Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Feeling the News

After the past few days of terrifying news and horrific images, it's hard to imagine feeling light and cheery heading into the holiday. These days are heavy.  Just yesterday, mothers had sons walking to school, forgetting their homework on the table, rustling around for their lunchbox and waving out the door with a piece of toast in hand, much as I did.  And yet, just yesterday, those boys (and girls) lay in hospital beds, having witnessed suicide bombers shooting their friends and classmates, burning their teachers alive, and as the boots of those same murderers passed by where they lay, they pretended to be dead, in hopes of saving their own lives. And worse, some of those kids came home from school in coffins, stacked atop the coffins of their friends and classmates so that mothers could find no comfort from others, each death amplifying their own unimaginable grief.
The day before that, co-workers grabbed a quick coffee on the other side of the world, in the middle of a central business district, surrounded by wealth and affluence and development. And that night, or early the next morning, hostages fled the coffee shop having endured 17 or more hours of fear and uncertainty at the hand of someone who proclaimed himself a spiritual healer. Yet, two couldn't flee and a young man who is only spoken of as giving and consistently caring was dead, having risked his own life to allow others to run for theirs. And a woman, shielding her pregnant friend, is shot and dies, saving a child's life while leaving her own three children motherless.

I feel the weight of these things though they are so far removed from my world. And yet, this morning, dropping my son at school and picking up a coffee, it suddenly felt quite sacred. And closer than I care to think.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Boy. He's India.

There is an image of a boy that keeps coming to mind since I left India.  It was in the final moments of my trip that I saw him. I didn't meet him. I don't know his name. I don't know his age. I didn't even see his face. And yet, every night and every morning, this boy runs through my dreams. In the car, driving to work, washing dishes, delivering papers...he is there.

I was on the transport bus from one terminal at Mumbai Airport to the other where my plane home was waiting. It was dark. The bus was crowded. I sat in the front seat of the bus on the passenger side and I was taking in the last of what India had to offer. I watched how the driver acknowledged the man in uniform, his eyes taking in the holstered gun, and then watching him in the rearview mirror as he took his seat. I looked at the couple seated next to me, carry on bags on their laps, with their heads resting on top, exhausted. The man beside me stared straight ahead and hardly blinked.  I looked out the window as we pulled away and wondered again at the ability of drivers in India to circumvent accidents when even in a highly regulated space like an airport tarmac, the lines on the roads seemed only like suggestions for optimal driving conditions. We pulled away and began to rattle past the terminal and then out along the perimeter of the airport. On the other side of the fence, were derelict buildings, abandoned planes and all manner of decaying building supplies and refuse from years gone by. As we rounded a corner, the typical airport type buildings gave way to a slum. I hadn't noticed it on the way in, from the air, but from what I could see, it was an incredible amount of people and haphazard buildings pressed into whatever space the distance from the fence and the city streets afforded them. In the darkness, there were fires lit and people cooking and walking and talking. A few cars were parked in no particular order amongst the streets and dogs and people just circumvented them naturally. The homes were shanties, mostly tin or wood, built up two stories high with rickety boardwalks connecting one to the next above the ground at the second story.  Doors were open and small electric bulbs provided the only light, strung from cables run from who knows where, illuminating each doorway like it's own theatre entrance, the tableau inside exposed for all who passed by to see. In one doorway a mother holding a baby on her hip and conversing with an older woman below. In another, you could see boxes stacked with colourful cloths folded inside. And another, a red piece of fabric, held to the side by some unseen hook, revealing a woman lifting something onto an upper shelf. Each little image, only seconds long, ticking away like a rapid slide show of life in a slum. And then the boy. Just a few seconds where he appeared. Illuminated as if in a strobe light, by the light emanating from the open doorways where light spilled onto the boards on which he ran. He was young, no more than 10 or 12 years. The only details I could salvage were that he was wearing ankle boots and socks and shorts and a red t-shirt. Small and lithe, light on his feet and he ran as though the dinner bell had been rung and a feast awaited. I turned in my seat to watch him, flashing visible in the light of each doorway and then disappearing. And then he was out of sight, physically anyway. But he's with me here. In Canada. In the winter. Flashing visible and disappearing again, as if by his own will, inserting himself into my if I am forbidden to forget him. As if I could if I wanted to at this point.

He's a boy. With no relation to me. With no name or face to search him out. A boy who ran by me in the the final moments of my visit to his country and who has stayed with me ever since.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Language of Play

Riding in style.

This evening, I was looking through some of my fellow team member's photos from our recent trip to India and I was surprised to see photos of one of the best days' play I've had in a long time. While most of the team took the school kids to the amusement park,  I stayed behind to observe the medical clinic that took place in Khalpur with Ryan, a doctor from Oregon who was seeing patients. For a good part of the afternoon,  I watched quite a crowd of people come and present their complaints to the doctors in front of their friends and neighbours and family members, with no privacy whatsoever. It struck me how we take so much for granted in our health care systems in North America.

Once the last patient left, Ryan and I walked around Khalpur. It is just a slum on the side of what used to be a canal. It's congested and cramped and haphazard, with no services other than what One Life has brought in...a generator to run the fans and computers in the school and bio toilets so that the inhabitants of the slum would have access know. Just another thing we take for granted, that we have somewhere to go to the bathroom, in privacy and cleanliness for good health sake. Not so here, before the bio toilets, there was no designated place to relieve yourself so it was basically wherever the need hit you...

As we walked through the community, people were very friendly and wanted their photos taken with family members, in front of their homes, with their children or with their dogs. It was quite something to communicate without English or Bengali on our side. We were outsiders but we weren't unwelcome, in fact, just the opposite. We felt very welcome and there were many who spoke a little bit of English, enough to say hello and ask how we were.  We wandered around for a bit and soon attracted quite a following of kids. So, with no agenda, I just began to play with the group of little girls and boys surrounding me. I soon figured out that games needed to be as simple as possible, not because the kids weren't capable, but because I was unable to explain intricate rules without knowing Bengali. So, we started with simple clapping games which always seem to translate well. I simplified them as we went along and soon, there were children joining in from out of nowhere. We exhausted that game and went to "Duck, Duck, Goose" and "Go, Go, Go, Stop!" and straight into "Hide and Go Seek" where I found myself searching for children in the most incredible places. Imagine playing as children in a literal garbage dump and submerging yourself in garbage to secure a hiding spot. As I would find one child, covered in discarded plastic and cardboard and many other things I choose not to think about, three others would pop up from their hiding spots, just as deep in the garbage. I actually wanted to stop the game in an effort to keep them from playing in the garbage but then I took a look at our surroundings and realized that this is the environment they know and deal with every day. When it came my time to "hide", it became like a game of sardines very quickly. Of course, I had no great knowledge of good hiding spots so I ducked into a small alley and hid behind a barrel between two homes with about 15 children around me. I was leaning against a small house and startled the poor older man napping there, just on the other side of the open wall.  I'm sure he thought he was dreaming to see some strange woman and children crouching just inches from where he lay his head.  

The amazing thing about children is that they all have such an incredible spirit about them. Here in this community, amongst the garbage and the rubble, they have the brightest smiles and just play wholeheartedly, without the need for toys or electronics or anything other than each others' company to entertain themselves. It's not to say that their lives wouldn't be improved with these things but  in our North American culture, we lament the end of imaginative play, and yet the very things that have squelched it are those things we have that are luxuries and excess.  
Anything becomes a plaything when there is nothing.
These children and I played for over an hour, in the heat, and through it, I watched each of them. Each child has their own unique personality and even without language, I could easily identify the mischievous, the shy, the courageous and those that could lead. I could see the girls who are strong and whose physical athleticism challenged the boys in a way that other boys did not. I watched as children's faces lit up when they were acknowledged and whose demeanour changed just by a hug or by being the hand I chose to hold when we lost and regrouped. 

I learned a lot this day. I learned the art of play again. The language it speaks. And the bonds it builds. And it felt an awful lot like love. 


Explanations with a little language and a lot of actions. 

Dirty knees and a full heart.
I love this photo that Ryan took...just two small hands...
And our hands. Mine and hers. 

*Thanks to Dr. Ryan Hutchinson for sharing his photos...and for capturing so many great memories of that day in Khalpur.  

Speaking of You, USA, and Me.

There has been so much in the media these days regarding racism and hatred, torture and human rights violations. It's a wonder any of us can stomach it. I think though, that our reactions are just as telling.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend in the US when President Obama was first elected. It was such a jubilant time and such a historical event...there was such joy across the world. I remember driving through Zambia and seeing women with Obama chitenges (wrapped skirts) and wondering how on earth Obama became that famous, so quickly.  I felt a sense of sadness though when Obama was elected, not because of anything politically related. I just really felt for him as a man, a dad, a husband. He obviously had a political life before the run for Presidency and knew what it entailed, but I felt like I was watching a nations across the globe, putting him up on a pedestal. And I was acutely aware that people on pedestals soon become targets. I voiced that to my friend and he was reluctant to agree, but now, years later, I think maybe the pedestal isn't as high as it used to be. For some, Obama is a source of infinite derision and should be hit over the head with the pedestal. My heart aches that for those that take office with what seems to be genuine desire to lead well, this is the common road. Before I feel too sorry for him though, I do understand that I'm sure he measured the costs.

I watched a clip from the Jon Stewart show today. I'm more of a Jimmy Fallon, keep it light and lip-synch whenever possible type of fan, but this came across a few close friends FB and so I checked it out. And it really pointed out to me that so often the way we speak of others, often illuminates our own shortcomings. I tend to lump Canada in with the USA in many of these flaws so don't feel I'm picking on our southern big brother with any malice. I think that often we can call these things a North American mindset or a western mindset and be just as guilty. The clip is Trevor Noah, a South African comedian, turning (North) American stereotypes onto Americans. If nothing else, he and Jon Stewart point out that much of what is thought and said about Africa, really isn't rooted in much truth.
I love the last set of photos Trevor shows, it is lovely to see him self-deprecate in the light of what could really be a rough wake up call for American viewers.

On a much more disturbing note, today the CIA Terror Report came out and in light of it's 2600? pages of horrific detail of the torture that detainees sustained in the pursuit of Al Qaeda and the truth of the 9-11 attacks, I am going to be hopeful.  I couldn't muster hope for Obama to remain unscathed in his presidency but I am choosing to be hopeful that this report is a wakeup call to the alarming sound of human rights violations inflicted by the US Government agency. The same US government that decries violations when they serve a purpose. I hope that eyes are opened and are stinging with tears of shame and horror.

Let this be the end of pointing fingers at others. Let this be the end of "us" and "them" and words that build up the falsehood that "we would never..." and "they are animals..." and "who could ever....".
Because we did. We were. And we could again. God forbid, we could again.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Think of Your Happy Place

I'm sick. Like, coughing, sputtering, sneezing, hair poking up in different directions, pale face and dark circles kind of sick. I'm not the gracious Meg Ryan flannel pyjamas, snuffling delicately, cable knit socks and cups of tea type of sick. I'm "man cold", Nyquil commercial kind of sick.

Let's just say, it's never pretty, especially when dishes pile up, kids still need food, and no one is catering to my every whim, not even the dang dog. She, who has the audacity to whine for a walk, actually reminded me of something pretty important today. I'm sure I would have stumbled on it sooner or later. Possibly never.

So, I spent today day dreaming about travel and watched a beautiful movie and then began to wonder where I would really truly go if money were no object. That elusive "happy place" that people "go to" when things in reality aren't so lovely.

There's a beautiful sound I heard, while walking said whiny dog, just for about two seconds, earlier today. It reminded me of something very integral to my happiness. In fact, the sound I heard today, well, it was only reminiscent of the sound I long to hear, but it was so similar it stopped me and I stood for a few seconds just to see if I could hear it again.

Several years ago, in the days when I had small boys at home and life was one big blur of parks and playgrounds, diapers and dishes, carseats and sticky hands...I used to escape once a week to the mountains. On my husband's days off, I would get up early, sneak out to the garage where I had packed my gear the night before, and head off for a day of skiing. Alone. By myself. Driving with no distractions going on in the rearview mirror, no stretching interventions of bottles thrown to the floorboards or books slid down the door frames, I would enjoy the hour drive up into the mountains with the radio off and the sound of the heater my only company. I would park anywhere in the parking lot, having no need to carry and/or wrangle small boys to our destination. I would get my gear on and head out onto the hill and begin to really breathe deeply again. I would sit by myself on the chair lift and allow myself to be physically and mentally carried away again to the peaks of the mountains where the views were amazing and the challenges set before me were mine to choose. I would ski in the trees, knee deep in powder, and I would stop often and listen for it. The sound I searched for was a particular version of white noise, no pun intended, the sound of skis sliding, branches squeaking, small nearly imperceptible thuds of snow falling off the trees around me. Sometimes there would be the vibrating whirr of a nearby chairlift or the rise and wane of conversation of those riding it to break the stillness. Sometimes a distant shout of a fallen skier alerting his companions that he was fine, gathering his gear up off the mountain side where it had spread out above him.  It was in those moments, and in the rush of seeing my skis rise up to me and then disappear again below the powder, that I felt absolutely free and happy. John Muir, an naturalist and lover of all things outdoors, wrote words that seemed to have come from a similar mindset that I found when standing in the midst of the trees or with my edges dug in parallel to the fall line on a steep face.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. 

Sometimes I find it hard to find that kind of breathing space here in the prairies in the winter. I can find glimpses of it, along the river when the snow is crisp or the trees are crackling under the weight of ice. I can hear the wind howling on a ridge above me and find that sort of space to just relax and breathe, in the valley below, knowing that as I am out of its reach. I haven't found that day long space of being completely free and happy. In the summer, out on the river, on a paddle's easy to find.

Today, walking my dog, she ran ahead of me into a field of wild grasses that were knee deep in snow. I watched her jumping and leaping, digging in the snow and using all her senses to discover all that was around her. I thought of how free she looked and as I kept walking along the tracks set by a snowmobile through the field, I rounded a small grove of birch. It was there that I had just a few seconds reminiscent of being on skis, in the woods, above the clouds. I stood there for a moment and tried to recapture the full feeling of freedom and happiness that I knew had accompanied those sounds before. It was fleeting. It was there. Then it was gone. Suddenly the dog came bounding around the corner catching up to me. I watched her barrel headlong into the birch grove, examining the "secret forts" that the neighbourhood boys built amongst the leaves and bushes this summer, now exposed by the lack of foliage and the stark contrast to the black and white backdrop of the birch trees. I continued my walk but the feeling of chasing that type of freedom and solitude and joy has stayed with me all day, despite the "man cold." So, I'm going there.
If only in my dreams. 


Tuesday, December 2, 2014


I am a news junkie. I am. I've admitted it before but in case you've missed it, I'm putting it out there again. Many times, I've found myself glued to one (or three) stations just trying to grasp the magnitude of an incident or event and I realize I'm hardly breathing or eating or sleeping, trying to get my head around what often turns out to be senseless. School shooting. Ebola outbreaks. Racial tensions.
Not surprisingly, this 24 hour access to news can be detrimental not only to my physical health but to my mental health.

There's a quote attributed to Mr. Rogers, of childhood television fame, in which in the dark surrounding all the bad news, his mother tells him to look for the "helpers." It's a simple truth that even in the worst scenarios, unimaginable circumstances, there are heroes. Often unnoticed, often unrecognized, even ignored, these stories are threads of light in the wet blanket of bad news that we find ourselves thrown under again and again.

I recognized those threads of light in a story a few weeks ago about Ebola survivors. I was looking at the treatment centres in Liberia and how primitive but functional they were and I was thinking that after days or weeks of fighting off one of the worst viruses imaginable, it would be so freeing to walk out of there and get home. I saw images of those who survived, gaunt and taut skinned, tired but jubilant that they were able to leave and they walked this gauntlet of  what looked like a cattle run to leave the clinic and go back to whatever life was left at home.
Pete K. Muller captures this image and it inhabits my dreams.

I was struck by this image that showed a busload of survivors returning home, mattresses stacked on top of the bus to replace their own that had had to be burned to eradicate the virus in the home they were returning to. It haunts me. Emotional. I began to see that homegoing wasn't without it's own costs. Many have lost their families. Their jobs. Their homes.

Photos from National Geographic's John Moore of Ebola Survivors in Liberia....Take a moment. Read their short stories. Feel their pain. Their exhaustion. Their triumph. Their grief.

And then, I recognized them. The threads. Amongst the stories of survivors returning home, were stories of those who stayed. Survivors of Ebola have an immunity to the virus that seems to protect them for at least a few weeks or months after they have survived it. Instead of walking the gauntlet to rebuild their own lives, there are stories of survivors who instead stay and help others fighting for their lives. Can you imagine? You've been surrounded by doctors and nurses in haz mat suits for weeks, unable to be touched or held, and in walks someone who has no protective suit on, looks you in the eye and says, "I beat this, you can too." What an incredible hope these survivors can convey just by their very presence. But imagine the strength it takes, to stay and hold hands and rock babies and comfort children as so many others die and are replaced by many more fighting the same fight. I can't imagine the strength it takes to beat Ebola. It would take even more to stay and fight alongside others when your battle is won. And yet....these are the "helpers"....the ones to look for. The ones to emulate. Though they've earned the freedom to walk away, would stay in the midst and cheer on those that are still fighting the battle.

These threads of light are everywhere. Sometimes it's hard to see light for all the darkness trying to stifle it but light will always drive out darkness, and when threads are woven together, they just get stronger and brighter. We've been given such freedom in our lives. There is nothing that says we can't celebrate it or enjoy it, but how much more will we enjoy it when we can celebrate it with those we've helped fight for their own? Look back on your own battles, where can you step back in and give hope, be light? In an age where people look for purpose or calling, paradoxically, we often look for places that are already lit when it's really stepping into the shadows that allows us to shine.