Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Ethics of Trying



A work colleague was chowing down on some Cheetos when I told him about the great deal I got on free range eggs (1doz for $3!). With a shudder he said: I don’t eat eggs. Ever since I got a double yolk I have wondered what they feed those chickens.”

I forget sometimes that some people still think that way or, better said, don’t correlate their actions with their words. I tried to explain to him that his reasoning was why I eat free range eggs but he didn’t or, perhaps, couldn’t hear me … he was too busy wiping the orange powder off his face.

This man is not alone. I know of others who bemoan the state of factory farming but still buy the meat and poultry it’s industry produces. And those who celebrate the interdependence of life but use (and throw away) plastic as if it was somehow not part of the human chain, a benign but so very useful concept. 

I am just as guilty. At home I wash and reuse plastic bags until they leak from overuse, I wrap my sandwiches in paper gone once through the printer, and always carry extra totes, but still …

At work, with no plastic recycling, I throw the oil by-product into the garbage. I hate doing it but its amazing how fast one gets immune to doing things they abhor. This denial of who we are with what we do is a distancing, a separation of self. It denies our humanity; how we fit into  community; and our interdependence with all living beings. Although this may sound melodramatic but I feel this subjective dissonance lies on the continuum of integrity with one end being a conscious congruency  and the other occupied by a morality that states, for example, its okay to be a concentration camp guard  because you are just trying to make a living.

When our actions separate ourselves out from who we are we become lost. We lose our moral reference points and the level ground that was once our foundation becomes a slippery slope of questionable ethics.

That said, it is usually not a fast slide nor even an absolute one. The thing is, we face these dilemmas quite often.  Some of us our conscious about them; others not so. My morality, for example, says theft is wrong.  Fine. But would I contact the tax department if they made a mistake in my favour? Not so sure I would but it makes me think of how far I am willing to go down that slope of dishonesty. Would I tell the store clerk she gave me too much back in change? (Yes) Would I let Canadian Customs know how much I really bought on my shopping trip down in the states? (Probably not). Although I do not think I am knocking on delinquency's door, I also believe that once we disrupt our inner and outer congruency, it gets easier to do it again. Which brings me back to my part-time job.

Why do I not initiate something at work—get off the downward slide and talk to management about recycling the plastic? My usual answer is that it will be useless, the conversation will go nowhere and I will end up looking the fool. The truth behind that answer, however, is apathy. Sure those things may happen but I don’t really know. Management may truly not care but it is up to me to try.  

And that is what we all must do. Instead of saying: nothing changes; doesn’t matter, or it will fall on deaf ears, we all still have to try. It will not only help us return to firm ground where  ethics match actions,  but it just may work.



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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Urban Sanctuaries



Walking down Vancouver’s Alberni Street my head starts buzzing. I haven’t traversed this path in many years, it is quite a spot: one to see and be seen. The mugginess of the day makes me slightly detached and I float above the cacophony of beautiful people. I feel a complex mix of envy and irritation. I want both to get in and get out: to be one of the glamorous but also on the bus heading out of town. 

A woman walks by. I create a story as she passes, her muscular stride belying the stiletto heels. She’s gorgeous with her confident strut but her eyes tell me something different. They are anywhere but here—a wide ranging look of want, fear and uncertainty … as if any moment she could forget her lines and be thrown off the stage.

I feel, on the other hand, already in the theatre wings, the forgotten understudy. I want to yell, I know what you need to say, just ask … or, better yet, to just tell her she’s okay; she’s enough.

I walk into a chocolate patisserie to buy a birthday gift for a friend. The noise is enough to compete with a pub during NHL playoffs. Once again, the beauty is off the charts: men and woman alike, poised and posturing; seeing and being seen. I yell my order, pay and quickly exit, the chocolate already melting in my overheated hands.

The moist air blankets me once more with that unworldly feeling of away-ness as I walk to the bus loop. My nerves are awake with caution and I jump at sudden movements and spikes of sound. It is not an alive feeling, more nervous and over-caffeinated. I distract myself with my smart phone.

The bus ride out of town that I hoped would bring relief settles down with an edge of despair. Miles of pavement pass by the window. I want out of this cement coated dreamland but I know, with melancholic awareness, that the suburbia to which I head will be but a continuation.

I used to desire the buzz of city life, crave the centre of the action; be one of the beautiful. A small part of me, however strange, still does. But I know it is no longer possible. My capacity for such excessive stimuli is on limited supply. Trips into town are best when they are short sojourns and when I know that escape is not only possible but immediately available. A stronger fantasy is one of an isolated cabin not far from a creek. I want trees—big ones to console and nurture—and I want quiet so I can sit and listen to the stillness.

Don’t get wrong, I find beauty in the man-made, both structure and mechanical. I love the sleek lines of a Jaguar XJ, the towering waterfront lift cranes, and majestic bridges that connect with sublime elegance.  But its nature that I crave.  

It’s funny how we learn to survive, even thrive in environments that ultimately threaten our existence. I know of people who prefer a paved sidewalk to a forested path; a day in the mall to time spent by the water. To each his own but research shows that humans need nature.

A 2010 study by the University of Rochester found that “ … individuals consistently felt more energetic when they spent time in natural settings or imagined themselves in such situations ... being outside in nature for just 20 minutes in a day was enough to significantly boost vitality levels.”

The study goes on to conclude that “… the presence of nature had an independent energizing effect above that of being outdoors. In other words, conclude the authors, being outdoors was vitalizing in large part because of the presence of nature.”

Which brings me to a recent blog by David Suzuki, In the Urban Green Revolution, Small is Big.  In it he tells of how individuals and small community groups are changing their urban environments for the better. He writes:

Small, creative projects that make cities more livable are popping up in unexpected places: alleys, front yards, vacant lots and parking spaces. Whether its yarn-bombed street furniture, roadway parking turned to mini-parkettes or guerrilla gardens in overlooked spaces, these often-unauthorized interventions are helping to transform properties and neighbourhoods, one light, quick, cheap tweak at a time.

I am humbled by these urban warriors who bring sanctuary to city life. While I hunt for exits these environmentally inspired artists are transforming communities for the betterment of humankind. I applaud their work and am forever grateful when I stumble upon their creativity. When escape is impossible, they change my survival strategies into moments of joy.

For more information, and especially on how there is actual funding available for such projects, click here.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Service With ... A Sense of Presence



I’m in love.

Okay, before anyone sends me little heart icons with enquiring-minds-want-to-know messages, I am in love with my dentist. There. Said it.

And why have I professed my heart to a professional who’s job inspired Steve Martin’s Little Shop of Horrors’ persona? 

He listened to me. 

He listened to me tell my tale, didn’t placate or disregard me. He heard my fears and limitations; then pragmatically (and compassionately) worked out a feasible plan. I love him.

And isn’t that sad.

Sad that when a health professional, let alone anyone in the service industry, is truly present for their client—actually listens to their needs and responds accordingly—is considered ├╝ber special.

Several years ago I walked into a hardware store in the midst of a very stressful day. Can’t remember what I needed but I was so flummoxed I could barely speak. My words came out in a demanding yet almost insensible mixture of irritation and confusion. The clerk did not openly judge me or walk away; she did not berate my seemingly rudeness or interrupt—she just waited me out, giving me space to take a breath, collect my thoughts and state my needs. An hour later, much calmer, I walked back in and thanked her for her compassion. I never forgot her.

As a member of the retail industry (my part-time job), I know how hard it is to be present to customers. I try and, although I wish I could say otherwise, I do not always succeed. Some days are better than others. Some days shall not be mentioned. What tires me about customer service and what makes me most resentful is a misinterpretation of what service actually is.

It is not, for example, bending over backwards to every desire, acting servile or being a sycophant.

When I am in service—real service, that is—whether as a clerk, a friend, a writer or bodyworker, I am present. For the time it takes for the other to tell their story, I am there in mind and spirit. I am not secretly judging their thoughts, wishing I was anywhere else, or figuring out how I am going to respond, I am actively listening to what they are saying. That is service. I cannot always be this present. It is much easier with friends, while interviewing someone for an article, or doing therapeutic sessions but as a store clerk? … some days it just feels nigh on impossible.

It is not hard to figure out why. Most of the time it is because I choose not be present. I am like a little kid who crosses her arms and says she hates peas without even trying them. It somehow feels good to rebel and stick it in the others' ears. That goodness, however, is short-lived. It is like eating candy floss where all you achieve is the desire to eat more sugar, a mouth full of bad teeth and a stomach ache.

I know this for a fact. I eat too much metaphoric candy floss at work and, as a result, dislike the job. But I also know that when I am present—when I set aside the inanities of management, the subtle (and not so subtle) putdowns of customers; the inadequate wage, and the foolish looking uniforms—I enjoy the job. I love my interactions with people: the impromptu jokes; the quasi-philosophical discussions; the laughter.

Being present at work is acknowledging our interdependence: that regardless of where we are, and whether we are conscious about it or not, we affect others. Even if it’s just the fact that they have to physically move out of our way when traversing a narrow aisle… we change someone’s thoughts, actions and feeling with every encounter. And that means something. What it means to us at the time, however, is how present we are.


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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Courage


Courage is said to be many things but I think it most aptly describes the facing of one's fears. Sometimes it is instantaneous, other times it takes years of learning to believe in oneself before the fear is finally faced.



This is me holding Hades, my step-son’s one metre long boa constrictor. The interesting thing about Hades is his tendency to get real close to your face, smelling your presence with his flickering tongue ... he lets you practice facing your fears with instant feedback.



Here is another definition, the kind that may take years…

Courage is waking up from a dream, realizing it was fantasy, and then opening your heart to dream anew.

Or maybe it just comes down to one word: trust.

To be courageous is to trust: ourselves, our interconnectedness; the innate goodness of life and all who live it. 

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