Seeking the Universal

The village was hot, dusty, dirty, and smelled a lot like the scrawny cow that lay in the empty lot, nonchalant in its holiness. I was in northwest Nepal. Our little group was on the second day of a bone-rattling journey in an ancient Tata bus from Katmandu to the Karnali River. We had stopped for lunch in a place maps forgot. Our restaurant was a collection of ramshackle old picnic tables, six feet off the road, with black, rusty oil drums converted to smoke-belching outdoor ovens. I was swatting flies, and swallowing a mashed rice and vegetable concoction, mixed with a scorching brown sauce. It was all great. Then, a young woman I would never meet made it even better.

She was about twenty-five or thirty years old, wearing a simple dress and flip flops and walking slowly along the road with her daughter, who looked about two. The little girl fell. She wailed. Mom knelt. She rubbed the knee. She kissed it. There was a hug. The crying stopped. And off they went. The universal happened. How many parents, I thought, on that very day, perhaps at that very moment, had done exactly the same thing?

Seeking the Universal

(Photo:Dreamstime.com)

We pride ourselves on our individuality. We plot our lives and careers and make our way but the universe has a way of smiling when we do. I think of a group of friends I’ve been lucky enough to have and love since university. At the beginning, our conversations were mostly about girls. Then it was about getting married and we attended each other’s weddings. Then we talked mostly about jobs and kids. Now we discuss when we’ll retire and our latest aches and pains. We have lived different lives, in different cities, and been cheered by different celebrations and rocked by different tragedies but fundamentally, we’ve been on the same journey and handled much the same things in much the same ways.

Abraham Maslow understood. He was a psychologist who, rather than studying mentally ill people, examined apparently healthy, well-adjusted, college-educated folks who appeared to be happy and doing well. He determined that we all need the same things. We need the basics of food, shelter, and safety, and then a feeling of being loved and belonging to a group. We all want our lives to have a witness. With all that in place we can make a positive difference to someone else and that, he said, is happiness. Everything else, everything, is by the by.

Maslow took years to come up with his notion of a hierarchy of needs and spent more years explaining it. The young woman in Nepal taught her lesson in thirty seconds. We need to get over ourselves. We need to watch and listen. The universe is trying to teach us about the universal; those truths that transcend.

If allowed to do so, the universal can inform our thoughts about what our government should be doing and not doing. The universal can help us when cringing at a newscast showing people being bombed by terrorists or by planes seeking to stop the terrorists. It can shape our reaction to seeing climate change and corruption starve children in one part of the world and a greedy few allowing the poisoning and starving of more children in another. The universal can affect our opinion of folks approaching from outside our gates, wanting only to step upon the first rungs of Maslow’s ladder.

A year after I left Nepal, its government collapsed. Maoist rebels took control. Corrupt leaders had tried to maintain power with power; they had bought and used more guns. The Maoists had won the support of the people by living among them. Their greatest tactic in winning hearts was to dig wells and build latrines and schools in little villages like the one at which I had stopped. They understood Maslow. They understood the universal. They knew that our happiness is based not on the size of our wallets but the content of our hearts. They understood that the universal is found not in the palaces of the kings or the ones we choose to sometimes gather around ourselves to hide within, but rather, in places where Moms kiss skinned knees and make it all better.

The universal is all around us. I swear, it’s right there. If we pause for just a moment from busily making our apparently unique way in our apparently unique lives, we’ll see it. And if we really see it, we’ll be humbled, and changed.

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Lessons from the Snowman & 7-Year-Old

If warp speed is real, then we hit it. A thousand freezing needles stung our cheeks as tears swamped our eyes. The screams grew louder until we realized it was us. When finally crunching to a sudden stop on the sand-strewn rubber mat we sat frozen in place for a second or so until I groaned, rolled, and pulled myself to my knees. I wiped my face and stretched to realign tingling vertebrae. She, on the other hand, bounded up, leapt before me, and with wide-eyed, adrenaline fuelled, fist-clenched, unbridled joy squealed, “Let’s go again!”

“Sure,” I said. What else could I say? Quebec City’s toboggan slide, on the boardwalk – the Dufferin Terrace – adjacent to the majestic Château Frontenac, has been thrilling riders for over 100 years. Speeds have been reportedly clocked at over 70 miles an hour. I believe it.

She flopped atop the 10-foot solid-as-a-rock wooden toboggan with the thin red padding and we began the long haul back to the top. At the wooden ascending ramp, she moved in front and we trudged up and up and up. With the toboggan’s red rope around my waist, I measured each footfall on the cross pieces that resembled hockey sticks and presented no guarantee of a Wile E. Coyote slip and tumble back to the bottom, taking all those behind with me.

The summit offered a 10-by-10 wooden platform and spectacular view. The gigantic sky was cloudless and brilliantly blue and yet the St. Lawrence so far below morphed the sight to black and white. Only the Lévis ferry, gleaming white in the bright sun, broke the grey, pulsating river choked with chunks of gliding ice floes all disappearing at the horizon’s vanishing point.

The blissful moment ended with a French instruction grunted and tickets taken. We assembled ourselves on the long toboggan in the narrow centre lane. A thin metal bar blocked the bow while I adjusted my legs to flank hers, propped my boots upfront, and settled my arms over her shoulders to hold her in place. There would be no flopping about with possible injury on rough barriers that demarked the lanes, nearly touched us, and would soon be whirring by. A word in French, a dropped bar, and we were off. Warp speed.

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Canadian winters are not for the meek. Quebec City winters are especially harsh with mountains of snow and biting winds that whistle relentlessly up the river valley. Rather than deny winter, however, long ago the good folks of the fine city decided to welcome its challenge and revel in its glory. Observed every few years since 1894 but annually since 1955, the Quebec Winter Carnival is a three-week marvel.

A multi-room ice castle is built across the street from the magnificent, gothic National Assembly building. Nearby, the Plains of Abraham, where in 1759 the British defeated the French in a battle that still shapes Canada, hosts a festival of activities. What is best of all is that except for one crazy ride and a Ferris wheel, nothing is passive. There is no sitting down or strapping in and no watching others or screens. Instead, there is human foosball that had us playing, kicking, and cheering, dog sledding that had me leaning into turns behind the scurrying, yelping team, and hills where we dragged inner tubes and sleds back to the top to slide down again.

Forget other cities with subterranean sidewalks and malls and the hatless, silly-shod fashionable but freezing. Quebec City lives life outside with big boots, bigger coats, and even bigger toques. Forget delicate lunches in elegant settings. There are crepes, poutine, tourtiere, and stew, and then a line of maple syrup poured on a snow wall to be twirled around a tongue depressor for the sweetest and most Canadian of snacks. This is a place for practical people, enjoying unpretentious fare, and active, participatory fun. In Quebec City, low temperatures spark high spirits.

Our travelling companion was our energetic, witty, and always in the moment granddaughter who enabled us to see it all through the eyes and at the pace of a seven-year-old. Beyond the gift of her company and warm certainty of memories being forged and bonds being strengthened, she reminded us of the beauty of wonder. Her grade two French immersion allowed her to befriend a little girl in the hotel pool in a meeting of gentle sincerity. Absent were the false dichotomies of region, language, and religion, and in their place the essence of innocence.

The casual but intrepid way in which she tested her blood sugar level several times a day and accepted the insulin needle in restaurants, the hotel, and other places around town including a big police vehicle that an officer kindly offered, reminded us of her quiet courage. Type One diabetes is part of who she is. It does not and will never define her.

And then there is Bonhomme. The 7-foot tall snowman is not a mascot but an ambassador. He moves throughout the city in his traditional red hat and voyageur arrow sash welcoming guests and attracting crowds who swarm for pictures. Seldom is anyone alone with Bonhomme. Our granddaughter, however, watched, figured it out, devised a plan, and at just the right second, slid quickly from behind. His red-coated handler bellowed laughter at her cleverness and temerity. The snowman and 7-year-old exchanged a few thoughts in French and posed, just the two of them.

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And at that special moment, a second in time, there was the symbol of the Quebec Winter Carnival: traditional and corny, fun and funny, retro-cool and cold, and as Canadian as you can get. And smiling with him, the little girl who remains our most profound teacher, reminding us to be in the moment, accept difference without judgement, be courageous in adversity, remember what matters, to seek fun, love goofiness, eat when hungry, sleep when tired, and to unconditionally love and be loved.

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A Woman’s Power

Movie lines sometimes contain more truth than a philosophy tome. Consider my favourite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A mother is patiently explaining to her adult daughter that Dad is indeed the head of the family. However, she adds, “I am the neck.” I love that. I might add that women are also often the glue.

I learned this truth by unconsciously absorbing my paternal grandmother’s lessons. She was the eldest of three strong sisters, the second generation of Ukrainian immigrants escaping turn of the century pre-revolutionary violence. Her mother provided Ukrainian language lessons to other immigrant kids in Hamilton’s hardscrabble east end. One day, the skinny 15 year-old was bored and waiting for her Mom to finish when a shy pupil not much older than her approached. He whispered that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and that someday he would like to marry her. That was my grandfather. They were married for 63 years.

Her father was one of the first men hired at Hamilton, Ontario’s brand new Dominion Foundry and Steel (Dofasco). He arranged a job for his son-in-law where he worked for 42 years. Later, the Second World War saw North American women doing what many women and most men said could not be done; they fought the war on factory floors. My grandmother worked 8-hour shifts in heavy overalls and beneath a thick kerchief. She lifted, turned, and processed steel sheets. She was, in the vernacular of the day, Rosie the Riveter.

An old Dofasco newsletter shows her and other women smiling broadly and doing their bit with a patriotic passion and rugged determination to make a deeper point. There was celebration when the guns fell silent and the afternoon shift was let out early. Amid the cheers, all the women were given small paper packets containing a tiny bonus and a pink slip. She told me how that she would have liked to have kept working and, like many others, felt used and cheated.

Women Are Glue

(The three sisters and their parents, my grandmother is standing on right)

When her mother was failing, my grandmother made a promise. She would keep the family together and carry on the tradition of the large gatherings like those at the old Port Dover farm. The basement of her modest Burlington home was refashioned into a party room. Every big occasion, and certainly every Christmas, the room sang with my large and loud extended Ukrainian family. My grandmother met everyone at the door with a smile, kiss, and hug. She was a big woman and when you got hugged, you stayed hugged.

Long tables sagged under more food than even our army of a family could consume and then everything was packed away for my cousin’s band and the dancing. The adults got to drink a little too much and the kids got to stay up past bedtime as the old stories and jokes were told through Export A smoke, smiles, and laughter.

The last time I saw her was in a hospital bed. As I was saying goodbye she put her hands on my cheeks and squeezed them together and pulled me close as if I was a six-year-old again. Perhaps, in her eyes, I was. She said, “I hope you know how much I love you.” I said, “I do. And I hope you know how much I love you.” They were our last words.

She told the doctor that she wanted to go home and he said only when she could walk the hallway and was completely off morphine. He didn’t know her very well. She did both the next day. She arrived home and within 45 minutes she was gone. This last act said everything you need to know about her strength.

That Christmas, there was no party. Everyone was too sad. She wasn’t there to push us through our grief. There was never another party. First the extended family and then some even closer drifted further. The glue was gone.

No family is perfect. Scratch the surface of any family and amongst the litter of love and happy days glowing like Facebook postings, you’ll find scars and unhealed wounds. Despite this fact, family, no matter how defined, constructed, or shifting, is sanctuary. Family is what reminds us of who we are when we sink too low or fly too high. Family is what affords us the courage to carry on when we’d rather quit and the reason and confidence to venture forth in the first place.

Every family has one person that acts as glue and holds it all together when so much seems determined to tear it asunder. Because most men, like me, are dullards about such things and too often too self-absorbed, the job usually falls to women. They are the miraculous caregivers who become the bond between people and generations. They love without judgement. Their lives and the values that guide them become their silent advice. They kiss your cheek or kick your ass or just sit and listen, and then listen some more.

They are the women who only those with enough love can see for who they truly are. Bless these women. They, like my grandmother, are the angels among us now and forever.

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For Men: Ten Things I Know About Women

As one of four boys, I grew up in a male world. I lived with more young men in university before marrying the girl that had left me gobsmacked in high school and with whom I remain hopelessly in love. Then came a daughter, a granddaughter, and then another granddaughter. My world is now female. So as a refugee from the Planet Testosterone, I humbly offer to men willing to pause and consider, all I have come to know for sure about women:

  1. Shut Up: When a woman is relating a problem, she does not want you to present a solution. The chances are good, very good in fact; that she already knows what she will do but only needs to solidify it in her mind by talking it out so shut up and listen. This seems to begin when women are about age 5.
  2. Speak Up: It may seem contradictory, but while shutting up, make affirming sounds. Men don’t naturally use them and don’t need them with each other but women do. Saying “ah” “oh” “mm” or any in a range of affirming sounds will do. Skip the affirming sound and be accused of not listening, even if, perchance, you actually are.
  3. Drop the Toilet Seat: Pity the man who forgets this rule. Enough said.
  4. Use Your Words: The average woman has 30% more Foxp2 protein in her brain than the average man. This protein feeds the brain’s language center. It results in women speaking about 20,000 words a day, or 13,000 more than men. So in the evening, men need to dig deep, even when they have probably already used up all their words.
  5. You Will Never Understand Shoes: Most women love shoes. Most women love shoe shopping. Most women love having more shoes than they can ever wear. You will never understand it. Never. Don’t try.
  6. There are Blue Jobs: Even Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem would stand aside to let a man do certain tasks. The jobs often involve garbage, grass, mice, bats, and dead things the cat dragged home.
  7. Men Are Wrong: In a time of conflict men should begin with, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” The chances are that he was, even if it sometimes takes tears or years to realize it. If a man is standing alone in a forest, he would still be wrong.
  8. Women are Magical: Consider growing a human being inside of you. Consider the act of giving birth. Consider feeding another human being from the milk your body produces. Now think of anything a man can do and whether it compares to anything remotely as mystical or breathtakingly wonderful.
  9. Women Are Beautiful: Women – all women – are works of art. Men’s lumpy, hairy, smelly bodies are utilitarian locomotion devices to be endured, covered, and forgotten. Get over yourselves because women already have.
  10. Women are Smarter: The human brain is split into two hemispheres with each side responsible for particular functions. Women’s brains have far more neural pathways between the right and left sides. This fact allows for far more connections between logic and emotion and present and past and to read faces and situations infinitely quicker and far more accurately than men. Go to a party with a woman and she will have everyone figured out and the dynamic of the room nailed while you’re still looking for the bar.

Living in my women’s world has made me a better man. I applaud that women now lead 22 countries. Perhaps if more women were in positions of political, economic, and social power we would have a better world. Scratch the word perhaps – that’s another thing I know for sure. Then again, I’m a man, so I’m probably wrong.

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The author, happy in his women’s world, being directed as to what to do next.

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The Power of Coming Home

Dear Canada,

A young soldier had died and was coming home. It was cold. Standing in the kind of wind that mocks wool hats and down coats, our pant legs flapped and eyes narrowed as we affected the Canadian hunch; shoulders up, chins down, and arms crossed. And we waited. Some had flags and the school kids held a small banner. There were more of us atop every highway 401 overpass from Trenton to Toronto; more flags, more kids, and firefighters at attention on their trucks and police officers beside their cars.

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And then he came. We saw the line of vehicles wavering like black teardrops in the distance. As the motorcade neared, we saw vehicles in front and even some approaching in the other lanes, way over the wide median, pull over and stop. It was there but gone so quickly, like the life we had gathered to honour. We turned to see the cars disappear down the Highway of Heroes. Some cried, some waved, and some saluted, but there were no cheers. Nobody clapped. It was solemn. There was nothing said. There was nothing to say. Finally, the teacher mumbled something and the silent teenagers were shuffled away. The rest of us went home.

highway_of_heroes sign

That day, like every day, millions of us went home. Parents came home from workplaces that were as much a mystery to the kids as how the refrigerator magically filled itself with food or their dresser drawers with warm socks. And from Nanaimo to Bonavista, parents sat at dinner tables and asked, as they are obliged to, what the kids did in school that day. And they all received the same one word response; the answer every parent knows: “Nothing”.

But that evening not everyone came home. There are Labrador men in northern Alberta driving trucks bigger than the boats they left high and dry under big gray tarps. The women now run the town. The young men left first. Then it was their fathers who found more money offered for a six-month stint out there than they could make here in five years. The men with less hair and more belly who had earned their wise eyes and sore backs were soon heading west with the rest.

There is a Fredericton nurse in a ramshackle African hospital where medical supplies are currency. The money flows in from the well-meaning West but the young men with guns and old men with Mercedes decide where it goes and it’s mostly to them. And so the young woman with blonde hair tucked under the old blue kerchief, barters for bandages and penicillin. She gets a little bit tougher each time a new grave finds a child who could have been saved.

There is a Saskatoon teacher opening a big box in Haiti. Her parents ran the collection and packed it with love and concern and a long, aching letter. The pencils and notebooks are cheap and common back home, but here they move barely adequate to good. And good is measured in smiles that transcend race, gender, religion, and class and all the other phony lines that divide. The kids are like all kids and hungry to learn. Most here, though, are also just hungry.

Tonight, the nurse and the teacher and men in the fields are not the only ones not coming home. There are also those with no homes. How many bad decisions in a row did it take to put that man in the holey coat and Rough Riders cap on the Regina sidewalk? How many of the bad decisions were his? How many were made by parents who should not have been parents and social workers with hearts gone cold? How many were made by bosses with eyes on bottom lines urging emasculated men to avoid taking it personally. How many of the bad decisions were made by politicians, whose focus groups smiled at “balance the budget”, “tighten our belts”, and “cut the fat”. And now we scurry by and try not to make eye contact. We try not to think that he has a mother somewhere, and that one night was the first night and first time that he sat on the sidewalk and cried.

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You are a country of love. Love is easy to find. Go to the park in mid-morning and watch parents watch kids. Go to any airport and see families say bye. Walk down a ways and watch welcomes. There is love.

You are a country of hope. It’s hope that sends teachers and nurses abroad. It’s hope that sends fishermen to oilfields and has grandmothers pursing their lips and stepping up. And there is hope in the baby, powdered and new and safe in her mother’s arms, coming home for the first time to a young family doing its best and doing all right.

You are a country of redemption. There is no shame in trying and failing. Opportunity knocks over and over again for those who see stumbles as lessons well learned. Like a five year old’s band-aids that steal pain and dry tears, “I’m Sorry” hugs and faith from the loved are the power of salvation and the strength to get up and try again.

As it is for us, it is for you. Like you we have scars and memories of bad choices but like you we’re still here and still trying. We understood as we stood on that over pass, shivering but not leaving, and waiting to deliver our silent salute. We understood that you are the home to which we return and that love, hope, and redemption are the gifts you have ready and wrapped and there by the door.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

Home From The Forest   by Gordon Lightfoot

Oh the neon lights were flashin’
And the icy wind did blow
The water seeped into his shoes
And the drizzle turned to snow
His eyes were red, his hopes were dead
And the wine was runnin’ low
And the old man came home
From the forest

His tears fell on the sidewalk
As he stumbled in the street
A dozen faces stopped to stare
But no one stopped to speak
For his castle was a hallway
And the bottle was his friend
And the old man stumbled in
From the forest

Up a dark and dingy staircase
The old man made his way
His ragged coat around him
As upon his cot he lay
And he wondered how it happened
That he ended up this way
Getting lost like a fool
In the forest

And as he lay there sleeping
A vision did appear
Upon his mantle shining
A face of one so dear
Who had loved him in the springtime
Of a long-forgotten year
When the wildflowers did bloom
In the forest

She touched his grizzled fingers
And she called him by his name
And then he heard the joyful sound
Of children at their games
In an old house on a hillside
In some forgotten town
Where the river runs down
From the forest

With a mighty roar the big jets soar
Above the canyon streets
And the con men con but life goes on
For the city never sleeps
And to an old forgotten soldier
The dawn will come no more
For the old man has come home
From the forest

This is the latest in a series entitled Dear Canada: Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the song of Gordon Lightfoot. If you like it, please share through your social media of choice and check out the others at johnboyko.com

John Lennon Was Right

Reduce the Bible to its essence. Consider the messages of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the Dali Lama, and Mahatma Ghandi. What is the plea of a baby’s cry or a wounded soldier’s moan? What explains both the sad old man feeding pigeons on a Sunday morning and the smiley young pup at the bar the night before? John Lennon knew – all we need is love.

For a long time I thought I understood. It began on the first day of my last year of high school. I took my assigned seat in Biology class. Decked out in my purple corduroy bell bottoms and high collared green silk shirt and with my curly brown hair falling to my shoulders, I slid into my desk with the practiced sneer of teenage sullenness. Then it happened. To my left sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was gobsmacked. The poor teacher rattled on but I heard nothing. I just had to speak with her. I finally asked to borrow her ruler. There it was. Neatly printed on the back was her name. Nirvana! I drew a few quick lines and returned it, swooning at the thought that my hand had brushed hers.

The tall blond girl and I have been married now for decades. As teenagers we thought we knew everything. We quickly learned that we knew nothing. And now what we know for sure is that everyone makes it up as they go along and do the best they can. After all these years, no one can make me laugh as she does. No one can put me right like she does. She has saved me, made me, remade me, and inspired me to become the best I can be. Without her I would now be dead, in jail, or sleeping under a bridge.

John Lennon John Lennon

Our child arrived when we were little more than children ourselves. Due to the necessity of finding work, we were living hours from home and family. We relied on logic, instinct, each other, and the long-distance wisdom of moms and grand-moms to figure it all out. We did the best we could and we did OK. As the years of teenage angst rendered our lives more interesting we kept pledging that we would not let her moods dictate ours – we never managed it. As all young people do, she circled the dark side of the moon where communications are temporarily lost and then returned as we knew she would to the safe orbit of family and home. We were only ever as happy as her. We are still only as happy as her. We could not be more proud of her.

This morning, like always, our granddaughter arrived at our door. She bounced in with the sunshine of a six year old; always in the moment, default position stuck on happy, and with the assumption that all is well and always will be. We and her parents are not helicopters hovering to mandate her every move or snowplows eliminating every obstacle. We’re more like bowling alley bumper pads. We ensure that she tacks her way forward in her own way and at her own speed with scraped knees and magic band aids while never knowing the gutter.

I watch her climb trees and play hockey. We’ve dressed up as princesses. We bounce on the trampoline and enjoy picnics in our secret spot. We walk downtown for the best hot dog in the world. We throw stones in the river and hang upside down at the playground. We read and walk and laugh and talk and scheme and joke and tease and cuddle. She always runs faster than me, wins every Trouble game, and patiently explains kids shows that I can never manage to understand. And, regrettably, I rub her arm so the insulin needle won’t hurt quite so much.

Without a clue as to her power, my grand-daughter has reshaped me as first my wife and then my daughter did before. She has taught me what I presumed to already know; what I thought I learned way back in Biology class and on those three-in-the-morning nights when the baby just wouldn’t go back to sleep. She taught me how to love all over again and, this time, more profoundly than I ever imagined possible.

I consider people begging for change on the sidewalk the same as those filling their lives with stuff and screens. I see people defined by their job and whose minds are at work even when their bodies are home the same as those stuck in perpetual adolescence whose buddies are the centres of their circles. I understand the holes in their hearts. It’s sad. I know they will never be filled by the next coin, thing or app, or by the next promotion or beer. Everyone, of course, is free to make their own way. But during the journey, words, gifts, and promises ring hollow and echo silence. Time and attention, on the other hand, skywrite what matters.

I have done a lot, travelled a lot, and accomplished a lot in my life, and have a lot more left to do. But I am convinced that the only reason I am here is to love the three women in my life and to be loved by them. All the rest is background music. Next January I will meet a new teacher who, now that I think I understand, will begin the instruction all over again. I can’t wait. But for now, tomorrow morning, when my grand-daughter arrives for school and what she calls second breakfast, she will remind me once again, as she always does – John Lennon was right.

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