Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Charles was born on the 29th of September in 1928, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was the oldest of three, followed by sister Jo, and brother Jack. His father worked at the railway station as a mail baggage handler, and his mother was very active in their church. Some of his fondest childhood memories included driving with his mother to pick up his father at the end of the workday... running into the station, being lifted by strong arms and deposited, laughing, into a trolley full of mail bags.

In 1945 Charles joined the army, serving in Japan. This period of time is one which he felt changed his life, giving him a strong sense of discipline as well as his first taste of international life. In 1950 he married Jean and two children, Jill and Mark, soon followed. With Jean's help, Charles achieved his PhD in Psychology and began a successful career as an industrial psychologist. His work took the family to Toronto in the early to mid 1960's, but while they were in Canada Charles' and Jean's marriage fell apart. In 1966 Jean moved back to the Twin Cities with the children, and Charles stayed behind in Toronto. Two years later he remarried. Charles and his new wife, Shirley, were married for 25 years, during which his job took them to London, and from there to Brussels, spending about six years in each city. But eventually they returned to Toronto, where they finally settled.

In 1987 Charles suffered a stroke which left him unable to walk or talk. He spent a year relearning these skills, but was never again able to communicate vocally without struggling. About seven years after the stroke Charles suffered another blow when his mother passed away, followed quickly by Shirley (who had been battling cancer), and Jean's father, a man Charles had great respect for. All three deaths occurred within a six week period, leaving him bereft. But through these trials Charles was becoming a changed man. It was during this time that he began to develop a new relationship with his son, Mark, to whom he'd become estranged a few years after his divorce from Jean. He also began doing volunteer work at the local hospital, and it was there he met Elaine in the late 1990's. Here, at this stage in his life and after all the challenges he'd weathered, he'd met his soulmate. They married shortly afterwards and had 12 happy years together until his death on April 7, 2010.


All of these details I learned just prior to and following the death of a man I never met... the man who was to be my father-in-law if he'd lived only a few months longer. Through reading his poetry, and speaking to family and friends who knew and loved him, I've slowly come to know just a little about Charles - enough to know he was a man of brilliance and talent, strength and sensitivity, integrity and charisma, patience and wisdom. I wish I'd known this man... The memory of Charles strumming his guitar to help his young son sleep lives in Mark's heart, as it now does in mine.

Charles Neil Newstrom was a man of physical and emotional imperfections, just like the rest of us, but a man who was determined to live his life and let his love shine through it all. During the funeral service, the pastor quoted these words by Leonard Cohen, and I will always associate them with this man, my father-in-law:

"There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Love defined

What is the true definition of love? I have a friend who recently explored the "14 Definitions of Love" and it was a fascinating study. But my question is, I think, a bit different. There may be 14 types of love, but what is love itself? How do you define it? It can be categorized as an emotion, a goal, a reason, inspiration, a physical act. It can be expressed in myriad ways. But love really defies definition... it exists in the nameless and cannot be grasped or molded. I think this might be the reason so many relationships fail. We are so very used to "having it our way" - we are a society of control freaks. Love cannot be controlled, plain and simple. It either exists in a relationship or it doesn't, and for humans that's just unacceptable.

Perfect love, in this light, might be the love exhibited by a dog to its human, and by this of course I'm referring to unconditional love. I know very few people who are capable of giving unconditional love, but for a dog it comes with the territory. Most dogs are programmed with a trust chip that only fails under the most extreme of circumstances. Yet we consider them far beneath us on so many levels. Personally, I think they're the species that actually gets it. I read an email (whether true or not, it still hits a chord) about a child who was mourning the loss of a canine pet. While the rest of the family mopped up tears this child observed that the reason dogs live so few years compared to us is that they don't need to live longer - it doesn't take them so long to get it right. We ought to be taking notes.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not elevating myself in any way - I'm just as guilty as the next person. I have been cheated on often enough to be hyper-sensitive to deception of any sort, and I don't have a high tolerance level for dishonesty. I am afraid of being hurt, I admit it. Dogs might be, too, but they love wholeheartedly regardless... in some future life I hope to be able to set my inhibitions aside and love just like that, no matter what happens.

A good friend has a caption under her email signature that says (in part) that in the end we will preserve only what we care about. That's the other thing about true love, I think... its expansive, blind to prejudices and faults, embodies the spiritual. When I walk in the woods I feel love that threatens to burst the confines of my meager mortal body. That love is probably the most pure emotion I feel. Speaking strictly for myself, I wish I were a big enough person to express that kind of love in every aspect of my life. As it is this is only something I can aspire to - and I certainly do.

So, in short, I can't define love. I can explain some aspects of it, and aspire to a true and honest model of it, but I can't define it. Love is elusive, and yet it encompasses everything. Maybe as I grow older I will be able to incorporate more love and fewer conditions into my life. And yes, I am taking notes.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I try to begin each day with an "attitude of gratitude."

For me this means not just being thankful for the wonderful people and circumstances that surround me, but actually allowing myself to sink into feelings of joy and appreciation for every bit of it. I am blessed to have a loving (if quirky) family, friends who enrich my life immeasurably, a soulmate, a deep sense of my spiritual source, passions, a healthy body, a good job...

It would probably be most beneficial to savor these blessings, to roll them around in my heart until I can't stop the wide smile that invariably accompanies the joy they bring, before I ever get out of bed in the morning. Being the night owl that I am, however, that is generally not practical. The first leisure time I have in the morning is during the commute in to work. As luck would have it, my 30-minute drive to the office is through a largely rural area. I regularly see Great Blue herons, Bald eagles, deer, Barred owls, fox, Red-tailed and Cooper's hawks. I pass through woods that are blazing with autumn color, laden with wintry frost, or swaying lush in a summer breeze as season passes to season. I slow each day as I pass a pond surrounded by trees, with a small ridge bordering one shore... the treasures I find floating, wading, soaring or sipping here are some of the greatest joys of my day.

All of these sights, mere glimpses into a world seemingly separate from me, only serve to expand the feelings of gratitude I have for my life, those around me, and the wild places of the world - even if those wild places are only miniscule pockets surrounded by a frantic human society. I know I am not separate from these places. And I revel in that knowledge as I begin my day with a true attitude of gratitude...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In the beginning...

I have been dreaming about writing again... I used to write daily and have strayed from that practice slowly over the past couple of years. And I miss it. I've always found committing my thoughts to paper (or the ether, as the case may be) healing, meditative, cathartic. I treasure my poems as though they were my children, which in some sense they truly are. But in recent months free time has become more and more elusive to me, so I'm grasping at a mode of communication I never thought I would use. A blog? Me?? Never! Well, I guess the laugh is on me!

My writing is largely nature-based. I write today of the snow lying thick and heavy on evergreen branches, glistening like a carpet of diamond chips on the trail before me... the sensation of fine airborne snow-particles breathed into my lungs and my spirit. I love snow. I've gloried in the recent snowfall here, but have been largely dissed by those around me. I suppose the previous weeks of bitter cold have pushed folks into an early state of cabin fever. But to me these days of snow and tempered cold are expansive, joyful. I can't stand in the woods at this time of year without wanting to laugh out loud for the sheer exhilaration of it! Feeling the snow falling lightly on my cheek, listening to the soft, slow rush of icy crystals brushing past pine needles. These times are ethereal and peaceful. Even the birds in their endless, and often vocal quests for food and territory are an integral part of this newly hushed world. I may be in the minority here, but I'll say it again... I love snow!

Until next time...