Saturday, July 7, 2012

You can live a full, interesting, "ordinary" life.

Shelagh Gordon was soap-and-water beautiful, vital, unassuming and funny without trying to be. She was both alone and crowded by love. In another era, she’d have been considered a spinster — no husband, no kids. But her home teemed with dogs, sisters, nieces, nephews and her “life partner” —a gay man — who would pass summer nights reading books in bed beside her wearing matching reading glasses.

She raced through ravines, airports and wine glasses (breaking them, that is). She dashed off dozens of text messages and emails and Facebook postings a day, usually mistyping words in her rush to connect.
Then, every afternoon, she’d soak for an hour in the bath while eating cut-up oranges and carrots and flipping the damp pages of a novel. She called herself a “freak,” at first self-consciously and, later, proudly. But my sharpest impression of Shelagh was of her breathtaking kindness. Shelagh was freshly-in-love thoughtful.

If she noticed your boots had holes, she’d press her new ones into your arms. When you casually admired her coffeemaker, you’d wake up to one of your own. A bag of chocolates hanging from your doorknob would greet you each Valentine’s Day, along with some clippings from the newspaper she thought you’d find interesting. Shelagh made people around her feel not just loved but coveted. That was the golden thread that stitched together the ordinary seams of her life.She lived a small life, as do most of us, untouched by war, disease, poverty. Her struggles were intimate. But the world she carefully assembled was rich and meaningful in ways she never grasped.

Shelagh was born on Jan. 14, 1957, the second of four daughters of Susan and David Gordon, possibly the hippest couple in Lawrence Park. Their rambling red brick home was the neighbourhood social hive where Neil Diamond records played, strays were welcomed, and parties were packed and frequent.

She was drawn to animals. When Shelagh was around 16, she came home with a golden retriever she’d quietly bought with her saved-up allowance. On weekends, she volunteered at a big-cat sanctuary in Leaside, cleaning out the cages and playing with the baby lions. She wasn’t popular like her sisters. She made a few select friends who remained close for the rest of her life. She managed one year of studying English literature at York University before dropping out to work in a restaurant. Then she landed a job as a wine and spirits rep, which sent her off to vineyards in New Zealand, France, Chile. . . By the time the company changed owners and let her go, Shelagh could discern the grape variety, region and year of harvest of a wine by taste.

When Shelagh’s eldest sister, Heather, gave birth to Jessica, the first of her four children, Shelagh restarted her life as an aunt. Not a regular, see-you-at-Christmas and Thanksgiving aunt. Rather a come-to-my-house-in-your-pyjamas-on-Saturday-morning-and-drink-tea-with-me aunt. She moved into an apartment down the street and left her front door ajar so her nieces and nephews could walk in whenever. She bathed them and read them bedtime stories and rushed over at 7 a.m. to French-braid their hair before school.

Every horse show, gymnastics meet, dance recital, rugby game, she was there. She organized their annual Easter egg-dyeing and gingerbread-decorating parties. She baked money cakes for their birthdays. When they got older, they moved in with her. They all call her a second mother and best friend. Her sisters call her their epoxy. She glued together the gaps in their lives — arriving in the middle of the night when one kid needed to go to the hospital, picking their kids up from school in emergencies, hauling out their garbage when they’d forgotten to. She’d call from the grocery store to announce chicken was on sale and what else did they need?

Last spring, Jessica got engaged. Shelagh became her one-person wedding support system — scouring vintage and second-hand stores for items and driving Jessica to Woodbridge bridal gown stores. When Jessica discovered the candle holders she wanted at an Indigo store, Shelagh quietly crisscrossed the city to five different outlets until she found 75 — one for every table. The wedding was three weeks after Shelagh’s death. For her vow, Jessica declared: “In honour of Shelagh, I promise to love you fiercely.”

Shelagh had found her calling — loving people fiercely and with abandon. Not just family, but friends she met at the dog park, at work, on the street or through her family. A former neighbour remembered how Shelagh, after hearing her admiration for Heather’s patio umbrella, dropped one off on her front porch. An old dog-walking friend recalled a dog walkers’ party in the park that Shelagh organized one cold night, lugging bottles of wine and beer with her to pass around.

It’s hard not to feel inadequate listening to these stories. Surely, Shelagh was compensating for some deep feeling of inadequacy. No one is naturally this loving to so many people, right? Or perhaps, Shelagh’s life demonstrates that most of us set the love bar too low. Heather believes Shelagh’s full transformation into the family’s soul was cemented by the death of their father 21 years ago. Trim, fit, full of life, he was midway through a doubles tennis game, casually walking with his partner from one end of the court to the other, when he dropped dead from a heart attack. The tragedy drew the family closer.

Shelagh, above all, learned then to treasure relationships.This is my favourite thing about Shelagh. She wasn’t blandly nice. Her warmth came with salt. She fell into hot tubs and accidently drank from paint cans. She spilled wine liberally, then whipped off her stained shirt for cleaning in the middle of a party. The woods around her sister Cynthia’s cottage are decorated by Frisbees that Shelagh flung off-course. That klutziness became her trademark. Her family calls it “pulling a Shelagh.”

They’d know she’d arrived at the party when they heard the sound of something breaking. Ellen Kaju — one of the two “special friends” mentioned in the obituary — brought a set of plastic wine glasses just for Shelagh, who’d been her best friend since Grade 9. It was as if Shelagh’s body was in constant excitement, overheating. She was an enraptured chef, her kitchen floor sprayed with bits of onion and potato and sudsy water. She was a chronic interrupter, bouncing in her seat to add her bubbling thoughts or stories. (Her family recently instigated a new rule: if Shelagh wanted to speak, she had to raise her hand like a student in class.)

At her weekly work meetings, “she was the meeting,” says Campbell. “She would not stop talking. This past year, she started to zip her lip with her finger in the meeting to let everyone else talk. That was Shelagh — talking up a storm.” She didn’t walk, she charged. She didn’t wash glasses, she cycloned through them. In the summers at one of her sisters’ cottages, she didn’t swim once a day, she went 17 times. The only time Shelagh was calm and graceful was when she was asleep — which she often was in the middle of a family game of charades or a movie. She’d wake up to give an answer, then fall back to sleep, her full glass of wine in hand, balanced perfectly.

Shelagh was a character — something we all secretly strive to be. She was different. She wasn’t perfect. Three years ago, Shelagh bought a duplex with her sister Heather five blocks from their childhood home. Shelagh lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor. Cullimore and her husband Jay lived downstairs, often with one of their four children. Shelagh no longer had to leave her door open; her family just walked upstairs.

Shelagh believed in luck. Two wishbones sat on her kitchen sill. She bought a lottery ticket every week without fail. What was she hoping for?

Colleagues say she was a natural salesperson, building friendships with clients. And she enjoyed the freedom of working from home with her front door open and her dog by her feet. Two years ago, she started taking “happy pills” — antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. Last summer, she took a three-month stress leave from her job. It couldn’t have been easy being the one unmarried Gordon sister. Two of her sisters stayed at home; their husbands’ jobs were lucrative. All three owned cottages. Shelagh, meanwhile, struggled with bills and her mortgage.

The night before she died, Shelagh organized her family to go to Emma McCormick’s photography exhibit and fundraiser, called Hearts and Arts. McCormick is dating Shelagh’s nephew Evan Cullimore. Typically, Shelagh had emailed and texted and phoned every family member, cajoling most to come out and sharing plans for dinner before. The family — 11 of them — squeezed into a corner booth at Fran’s, a downtown diner a block from the fundraiser. Shelagh sat in the middle, loudly ordering cheap glasses of wine, sweet potato fries, onion rings (her favourite), fish and chips, and of course, a “healthy” Caesar salad to compensate for the grease. They all shared.

The next morning, Shelagh woke up early as usual to walk her Polish lowland sheepdog, Jerzy. She read the Star, section by section, charged through the crossword, checked in with Heather downstairs and with Schulz, who had missed the fundraiser for a work function and was feeling hungover. She texted some friends about the CP24 interview she’d done on the street the night before. Jessica was meeting with her florist — an old family friend — to go over the wedding flowers, and Shelagh’s presence was demanded.

Some time between noon and 12:30, Shelagh was in her bedroom, getting ready to go, when a rush of blood flooded her brainstem. At 12:39, Heather was outside their shared house waiting for her. “Where are you?” she typed in a text message. They had planned to leave at 12:40 and Shelagh was normally early. She found her sister upstairs on her bed. Her face had already turned blue. Shelagh’s family and friends gathered at Sunnybrook Hospital, where doctors worked to revive her Her diagnosis changed from a heart attack to aneurysm.

Her mother, Sue, alerted staff that Shelagh had wanted to donate her organs. The critical-care nurse with the Trillium Gift of Life Network commented that most of the Gordon clan gathered in the waiting room had red hearts drawn on their hands. Had they drawn them as a tribute to Shelagh? “No,” Sue told him. “She has one too.” The hearts were from McCormick’s fundraiser — a sign for the people at the door that they’d each paid the cover. But in reflection, the hearts seemed like another one of Shelagh’s scattered totems, to remind them all of her love and life’s joys. Each plan to get it tattooed on their body in her memory.

Four weeks since her death, Shelagh’s friends and family are still gasping at the hole she’s left in their lives. She was such a constant, they didn’t understand the breadth of her caretaking until it disappeared. Each has made small promises for change — to treasure this moment, to be more open, to love more fully

Shelagh’s niece Caitlin has moved into her house, wrapping herself in her aunt’s molecules and memories. In a speech at her sister Jessica’s wedding three weeks after Shelagh’s death, she promised “to be your Shelagh.” I’m mourning Shelagh too. She’s consumed me since her death — her quirks, her kindness, her mysteries. I have never met anyone as abundantly generous as Shelagh. I aspire to be like that.

Wandering around her house one recent afternoon, I fished one of her mud-caked Blundstones from the closet and slipped it on, wondering “What is a life worth?” In the past, I have often answered this question with achievements — campaigns, masterpieces, spiritual or literal changes to humankind and the world. The measure, I’ve thought, is Sophie Scholl or Charles Darwin or Nelson Mandela.

Shelagh’s life offers another lens. She didn’t change the world forcibly, but she changed many people in it. She lightened them. She inspired them, though she likely didn’t realize it. She touched them in simple ways most of us don’t because we are too caught-up and lazy.

Her life reveals that it doesn’t take much to make a difference every dayjust deep, full love —and that can be sewn with many different kinds of stitches. Some of Shelagh’s friends feel terrible they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye and tell her how much she meant to them.

There is a lesson there. For, as I see it, Shelagh herself didn’t need to say how much they meant to her. Her daily life was a kiss of love.

The Toronto Star did that in March 2012 when it printed a column about Shelagh Gordon, who recently died of a brain aneurysm, with the headline, “Shelagh was here — an ordinary, magical life.”

The Star ran online interviews with more than 100 people whose life had been touched by the 55-year-old Ms. Gordon. Shelagh’s obituary ran on Feb. 14, 2012 — Valentine’s Day. “Our world is a smaller place today without our Shelagh,” it began. “Our rock, our good deed doer, our tradition keeper, our moral compass.” It stated she was the “loving aunt and mother” to a list of names, without differentiating among them. “We had come up with the idea of grooming the obituaries and re-creating a life from the people at the funeral,” said Catherine Porter, who wrote the column about Ms. Gordon. “We thought it might be a fun journey.” Ms. Gordon’s obituary stood out, Ms. Porter said, because “a lot of obits read like a résumé — an accumulation of concrete action. Her legacy was in her relationships to people.” 

She didn’t have a great job, she wasn’t married and never had children, so she wasn’t successful in either the traditional male or female sense, Ms. Porter said. But people would keep telling stories about her kindness.
“She had a lot of magic in her life, and that’s reassuring,” Ms. Porter said. “That you can live a full, interesting, ordinary life.”

How do we go back to the idea that ordinary can be extraordinary? How do we teach our children — and remind ourselves — that life doesn’t have to be all about public recognition and prizes, but can be more about our relationships and special moments?

 “It’s a value I have to choose again and again, as is true with all of us,” said Katrina Kenison, author of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day”. My job as a mother is not to get my son in the top college, but to enjoy ordinary life. To swim in a pond on a hot day or walk with a friend or make dinner from scratch.”

One of the most important conversations we can have with our children is what we mean by success. “Ordinary has a bad rap, and so does settling — there is the idea is that we should always want more,” she said. “But there’s a beauty in cultivating an appreciation for what we already have.” And that’s not easy, she acknowledged, especially in affluent areas where success — or the perception of success — is like a drug that we can never get enough of.

“I know I began writing in an attempt to heal the disconnect between what I observed around me — the pressure to excel, to be special, to succeed — and what I felt were the real values I wanted to pass on to my children: kindness, service, compassion, gratitude for life as it is,” she said. People are hungry for such reassurance.

Some people may fear that embracing the ordinary means that they are letting themselves and their children off easy. If it’s all right to be average, why try to excel? But the message isn’t to settle for a life on the couch playing Xbox (though, yes, playing Xbox is O.K. sometimes), but rather to make sure you aspire to goals because they are important to you, not because you want to impress your parents, your community or your friends.

“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

When I told a friend that I was writing this column, she reminded me of the last paragraph of George Eliot’s great novel “Middlemarch” and its celebration of the ordinary:

“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts;
and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been,
is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
- Source: The Star


Gita said...

Ilango Sir,

Good morning! If not here, where else would we have read such a heartening real life story?! Our Saturdays are not complete without your valuable posts. We are getting RICH in the true sense of the word. THANK YOU!

venkatapathy l said...

Namaste Ilango Sir.

Your love and compassion to everyone is unbounded.
Our love to you is equally matching.

With love and regards.


J.R.Julius said...

From Secret Scrolls

Good is underneath every single thing that appears to be negative. If we can know that good is all there is, including in a negative situation, then we will see a negative situation transform into all good. Most people keep the good away from themselves because they label something as bad, and then, of course, that becomes their reality. But there is no bad in the Universe; it is just our inability to see things clearly from the bigger perspective.

Peace comes from knowing that good is all that exists.

Parimal said...

There is nothing like a good situation or a bad one. They in essence are forces thrust upon us humans to judge our strength. It solely depends upon our own selves how we perceive them. Depending on this crucial perception, the all-valuable angel of look, a situation can build or smash us. For example, even an extremely good condition of Nepal’s kings could not save the dynasty; it was a case of self destruction. They just killed one another. And we common mortals always hanker after royal solvency!! Hoping that will ensure happiness. On the contrary, a very adverse condition can motivate one like Ishvar Chandra Vidyasagar (and such examples are aplenty) to excel on scholarly pursuit.

sometimesbullsometimesbear said...

Its duality. Everything in the universe exists in pairs. It depends which side u r on.

Some say u have a free will and a choice to decide which side to be in.

Some say there is no free will and it is destined on which side u will be in.

So either u are good or bad. Either u r rich or poor. Either u r happy or sad. Either u r bull or bear. Either market is up or down....and so on. So now u know how imp it is which side u are on....:):)

SANPOT said...

Good Afternoon Ilango sir. Thanks for the nice post.

shriram said...

spread happiness & keep smiling :-)

J.R.Julius said...

From Secret Scrolls

Whatever feelings you have within you are attracting your tomorrow.

Worry attracts more worry. Anxiety attracts more anxiety. Unhappiness attracts more unhappiness. Dissatisfaction attracts more dissatisfaction.

AND . . .

Joy attracts more joy. Happiness attracts more happiness. Peace attracts more peace. Gratitude attracts more gratitude. Kindness attracts more kindness. Love attracts more love.

Your job is an inside one. To change your world, all you have to do is change the way you feel inside. How easy is that?

Manas said...

A kind heart only values kindness.Living life to its full and spreading kindness,very often we, no no I doubt as worthless.Every weekend you open my eyes.every time I feel I was blind with open eyes.

Pranam sir.

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