Celebrating Mother’s Day during Covid-19

Dear Ella,

Mother's-Day-photoI’m dreading Mother’s Day this year. I’ve been entertaining three kids ages 4 through 8, for a couple of months now, seems more like a couple of years. 

My husband locks himself in his room most of the day, even on weekends. He says he’s working, but I know he is struggling being in isolation. Normally, I would help him, but emotionally, I’m running on fumes and just don’t have the capacity to save one more person. 

Fortunately, my mom is safe at a retirement facility. I try to call her a couple of times a week so at least she hears my voice. I have a sister who is also taking on that responsibility and that helps.

What kind of Mother’s Day can I possibly have during this pandemic? 

Skip Mother’s Day

 

Dear Skip Mother’s Day,

There’s no question that this mother’s day will be one for the history books.

You’re holding down the fort for your whole family, which is not uncommon for many women. Add the mental stress of being in quarantine and you have a recipe for an emotional breakdown. 

Mother’s Day can give you the much needed permission to celebrate yourself and the amazing mom, daughter, aunt, woman you are. 

Take a moment and think back to the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey was given the gift of experiencing what everyone else’s life would have been like if he didn’t exist. Think about that for a minute or two and you will immediately realize how vital a role you play in every single life you touch. 

Here are some thoughts on how to celebrate Mother’s Day for you and many other moms, daughters, grandmothers and aunts today. 

Take your well deserved break. It may not be for more than an hour or so, but take it. Your kids are old enough to know what Mother’s Day is, and your husband can come out of hiding for at least an hour. He may even surprise you.

Go for a walk, enjoy the blooming flowers, take a bubble bath, grab some sleep, read a book, play a video game, talk on the phone, visit your mom, sister or friends, while keeping safe distancing in mind. Indulge in a glass of wine or something you love to eat.

You can also order flowers, a cake or a meal from your favorite restaurant. Celebrate the amazing, accomplished, strong, woman you are. 

Mother’s Day is the one day a year where every woman should be acknowledged. Whether you are single, married, divorced, widowed, it makes no difference. Every woman is special. Every woman has added so much depth and love to others.

There is another layer to add to Mother’s Day this year, and that is to celebrate the lives of those we have lost this year. Whether it was to Coronavirus, or to some other illness, you were not able to grieve or say goodbye properly. 

Take a moment today to celebrate the life of that person. Light a candle in her memory. Plant a tulip or other flower that will come back every year so that every spring, you will be reminded about that special woman in your life.

You may not be able to go to a cemetery to visit those special women you have lost over the years. Light a candle instead. Whatever silent thoughts you share with your loved one, they will receive it in a different way this year.

Mother’s Day is all about appreciation. I think you will be surprised how many people will show their appreciation for you today. Relish in the moment. Take in that well-deserved praise and love. 

It’s these little wins that will get us through this time together. Hopefully next year we will be able to hug our loved ones and never take that closeness and loving human touch for granted. 

We are in this together and we will get through this together.

Wishing every woman a very happy and healthy Mother’s Day, 


For now, Ask Ella will continue online. I will be more than thrilled to answer your questions. If I publish your letter online, you will remain anonymous. I will always answer you either on line or in a reply email. If you have any questions, need advice or just want to talk or vent, I’m here for you. Please send your email to:

AskEllaAnything@gmail.com

Ring of Peace

Ring of peaceYesterday I experienced a very special Shabbat service. Exactly one week after 11 Jews were murdered in an act of terror and hate while praying in The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, thousands of Toronto Jews, who don’t usually go to synagogue on Saturday, went to experience a Shabbat service, to show strength and solidarity. However, it was not only Jews who showed up at our synagogues. Muslims and people of other faiths also came out and stood shoulder to shoulder literally, in the over-crowded temple to show their support of solidarity.

My sister and I attended the service at Temple Sinai. I don’t think they were expecting anywhere near the number of people that showed up. The foyer was packed with congregants who heard words from Rabbi Michael Dolgin, before entering the sanctuary for the morning service.

Dolgin and Imam

Rabbi Michael Dolgin (left) listening as Imam Irshad Osman (Naleemi) addresses the congregants of Temple Sinai

His words of remembering the dead and of moving forward were comforting. Standing beside Rabbi Dolgin were three men from the Danforth Islamic Centre, who came to be with us for this Shabbat morning. Imam Irshad Osman (Naleemi), stepped up to the microphone to speak. He talked about peace, about our faiths standing together to fight hate, about the sanctity of life. He talked about supporting the Jewish community through dealing with this senseless act and the rise of anti-Semitism, just as we supported the Muslim community when they suffered a similar act of terror and hate in the Quebec City mosque shooting last year. He specifically said that they were not there only to reciprocate, but to show how respectfully and caringly every one, regardless of religion or culture, can live in peace and support each other, and do our best to defeat hatred and evil.

 

While we were listening to these religious leaders speak these powerful words, other “Rings of Peace” were forming around many synagogues all over Toronto, and I suspect many places throughout the world.

There were two services and two bat mitzvahs happening at Temple Sinai. We chose to attend what we thought would be the smaller service, not in the main sanctuary. The caretakers were helped by congregants to add chairs all the way up the sides and the front and back to accommodate the crowd. Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg said he’d never seen that room filled to such a capacity before. People shared prayer books with the person beside them, so that everyone would be able to follow the service.

The Cantor, Katie Oringel, who had a voice like an angel, strummed her guitar while singing Louis Armstrong’s, What a Wonderful World. She would sing one verse in English and follow it by the same verse in Hebrew. The tears began to flow as all the congregants sang along while gently swaying in unison to the sound of the music. We were totally absorbed by the depth of that moment.

The service was filled with very special moments like that. At the end of the service, Rabbi Mikelberg announced a speaker. Joyce Fienberg’s cousin Susan Wainstock, who had just attended Joyce’s funeral in Pittsburgh a few days earlier, would say a few words.

Joyce fienbergSusan spoke of the kind, smart and caring person Joyce was. Joyce, originally from Toronto, has much family and many ties here. Many of her cousins were in the room with us as Susan spoke. She continued with anecdotes of Joyce’s life and how she and her husband Steve travelled the world all the time but never missed one simcha – not a bar or bat mitzvah, not a birth or wedding. Joyce made sure family came first.

She was an academic and an organizer. She always made sure to see everyone when she came to Toronto and organized as many dinners as necessary to make that happen. She paid attention to every detail and quietly created perfect events making sure to keep everyone’s schedules and challenges in mind. She was selfless and thought of others first. Susan ended by saying when she left Pittsburgh, she held Joyce’s daughter-in-law, who told her, she could not imagine a world without Joyce in it. There was not a dry eye in the house.

As I left the sanctuary, I felt spiritually fulfilled. Besides seeing friends, neighbours and fellow Jews coming together in prayer and support, I thought of how the larger community of Toronto enveloped us in a virtual hug in our time of need, and I thought to myself, what a wonderful world.

 

 

40 years goes by in a flash

4000 CJNs

August 28, 2018 marks my 40 year anniversary working at The Canadian Jewish News. 4,000 papers later, I sit here reminiscing and wondering where the time went. How could a job that was supposed to be a short stint of a couple of months stretch out to be a 40 year career? It’s funny how life’s journey takes you on a road you never thought you’d travel.

Here’s how it began…

On a crowded street in Tel-Aviv, the Egged bus driver came to an abrupt stop, put his arm over the back of his seat, narrowed his eyes and glared in my direction. I froze. He proceeded to yell at the guy sitting beside me who was spitting garinim, sunflower seed shells all over the bus floor. I had to laugh, what a place this was. After living here for a year, Israel had a hold of my soul. It was at that moment I knew where I belonged. I needed a plan.

I was 21 years old. I would fly home to Toronto, go back to school, save some money and make Aliyah.

It didn’t take long before I was accepted into a tourism program at Ryerson. I had 5 months to work and save before school started. Sitting at my kitchen table, I scanned the classified section of the Toronto Star. There it was, the perfect job, The Canadian Jewish News was looking for a receptionist. Could it get any better than that? It was besheret. Growing up, The Canadian Jewish News arrived week after week in my mailbox. It was a familiar staple in our home.

Armed with a resume, letters of reference, a new outfit and the gift of gab I walked in for my interview and walked out with the job. I started work the following Monday, August 28, 1978.

Within a couple of weeks I was promoted to the advertising department where I could really be part of the action. The newspaper business was exciting. The sounds of the reporters pounding the keys on their typewriters, smoldering cigarettes burning in ashtrays, the telex machine spitting out messages from our Montreal office, a headliner machine thumped out long strips of headlines, a waxing machine, boxes of border tapes, exacto knives, broadsheet cardboard flats, and lots of people to put it all together. The energy and intensity was infectious and I wanted to be part of it.

Plans changed and my dream of living in Israel faded. I didn’t need to be a travel agent, I found a fabulous, exciting career with hands on training and a pay cheque.

Over the years editors came and went, employees came and went, but I was surprised how much of the staff stayed for what seemed like forever. Despite other job offers, I became one of those people. We called ourselves “lifers”.

The CJN was more than a job, it was my second family. We shared every stage of life with each other; marriage, divorce, pregnancies, children, grandchildren, illness, good-byes and death. Working with the same people for decades, you hear every detail, every vacation, every High Holiday or Passover drama. You share wedding plans, holiday recipes and lots of vacation photos, aches and pains, family drama. You laugh together, rejoice in every simcha and support each other through sorrows.

We worked hard but had fun doing it.

You know that feeling when the blood drains out of your face and little cold sweat beads form on your forehead? It’s the feeling we got when we gathered around one of the desks to gawk at the horrible typo we could do nothing about, knowing the phones would soon be ringing off the hook. Some of the more memorable ones were – Jewish Pubic Library, short sleeve shits, kosher chocolate mouses, Kedem rape juice, and my all time favorite – tucked away in the woods printed as *ucked away in the woods.

My advice column, Ask Ella was first published in 1995. Since I was dubbed the “Dear Abby” of the office anyway, Paul Lungen, a reporter and fellow “lifer”, suggested to our editor Mordechai Ben-Dat that I become the advice columnist in The CJN. People in the community got to know my face from the photo that ran with the column. I’ve been asked advice in the strangest places; bathroom lineups, in line at TJFF, at United Bakers, the doctor’s office, parties, weddings, funerals, shivas, – just about everywhere. Writing Ask Ella also led me to write a Holocaust book, which was recognized by the Ontario Library Association and today Hidden Gold is in schools across Ontario being used to teach kids of all religions and cultures about the Holocaust, about tolerance and acceptance. I loved presenting at Holocaust Education Week, and being invited to schools across the city to talk and teach about this important topic.

It was April 2013 when the rug was pulled out from our untouchable existence. Donald Carr, the president of the board, announced that after all these years we were shutting down operations. The last paper would roll off the press in June. The print newspaper business was hit hard and papers were shutting down everywhere. It was the end of an era. How could this happen? How could a paper that had been part of the Canadian Jewish landscape simply no longer exist?

Word traveled fast…very fast. Within the hour the phones rang from Toronto, Montreal, other parts of Canada, Israel, and the U.S. The emails poured in from subscribers and advertisers. Our community was not letting this paper go down without a fight.

Many hard decisions had to be made and our CJN family was torn apart for the greater good of keeping a Jewish voice alive for our communities. The staff was cut in half, we moved to much smaller offices, we went from Canada Post delivery to door-to-door drop off.  Elizabeth Wolfe, stepped in as president of the board, a position her father Ray Wolfe held when I first started at the paper. Mordechai Ben-Dat, the long-time editor of the paper, stepped down stating that it was time for a younger editor to take over.

Yoni Goldstein came on board and changed the direction and look of the paper. It needed to speak to a younger audience if it was going to survive. With the Internet and social media taking over, news was instantaneous and free. Gone were the days when The CJN was a “news” paper. Yoni had to address the challenges the Jewish communities of today were facing. He needed to keep the original, loyal subscribers happy, while bringing in new, fresh ideas to engage a younger, growing, Jewish audience. The CJN needed an online presence.

Today The CJN is still a major part of the Jewish landscape. Week after week there are relevant features, excellent columns, editorials, controversial political stories, recipes, entertainment, events calendar and it’s still a great place to compare prices for gefilte fish before the holidays. There’s something for everyone.

It’s inspiring to see a younger staff as engaged and excited as I was when I first started.

As for the old gang, some have passed away, but their legacy and their writing lives on. So many of us are still friends. Facebook and Instagram has allowed us to continue to be part of every milestone of our original CJN family. We’ve never lost touch. We continue to rejoice in each other’s simchas and support each other through difficult times, and we’re still comparing brisket, turkey, kugel and dessert recipes for the high holidays.

Today as I mark my 40th anniversary at The CJN, I’m now the operations manager and continue to write Ask Ella. About 20% of the current staff are original CJN “lifers.” I still subscribe to the paper and receive my CJN on my front porch every Wednesday morning. I love seeing it on my kitchen table. I still love my job, it makes me feel connected, exactly like it did when I was growing up, part of a vibrant, active, Jewish community.

Once a family, always a family.

 

24.7 to go, but who’s counting

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Praying for the clock to slow down starts to sink in after your third decade. Most people dread moving forward as each year brings you closer to the “older generation”. You’re no longer cute and hip, you’re now mature and wise. The first time someone calls you madam or sir it hits you like a bullet in the chest. You find yourself doing a lot of reminiscing, remembering great stories from your youth, remembering your vibrancy, bravery, adventure and even stupidity.

This week I transitioned into my 7th decade. Yup, I crossed over into 60. This was the first time it actually bothered me. It’s a wake up call. I suddenly realized that the last 20 years flew by and the next 20 years are so much closer to that final curtain call, that a feeling of panic suddenly took hold. According to Stats Canada, I have 24.7 years left to live. Sure I’ll try to smile through, but that churning feeling in the pit of my stomach is not calming down. Logically I know that the signs of aging don’t suddenly escalate at the strike of midnight, but it sure does seem more noticeable. Aches and pains are more pronounced, my skin is doing weird things, reading is impossible without magnifiers, the odd rogue hair appears on my chin and what was once taught and smooth is now pitted and rolling it’s way south. My advice to anyone celebrating a milestone birthday is don’t invest in one of those magnifying mirrors. It will scare the crap out of you, even without your daily dose of Metamucil. But when all is said and done, it’s far better than the alternative – not turning 60.

Now that I’m a week into this new decade I can look back on the incredible celebration I experienced to get here. It was truly one of the best moments of my life and I’m sure I will reminisce about it for years to come.

It was Friday after work, the last day in my 50’s. I was relaxing and watching the Young Party busand Restless while my husband was buzzing around preparing for the big birthday bash the next day. We were having 37 of my nearest and dearest to help me break through into a new decade. Marshall rented a huge party bus to take us all to an upscale restaurant in downtown Toronto where we would eat drink and be merry, then return to our home and party till the wee hours of the morning. Yes, even at 60 you can party hard, as long as you have an afternoon nap.

Finally, Marshall arrived back home from picking up last minute items. My sister Sarah was stretched out on the couch playing some bubble game on her iPhone and the storyline of Cane’s betrayal of Lily was coming to a head on the Y&R, when I turned my head, to see my cousin Dalia and her daughter Roni walk down my hallway towards me. What? All the way from Israel? Are you kidding me? How did they pull this off without me knowing a thing?

Daliah and Roni

At first I was speechless, a rare phenomenon, and then the tears welled up as the emotion took hold. I hugged and held Dalia and kissed Roni holding her face in between the palms of my hands. I was in shock, as was my sister. I had an immediate hot flash and then we hugged some more, laughed and deliberated about how they duped me, keeping this secret for months.

What a gift, to be able to celebrate with my Israeli cousins and all of my wonderful family and friends who came together to help usher me into the next decade. I was suddenly farklempt, overwhelmed with emotion and realized what a lucky person I am to be surrounded by all this love and to be able to enjoy every minute of it.

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Marshall always says, every day is a bonus day. He’s so right, and some days are bigger bonuses than others, but as the clock ticks down the decades, I must force myself to stop and deliberately take time out of each and every day to enjoy the important things.

Besides the obvious of appreciating my health, comfort level of living in a free country with publicly funded health care and of course, my loving family, incredible friends and cute little dog Winnie, it’s time to appreciate the things I often take for granted. The butterfly flitting around the flowers on my deck, the warm feeling of the sun on my face, the laughter of the adorable little kids I’m close to watching them change every day, the loud silence at sunrise listening to the birds chirping, the sound of thunder and how I feel its rumble through my belly, the heavenly scent that surrounds me when I open the patio door after a spring rain. I talk to strangers when I walk the dog in the morning. Believe it or not without exception each one, even the runners, answer and usually with a smile. Some even stop to chat about the weather, the dogs or neighbourhood gossip. I’m a morning person and maintain that it’s the best time of the day.

Today and everydayMy goal for this decade is to try to be less cynical, life is too short. There is much more good to focus on than bad. I will try not to take even small things for granted and appreciate moments that before I wouldn’t even notice. I will try not to let situations where I have limited control affect me (that’s going to be a hard one). I will wear every wrinkle, every fold, every dimple with pride (the rogue hairs however, will get plucked). I will try to smile through every ache, and try not to kvetch so much. I’ve lived a full life so far. I’m luckier than my mom was, she never made it this far.

EllappIn the words of old Frankie, “Regrets, I have a few but then again, too few to mention.”

I hope the best is still around the corner. God-willing, I have 24.7 years left to fulfill my bucket list.

Let the fun begin!

SHOULD DIRTY OLD SECRETS BE LEFT IN THE CLOSET?

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My advise column in the July 6, 2017 issue of The CJN is controversial depending on who you talk to. Men seem to understand this husband’s motive better than women. 

The second letter is about managing the behaviour of your partner in a party setting. Also something that requires tact and trust.

Dear Ella,
My darling husband of 28 years has confessed that he was unfaithful on a business trip nine years ago. At first, I thought he was joking, but when I saw how distraught he was, I knew he was serious. I went from shock, to anger, to complete sadness. He said he had been living with this secret and now that we are expecting our first grandchild, he wanted to come clean. He said it was important that I know, before the baby is born, how much he loves me and our family and how he regrets what happened.
My husband, Abe, and I have had our challenges, especially when we became empty nesters. What am I supposed to do with this information? I wish he would have never told me.
Dirty Old Secrets

Dear Dirty Old Secrets
There’s nothing more explosive than dropping a bomb like that right into the middle of your marriage. There’s no right or wrong way to react. Did he tell you simply to relieve himself of the guilt, or because he truly felt it was the right thing to do? Does this mean the last nine years of your life have been a lie? Does it mean you can never trust your husband again?
Abe’s decision to tell you is irrelevant. He can’t take it back. Now you have some soul-searching and a whole slew of emotions to get through, if your marriage is going to recover from this.
Should you give up on 28 years of marriage? Should you disrupt the harmony of your family, especially with a new baby on the way? Can you live with him, or even look at him, now? These are all questions only you can answer.
What I can advise is don’t do anything rash. Give yourself time to absorb, deal and heal. Let the hierarchy of emotions take their turn as you work through each stage. Enlist the help of a professional you can confide in and work through each feeling, perhaps even together.
Abe can’t rewind nine years and fix this. His motivation was not to hurt you. I believe he wanted to start fresh and clean, like the birth of a new baby. Abe’s had nine years to come to terms with his infidelity. You don’t have that luxury. No matter what path this new information takes you down, do not let it cloud the fact that you are having a grandchild – a gift from God. Grandchildren have a way of healing the unhealable.


Dear Ella,
I’ve been invited to a company barbecue with my partner. I was very happy and accepted without thinking it through.
My partner, Les, is witty, handsome and very personable. However, in a party setting, he tends to drink a bit too much wine. We’ve never discussed it and I’m not sure if I should mention it. These people are my peers, my bosses, and I want to make a good impression. Should I mention it or give him enough credit to know this party is different?
Difficult Discussion

Dear Difficult Discussion
Office parties are nothing like regular parties. They are a time when co-workers and managers mingle, discuss and relax just a little – but never too much.
You, and anyone associated with you, must still remain professional, only it’s on a different level than in the office.
If Les has a habit of over-indulging at parties, it is up to you to make him understand this is not that kind of party.
No need to offend him in any way, just explain how on guard you will have to be at this get together and that you plan on nursing one glass of wine throughout the event. Make sure he understands that your job and reputation must remain intact after the barbecue. Let him know how much you are looking forward to introducing him to the people you work with.
If Les is in tune with your needs, he should understand without you having to spell it out and offend him.

Facebook – not for everything, not for everyone

facebook-thumbs-up-or-downSometimes people “hide” on Facebook or have friends that refuse to join? Lots of us hide from our past or even our present. Maybe you have an ex who is looking for you, or a birth family you don’t want to get involved with, or an old student who is stalking you. The reasons are endless. That’s why so many people are afraid to join in the first place. But their is an underlying, more important problem in the first letter. 

The second advice letter is about letting people know about a death in the family through FB. Is that appropriate? Has the old-fashion phone call taken a back seat to the impersonal, yet convenient social media method? 

Dear Ella,
What is the big deal with Facebook? Why can’t everyone just leave me alone? I’m not interested in joining it or sharing anything on it. To be honest, in my youth, I was a little promiscuous, and the last thing I need is for my past life to catch up with me because of  Facebook. My husband doesn’t understand what my problem is, and he wants me to join so I can enjoy interactions and photos with our family and friends who live in different parts of the world. It’s true that I’m always asking him if I can look at his Facebook so I can see what’s happening, but under no circumstances can I tell him the truth about why I don’t want to join. Why is this so terrible?
No Facebook for Me

Dear No Facebook for Me,
So many people use Facebook today to communicate that sometimes it’s odd to hear that someone doesn’t use it. If you don’t want to be on Facebook, it’s your right and choice.
Often, people who are not on Facebook are afraid of their privacy being compromised, or they’re simply not interested in always checking a computer or smartphone. It’s a fear of the unknown. Teachers don’t want students to find them, doctors don’t want patients to find them and people like you don’t want anyone in their past to find them. Facebook has many privacy settings – anything from public viewing to “only me,” where no one but you can see.
However, I have to mention the bigger problem buried in your letter: lying by omission. I’m certainly not saying you should be telling your husband the intimate details of your past. However, you are running from the life you had before you met him, which will always have you on guard. What if you meet one of these people on the street? Do you avoid going out? If you think coming clean would affect your relationship, then I understand keeping your past under wraps. However, you need to think if this is something you’ve kept secret because of how you feel or because you’re worried about how he will feel. Regardless, it’s a shame you can’t enjoy an easy way to stay in touch with your family abroad. There are many ways you can enjoy sharing while maintaining your privacy. You should consider a crash course in Facebook before shutting the door completely.


Dear Ella,
I woke up Sunday morning to a Facebook post announcing that a close friend lost her mom over the weekend and to check the funeral home website for details. To say I was shocked is an understatement. Not so much that her mother died – she was 98 and not well – but what a way to let people know! Is this what it’s come to? I have to find out on Facebook? What happened to an old-fashioned phone call?  Do you think this is OK?
What’s Happened to Our World?

Dear What’s Happened to Our World?
I can understand your shock, waking up to important personal news like this on a public social media forum. However, let’s look at it from your friend’s side.
Perhaps your friend was distraught and had a lot on her plate, having to plan the many funeral details, even writing an obituary and eulogy. Facebook is a convenient way to let people know. Her post could have been targeted only to those she needed to tell, and not a fully public post.
It also gives people the opportunity to juggle plans to be able to attend a funeral at short notice, and it’s a forum for friends and family to convey their condolences and support, which may be something very comforting at this time, much like the virtual memorial books online. Would a personal phone call have been a more desirable way to let people know? Of course, but sometimes practicality wins and the personal interaction takes place at the funeral or shivah.

Author Interview with Brian J. Abela

POW book cover

Meet Brian Abela

Brian, a children’s author, originally from Windsor, Ontario Canada, now resides in Malta with his wife and son Eric. Sit back and read my interview with Brian as he discusses his first children’s book, The Ponds of Wonder, which he has dedicated to his son Eric.

Eric was born with a rare genetic syndrome called Mowat-Wilson Syndrome.  All proceeds collected from the sale of his book, go towards improving Eric’s quality of life.

 

What age group is your book for?

The Ponds of Wonder story targets readers from 8 years of age and older.

Tell us about your book.

The Ponds of Wonder story is based on the adventure of a boy named Tom who lives in a quiet little town. He, along with his best friend Ben, love going on adventures and having fun. One afternoon, Tom receives a strange and mysterious package from his great Uncle John who lives far away and has gone missing. This package would begin a life changing journey for Tom that would set his life on a course of adventure far greater than he has ever known. An adventure that will have him meeting strange and wonderful new friends, mysterious events and dangers that will change the course of his life….forever.

How did you come up with the story?

The idea to this story goes all the way back to my primary school days when I had received a creative writing assignment in grade 7. We were left to our own devices and given the opportunity to spend some time free writing without being given a title or scenario to focus on. I remember coming up with the idea of some magical ponds that would take the main character, Tom, to different realms. At the time I hadn’t figured out what would happen to him each time he’d step through one of them, but I knew there’d be excitement, mystery and fun with each adventure. Given the word limit for the story, I could only write about one adventure Tom experienced after entering one particular realm via these magical ponds. The story was an extremely basic version of the story that it is today, but I was really happy with it, more so than with anything else I had written previously.

I still remember getting back the story after it was corrected and seeing an ‘A’ at the top of the page. It felt great and as a result, it was a story that remained at the back of my mind for all this time.

Tell us about the main character.

Tom is your everyday, run of the mill kind of boy. Respectful of others, tries his best to stay out of trouble and loves to explore and seek out adventures with his best friend Ben. He also has an absolute love for freshly baked gingerbread cookies. They’re his favorite!

Some writers feel characters take on a “life of their own” during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?

I think there is some truth to this and to a certain degree Tom did come to life as I developed the story particularly in the latter third of the story when the adventurous moments of his life began to reach a pinnacle, however, I did have a certain vision of him in my mind that I worked hard to keep so that I could get certain messages out to my readers through his actions and dialogue. I suppose it was the teacher in me that also contributed to his character development.

How do you choose names for your characters?

I did not follow a particular formula for the majority of the characters. In most cases, a name came to mind as I was writing. The only exception was the name of the new and strange friend that Tom would meet throughout the story. This unique character would become Tom’s new, trusted guide and a true friend so I used the word ‘friend’ and modified is somewhat adding a few extra letters and presto, this character had a name.

Does any element of your book come from your own personal life?

Not really. The story took on a life of its own throughout the writing process and given the fact that I was, and still am, a fan of sci-fi and fantasy writing, some of those stories helped to enhance and influence my own creativity which I believe, came through in the story.

As stated earlier, the fact that I have been working in the field of education since 1993, some of the life skill lessons and phrases that I utilized with my students, also appeared throughout the story, one particular message pertains to the concept of being organized and keeping an organized desk at school.

How long did it take for you to complete your book and were there are parts where you found you got writer’s block?

The story did not take long to flesh out on paper (almost one year with the editing and illustration process included) and I have to say that I didn’t come down with writer’s block throughout the process. I suppose I could credit this to the fact that, whilst growing up, I did a lot of reading and read anything that I could get my hands on in the realm of fantasy writing. I was also a die-hard comic book collector and played a lot of role playing games with my friends. This was well before tablets, the internet and social media. I firmly believe that all of this provided me with a source of inspiration and ideas to develop my own story.

Did you illustrate your own children’s book?sample illustration

No. The first edition, which had come out in paperback format, was illustrated by Danny Coliero a wonderful person with a great personality. His black and white illustrations had really helped to flesh out the story. The digital version, which had come out a couple years later was revamped into colour and the new illustrations were handled by Ariane Bezzina, a recent graduate from the school I presently work at. Her sister had been reading the paperback version of the story and one day Ariane came to my office after having created a poster with the 5 main characters. I was blown away by her talent and asked if she would be interested in revamping the illustrations for me, something she agreed to. In fact the updated cover contains the characters as portrayed from the poster Ariane had created. The poster is still up on the wall in my office to this day.

What is your favorite fictional character in a book you’ve read?

I have two. The first being Belgarion, a character from both The Belgariad and The Malloreon series by David Eddings a series which I must have read at least 3 times whilst growing up. The second is Rand al’ Thor from The Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan and completed by Brandon Sanderson. These authors and the characters they created were very inspirational to me.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

I do hear back from my readers from time to time and the feedback I receive is always very positive. I especially love it when I hear back from parents with feedback about how happy they are that their son or daughter prefers reading my story instead of playing a game on their computer or tablet. It’s very humbling and pleasing at the same time. These kinds of comments fuel my motivation to create more stories and opportunities for children to read. Visitors to my novel’s website can read a few of the many comments I received about the story.

Where can people buy your book?

The story can only be purchased in digital format from a number of online stores but I often encourage people to obtain a copy directly from my website and the reason for this is due to one of the main reasons for writing this book, my son Eric.

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Eric was born in 2006 with a very rare genetic syndrome known as Mowat Wilson Syndrome. He was born three months premature and weighed 1.25kg. He was so small and fragile and I remembered his first cry, which was so tiny in sound. Eric spent four-and-half months in intensive care. It was such a turbulent time. I remember heading home from work, grabbing something quick to eat, and heading to the hospital to visit with him and be with my wife who had already arrived at the hospital earlier in the day. Oftentimes, I would head back home well after 8 p.m. and then do it all over again day in, day out.

Throughout the four-and-half months in intensive care, Eric’s status went from positive to negative and then back again. It was like a roller coaster ride that would never end. One day we’d arrive at the hospital and were told that his saturations were not good, another time we were told that his legs had fractured due to rickets of prematurity, yet another time he had to be operated for a diaphragmatic hernia as his large intestine had punctured through and had entered his lung cavity and his chances of survival were sketchy at best. It went on and on. The worst, which happened on two occasions, was when we were asked to contact any family members who wanted to see him one last time as he would most likely not make it through the night. That was also particularly hard on our parents who would rush to the hospital just to be with him and us. Thankfully, the worst did not happen and Eric pulled through. He was a fighter and our wondrous miracle whom we took home to nurture and care for, along with all the medical responsibilities it would entail. We didn’t care, we had him home and that’s all that mattered.

Eric is now ten years of age and is my little monkey. He lives with a severe visual impairment and is working very hard to reach milestones, such as standing independently and walking on his own, that children much younger have already mastered. We are always sourcing new therapy methods and equipment to help support his orientation and mobility needs but those always come with a hefty price tag and so all the proceeds I collect from the sales of The Ponds of Wonder go straight to supporting Eric’s needs.

I like to rationalise the creation of The Ponds of Wonder story as a facility to help the children of other parents to educate them through the messages portrayed in the story and to help develop their creativity and imagination whilst at the same time, parents who purchase a copy of the story, know that they are helping my wife and I to help support Eric’s needs. In my mind, that’s a win-win situation for all of our children. I hope others will feel the same way too.

What do you hope kids learn from your book?

For the kids reading my book, I hope that they’ll learn that reading is a great way to spend quality time that doesn’t always need to be dominated by social media and games on their tablet or computer. I also hope that they will internalize some of the special messages I inserted into the story to get them thinking about important aspects such as respect and tolerance and what can happen when one is consumed by greed.

What other things have you written?

Prior to writing the Ponds of Wonder, I had written a trilogy of Skill Developing workbooks about Maltese history called Voyage Through Time but these are now a part of history themselves.

I have also spent the last couple of years creating reading challenges based on the Ponds of Wonder novel for children all over the world to participate in.

What are you working on next?

I have begun working on the next book in the Ponds of Wonder series and am hoping to dedicate more time to it this coming summer. I also have another challenge for children coming out in the months ahead called The Ponds of Wonder Code Breaker. This will be a free to enter competition for children all over the world via my novel’s website that will involve participants solving puzzles and codes that will require them to use their visual, auditory and research skills to reach a final level and be in for a chance to win a fantastic prize.

Let readers know a bit about the real you. What are your hobbies? What do you do to relax at the end of a busy day? Tell us some of your favorite things?

Well, I’m originally from Windsor Ontario and moved to Malta to pursue a teaching carreer and learn more about my cultural heritage back in 1993. I had met my wife at the same school we both taught at in 1997 and had Eric joining our small family back in 2006.

I am now currently the Head of Junior Sector at San Anton School and have been in this post since 2011. I enjoy educating children, reading, writing and I also have a passion for photography, particularly landscape photography. There is something to be said about being someplace at the crack of dawn and capturing a majestic scene just as the sun begins to rise in the horizon.

I usually end a busy day by putting my feet up on the sofa with a cup of green tea in hand whilst watching a good television series. Nothing out of the ordinary but it just helps me to unwind and helps me to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for another busy day.


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You can purchase Ponds of Wonder on Brian’s website www.thepondsofwonder.com

Follow all of Brian’s latest updates on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thepondsofwonder/

and Twitter: twitter.com/pondsofwonder

2016 – A Year I’ll Remember

red-maple-logo-altered2It began as a normal morning. I staggered out of bed and went straight to my computer to make sure I hadn’t missed any great breaking news while I slept.

Clicking on the few emails that came in through the night, I opened the one that said, “Congratulations! Your book Hidden Gold has been nominated for the 2016-17 Red Maple Award.” At first it didn’t sink in, I thought it was another spam, like I won an Air Canada trip or FedEx had a package for me and all I had to do was click on a link. But this email was different, it had no link and it went on to explain that Hidden Gold was nominated by the Ontario Library Association to be part of the 2016-2017 Forest of Reading, the largest recreational reading program in Canada.

I clenched my laptop and brought it in closer. I read on as the emotion welled up in my eyes. I reread the email, but was only glossing over the words. It wasn’t really sinking in. Was this even possible? It was just after 5:00 a.m. and I couldn’t share the information with anyone except the dog.

The email outlined everything that was going to happen to me because of this nomination.
I was going to be part of the OLA Super Conference, be part of the Author’s Booking Service and have increased presentations in schools and libraries. Thousands of kids were going to read my book. They said they hoped I would enjoy the increased sales and finally they talked about the award ceremony on the stage at Harbourfront on May 16, 2017. “Almost 10,000 people come. At the Festival, readers who have read your book will have the honour of hosting you – introducing you formally to their peers in the audience.” 

I put down my computer and had a pretty intense chat with my mom. Divine intervention? With tears streaming down my face I thanked her. I’ve always maintained that my mother, who died when I was a young teen, was guiding my hand as I wrote. I could feel the words spill out of my heart and onto the screen. I could feel her soul inside me as I reconstructed her story. I felt what she felt. There were many times when I was so overcome with emotion that I could not continue to write. Now mom was making sure that the Holocaust and her family’s story would live on in young minds forever.

My uncle David, who accompanies me on many of the presentations, would realize that the horrors he is reliving when he was a 12-year-old boy, now have a purpose. The book’s study guide, which my sister wrote, would be used to teach young adults all over the country about the Holocaust and how hope triumphed over despair and love over evil.

Later that afternoon I called my publisher to confirm that this was not a dream. Margie Wolfe’s exact words were, “You’re going to feel like a rock star.”

In these tumultuous times, with the hate in the world, it is more important than ever that the words Never Again are taken literally and that we all do what we can to force the leaders of nations to stop the suffering of innocent people. Knowledge is power. Indifference is not an option.Happy new year

As 2016 comes to an end, I hope that 2017 will usher in more understanding, peace and hope for all. May the coming year fill your lives with knowledge, meaning, compassion, laughter and love.

Happy New Year.

Are you kidding me?

pottery-barn-kids-gift-card-cDear Ella,
In today’s mail, I noticed an invitation-like envelope, hand addressed to my husband and me. As I didn’t recognize the return address, I was particularly curious what this “invitation” was for. I opened the envelope to find a lovely, professionally printed card with what I thought was a smaller reply card.I started reading. It was in two parts: the first was the announcement of a marriage that had already taken place, while the second was the announcement of the forthcoming arrival of their baby. I kept reading and turned over the invitation to see what I was invited to. It was blank. I pull out the “reply” card, which listed two high-end stores that these people have registered at for baby gifts. That’s it! No invite. Nothing but a card asking for a gift from us. I would love your opinion on this one.
Stunned

Dear Stunned,
While it’s always nice to receive news about happy occasions, in this case, it’s been overshadowed by the request for gifts. The first word that pops into my head is “Chutzpah” which means audacity. A few choice other words followed out loud, but I won’t repeat them here.

Maybe I was jumping to conclusions? Maybe I was being too judgemental?

Having never heard of this type of gift solicitation, I showed the “invite” which was forwarded to me, to a number of people. I showed it to older people, younger people, and people in a range of socioeconomic and cultural groups. I thought, possibly, that with the fast pace of technology, such as e-mails, texting, social networks and e-cards, this might be a new way people are doing things. No need for an expensive wedding or baby shower – what a waste of time and money when we could simply cut to the chase and go directly to the gifts!

I polled more than 100 people, and the opinions were unanimous. The shock and bewildered looks I received as they realized what they were reading were all similar. Some thought maybe these people were needy, but the gift registrations were for expensive, trendy stores, Pottery Barn Kids and Toys-R-Us Babies, so that theory was quashed. Clearly this couple was misguided and oblivious to how people would react. Maybe they received poor advice from a well-meaning friend or relative?

Whatever the reason, I can find no redeeming conclusion, so I gave the invitation a royal place in my recycling bin. I do have to wonder how many gifts they received.

Accepting generosity may not always go as expected

baby-in-graduation-hat-640x512Dear Ella,
Many years ago, I established a RESP for my niece as a gift to pay for her university education. Recently, I met her parents to discuss my kindhearted gift, as my niece will soon be entering university. Although they were surprised and thanked me for the loving thought, they refused it, because they wish to pay for her university education themselves.

Being single with no children myself, I am perplexed by their refusal.
Some suggestions have been to wait and see what the future holds for her or to donate the funds to a university. I feel discombobulated, as my good intentions have now gone awry, and my gift may not be used for its intended purpose.
What should I do? Please advise.

Sincerely,

Befuddled

Dear Befuddled
Your intentions are noble and generous, and you should feel good about the gesture you made for your niece.

I can’t guess why they refused the gift. Perhaps they’ve been saving for her education and want to be the ones to foot the bill? Maybe they can “suggest” the path they would like her to pursue if the money is coming from them? Perhaps they’re embarrassed to accept your gift? I’m not privy to your family dynamics. The only way to know for sure is to ask, and even then, it may be too personal for them to discuss with you. I do, however, feel your niece should be made aware of your kindness and generosity, and that this information should come from you.

Once you deal with the emotional repercussions, move on to the practical part of this problem. You’re left with a large sum of money, which consists of your contributions and government grants, and has tax implications. You need to speak with a financial adviser and weigh your options.

Perhaps your niece can speak with her parents? Maybe she will want to pursue a post-graduate degree where she can utilize your gift? Otherwise you can transfer some of the money to an RRSP to at least save the tax. This is where advice from a professional will be useful.

You tried to do a gracious thing. Be proud of your intentions.


Neighbour cartoon

Dear Ella,

I just moved into a new neighbourhood. Most of the neighbours are very nice and seem pretty normal, except for one. Melanie started with a daily friendly little note on my door – a happy face or “Have a great day.” We’ve now escalated to a bag between my doors with a small gift. Yesterday I arrived home to a note telling me to drop by and pick up a dozen muffins, because she baked extras just for us.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but the last thing I want to do when I get home from work and need to start dinner is go across the street, make small talk, smile and pick up muffins.
I’m not sure how to set boundaries with this woman without creating hard feelings. Thoughts?

Sincerely,

Too Nice for Me

Dear Too Nice for Me
Living with people is one of the hardest things to get right. This falls under the category of personal space. We all need it, both physically and emotionally. You have to be careful not to offend your new neighbour, and she’s really done nothing wrong, but she has pushed you out of your comfort zone.

You need to let her know gently. She may be lonely and happy that you moved into the neighbourhood. It’s best to nip this one in the bud before muffins turn into full dinners, favours or something out of a Stephen King novel.

Tell Melanie that although you appreciate her kind gestures, between work and family you have very little down time and feel uncomfortable accepting these lovely tokens, because you can’t reciprocate. If she’s normal, she’ll understand and back off. If she’s not, it’s better to end this sooner rather than later.

My August 18, 2016 column in The Canadian Jewish News
Ask Ella – Accepting Generosity