was Hayden, and I was really surprised. It wasn't the typical melancholic sound so characteristic of Hayden. I sat on the couch long enough to hear "Lonely Security Guard" (which is a feat because I get restless pretty quickly). I fell in love. I love to discover treasures like this. A Canadian artist from Thornhill, Ontario wrote a beautiful song over two years ago about a security guard who makes origami from discarded paper, and I just found it now.

By a series of random happenings, I discovered a song I love, and this week has been sweeter because of it.

3. I want to encourage everyone who has created something:

I realized that when you create something--whether a song, a movie, a story, a poem, a painting or drawing, a photograph, a video--a piece of art--it now exists, and could exist forever. Just because you release it to be discovered one day, and not so many people seem to notice it right away--or you wish more people would notice it--doesn't mean "that's it." Who knows who will discover it, and where, when, how and why it will be discovered. There is great potential in any creation. You do your part by creating something you believe in. Now, let God do His part by weaving life's happenings through your creations. Who knows the kind of impact it has already had, is having now or will have in the future.


I found a CBC Radio3 podcast in which "Lonely Security Guard" was the Track of the Day (haha, back in February of 2008!). The podcast includes about 30 seconds of commentary on the song and then the studio recording of the song. Make sure you click on the green Play button toward the centre of the page, below the Track of the Day graphic. Listen to it!

Here is a link to the lyrics for the song:

Enjoy! Perhaps this song will impact you as it has me.