No place like home

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
― Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

Coming home last night around 10:30, I stopped by my local convenience store to buy some penny candy. I can do without chocolate and any number of other confections but penny candy remains my weakness. When the craving hits, I will not be denied. Mind you, the selection isn’t what it used to be but then we all have our version of the “golden years”, don’t we. Or we do if we’re old enough.

The store was surprisingly busy. A number of young people were stocking up on late night snacks, a guy ahead of me was buying a pack of smokes, and one would-be customer had to leave when he realized he had forgotten his wallet. He reassured himself by checking the time, confident he could get home and back before the store closed.

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What struck me as I was hanging by the candy waiting for the line to diminish so the busy clerk could make her way down to me and answer my need for a sugar rush was how pleasant everyone was. Even the guy who forgot his wallet was no more than disappointed. He took it all in stride and left with a cheery “I’ll be back”. The clerk was all smiles and patience and the other customers were chatting here and there, chuckling at something or other. If Norman Rockwell were still around, he could have found inspiration in the moment, Canadian-style.

It made me glad to be just where I was at that moment, hanging out later at night in my little corner store with a group of people, unknown to me, who seemed to feel something of the season or maybe just a general satisfaction with their lives, at least on this mild, Canadian night, all of us aware at some level that such nights would have to give way to bitter chill some day soon.

I happen to know that the owner of the store is an Iranian by birth. He immigrated to Canada some 30+ years ago and has been making a go of it as a convenience store owner ever since. I know him to say hello to and he is always congenial and happy to talk about his time in Canada and even to complain about taxes and how hard it can be to make a go of it in these tough economic times.

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I like to give him as much business as I can and, in doing so, I am following a trend that seems to be growing in the city. Both of my daughters are increasingly committed to the idea of supporting local entrepreneurs and businesses where and when they can. And they seem to have been joined by an increasing number who are, perhaps, realizing that the sense of place and belonging that comes with connecting through local enterprise is a pretty good feeling.

And times are tough in some ways around here. If we’re paying any kind of attention we know that the economy is stagnant, that good jobs are hard to come by, that poverty in Saint John remains high, that the population is aging, public services are increasingly costly, etc. Most of us could add to the list, I’m sure.

But I’m grateful to live where I do. I know I have been fortunate in ways it is all too easy to forget. Many have said before me that those of us who were born here won the lottery. While we are drawn to the big news stories of refugees, terror and mass killings, it is easy to forget that for a great many in the world, daily life is a challenge few of us born in the West could ever imagine.

Some years back, when I was in Africa with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, this was brought home to me in a way that has endured. As guests of the Ghanaian National Association of Teachers, my colleagues and I were given the very best the country could offer as far as accommodations and other amenities went. In one instance, we were staying in a Beach Resort close to a town that had as its major attraction Africa’s oldest slave castle. Built by the Portuguese in the 15th century, it was a very substantial reminder of a dark time.

One afternoon, when I had some free time, I decided to walk from our hotel into town. It took me about 15 minutes and along the way, I noticed certain things I had missed before. The huts along the road had no electricity. I was able to see darkened interiors where a fire in the centre provided a place for cooking and, if needed, heat as well, I suppose. Pavement, sidewalks, street lights? Non-existent.

On the return journey, I decided to follow the shoreline and take the palm-fringed, white sand beach that I had noticed from the resort, a beach that was, curiously I thought, virtually entirely unused. Anywhere else and it would have been teeming with sunbathers and the aquatic set, I thought.

Not long after I had started my stroll, I realized why the beach was unused: with its tidal action, the beach was the only logical alternative for a population that had no sewer system of any kind.

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As Christmas approaches, more than anything I hope that all of us blessed to call Canada home realize just HOW fortunate we really are. And, the times being what they are, I hope as well that we have a chance to say hello to someone new around here and help to make them feel just a little bit more welcome. I hope someday they’ll be able to call this place home.

Fear itself

Always do what you are afraid to do
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fear: it’s in the air. No matter where I go, regardless of the occasion, if I run into someone I haven’t seen in a while, the conversation eventually comes around to the question of Syrian refugees. And beneath virtually every opinion offered on the rightness or wrongness of Canada’s plan to welcome 25,000 souls to our shores before the end of 2015 lurks that undeniable element of fear.

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We occupy a privileged position here in Canada and, even more so, here in our little enclave on the East coast, far removed from the metropolises of Europe and elsewhere where the threat of yet another ISIS/ISIL outrage must feel incredibly imminent. The effectiveness of ISIS/ISIL’s approach to intimidation cannot be overstated. The unlimited scope of their attacks has put all of us on edge in a way that no group, in my memory, has ever been able to do.

Attacks on embassies, war ships, even the World Trade Towers, have the perverse logic of being symbols of something identifiable that the radical group opposes. In the latter case, in light of what we see as the inherent innocence of the victims (people going about their business, doing their jobs), the logic is profoundly offensive, but at least we can follow it: World Trade Centre as symbol of U.S. economic imperialism, etc., etc., etc.

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But Paris? What did anyone killed or wounded in that attack do? What was the landmark, the symbol, the thing that shouted “offensive” in the twisted minds of the death cult that pretends to have something to do with religion called ISIS/ISIL? A concert? A soccer match? A restaurant? As others have noted, the randomness of the targets is the very thing that has made them so effective. By striking somewhere that has no obvious benefit, the message is clear: everyone, everywhere is in the cross-hairs unless you are with us.

No wonder fear is evident, even here in small town New Brunswick.

But I’m here to add my voice to those who cry out against that fear. I am not suggesting that we abandon healthy caution but, as in all things, we owe it to ourselves and to those who are more immediately affected by the ongoing calamity in Syria and Iraq to not allow fear to overwhelm our better instincts. Never have I felt so in need of perspective.

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For the friends that I have talked to about this, the central concern is the obvious one: extremists infiltrating the ranks of refugees in order to insinuate themselves into positions where they can cause harm. That’s where that privileged position of ours comes in. With the exception of Air India decades ago and the lone wolf attacks in Ottawa and Quebec last year, we have largely been free of extremist attacks in Canada.

What’s it like, I’ve often wondered, to live in a place where the young girl approaching you across the square might be a suicide bomber, or where the car sitting idly outside a building might be rigged to detonate at any moment? What is it like, in other words, to live in a place where the threat of violent death is, realistically, a constant?

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And at that moment, I realize that that is not Canada. Here on the periphery of the violence that afflicts so much of the world, we look upon it with dismay and are grateful that it so rarely has an impact upon us. So, naturally, if we can be convinced to fear that same violence making its way to our shores, we will object to any action that could lead to that. Understandable.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m nervous. The world is looking like a dangerous place and the barrage of images of carnage and cruelty beyond measure in conjunction with the overreactions of crazies who want all refugees banned and tests of Christian belief administered, etc., all contribute to putting just about anyone on edge. At the same time, my rational self demands that I take a step back and act in spite of any visceral fear.

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While it might sound like overstatement, I really do think this issue is about Canadian identity. We cannot contend that we are (or aspire to be) the world’s most inclusive and fair-minded country while demanding that Syrian refugees pass litmus tests we would apply in no other circumstance. As I’ve tried to understand my own fear, I’ve further attempted to grasp just what it is we imagine needs to be done in addition to any current screening already applied to refugees.

Because the date, the end of the year, appears arbitrary, I hear myself saying that we need to abandon that. Even as I say it, I realize that my “logic” in saying so isn’t based on anything other than an unsettled feeling inside myself – fear, in other words. “Can’t be too careful” to quote the old adage.

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And I know we can’t! But what makes me think that the agencies responsible for such things in Canada are suddenly going to abandon caution and forego the responsibility they have for ensuring all of our safety? That just isn’t the Canada I believe in and those aren’t the Canadians I know.

The bottom line is I have to work on it – my fear, I mean. Because I am afraid. Canada has as much of a chance of being subjected to some kind of attack as anywhere else. But that is not, I have to tell myself, the same as welcoming refugees fleeing from a misery that I can’t even imagine. Emotion is as transferable as a bad cold, maybe even more easily spread, and I think we can all point to bad decisions we’ve made in our lives when emotion got the best of us. Let’s not let the same mistake get the best of our country. Too many lives hang in the balance.