Sunday, November 27, 2011

Those Were the Days: What it Means to be Human

I just saw what I think is a very clever commercial from Nando’s restaurants in South Africa. You can check out the link but in summary it has several dead dictators playing like kids to the tune of “Those were the days”. I won’t spoil the punch line. Now, I know some will think the video tasteless and perhaps making light of wrongs doings but I ask you to see the other message. Okay, the other “other” message — the one that is not funny and not tasteless. That is, the message that says regardless of the evil committed, a part of our humanity remains intact.

To be human means many things but it includes feeling sad, lonely, fearful and angry as well as the lighter sensations of joy, desire, playfulness and contentment. These feelings may be hidden behind layers of selfishness or cruelty but they are there, however untouched; however unexpressed. Those emotions are part of our humanity.

Every dictator was once a child. They were once a little baby, a new born with only curiosity and innocence to accompany them as they started walking the path of life. Who really knows what makes humans turn against their fellow beings in cruelty and cold-heartedness? What percentage is genetic? How much does the environment factor in? Or depending on your belief system is it part of a spiritual lesson? I don’t have the answers but I do know that everyone was once a baby: naive, curious and innocent. To be human is to recognize that we never lose that childlike essence, however hidden; however denied.

The video reminded me of an energy session I gave to a man in detox about ten years ago. I knew of this man, let’s call him “John”, or at least had heard of him, from his girlfriend, “Mary”. Mary had been a regular in several of the other agencies in which I worked. Through these sessions I heard stories of abuse at the hands of John. I also heard how she loved him and would never leave. Unfortunately, Mary died from complications of a fall… perhaps a push. John was suspected but never charged. About a month after she died, John applied for detox and appeared on my massage table.

It was almost more than I could handle having John in the room. He talked a lot of Mary: of his love for her and how sad he was that she was gone. Although he never mentioned his own failings, in fact, just the opposite, his grief was real; his misery complete. As a practitioner, I knew I had to do something to be present in that room for his humanity. The only thing I could think of was reminding myself how John was once an innocent babe. Connecting with that thought allowed me to see him in another light. I don’t know why or how he became the man he was, but at that moment it was unimportant. It was a small child, a child who lives within each and every one of us, who was reaching out. It was to him I offered compassion.

I never saw John again after that session so I don’t know if my attempt at open heartedness was helpful but I like to think it was. Maybe, just maybe, having that part of himself seen and heard helped him grow. Then again, maybe it didn’t. All I really know is that opening my heart helped me grow.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


This is a Tibetan story by Anam Thubten Rinpoche as retold by Barbara Helen Berger. I found it in Parabola: Tradition, myth and the search for meaning, Vol.32; Issue 1.

Once there was a humble ani, a nun, who loved the enlighten lady Tara* with all her heart. Ever day when the sun was rising over the mountains she climbed up to her rooftop. There in a loud voice, with palms together, she chanted her prayer to Tara. And the man who lived next door couldn’t help hut hear it.

He winced as if the sound hurt his ears. The ani chanted the prayer with so many mistakes. She never got all the words right. She even left some out. The man was a scholar and knew very well how the prayer ought to be done. Yet he was puzzled. For every day in the light of the rising sun, he saw the glorious Tara herself limping to the roof next door.

How amazing, he thought, how strange that Tara was coming to visit the ignorant ani. Why was she limping? Surely it must be due to all the mistakes in the prayer.

So he went next door and the ani greeted him with a smile. The scholar said, “I am sorry, but you are not chanting to Tara properly. You are doing it wrong.”

The smile fell from the ani’s face. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t worry,” the man said, “I can teach you.”

So the ani tried hard to learn, little by little, until at last she was able to say each syllable right, each word in the proper order, leaving nothing out. Then every morning, the scholar was pleased to hear her chanting without a single mistake.

After a while, he noticed that Tara never came to visit the ani anymore. He puzzled over this. Finally he went next door.

Greeting the ani with palms together he said, “I am the one who made a big mistake. Please go back to chanting as you did before.”

So she did. Joyfully, the ani prayed as she always had. Her face shone with devotion. She sand out in a loud voice with her whole heart. She didn’t say all the words right. She even left some out. But know the scholar heard only a voice of pure faith. And sure enough, every day in the light of the rising sun he saw the glorious Tara herself come limping** back again.

* Tara is also called the great compassionate mother, the embodiment of wisdom and the great protectress.
** Tara limps because “the story is not meant to excuse our own sloppiness or lack of knowledge, but to assure us that a pure and deeply felt intention is always stronger”.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thinking Beyond the Extreme

I had a discussion with a friend the other day about extremism. She was okay with the existence of extreme views as they provided the bookends in defining an issue. I was more uncomfortable with an extremist stance but agreed that without the parameters they provided we would have less creative thinking. Solutions to life issues can arrive when we bump up against the rigidity of the extreme and look for compromises and new pathways. The problem, of course, is that extremism tends to promotes resistance which can set up its own form of extremism.

Extremism of any sort comes down to black and white thinking: this is good; that is bad. We all do it to varying degrees: “organic food is good”; “pollution is bad”; “democracy is good”; “capitalism is bad”. Most of us, however, are willing to state our view but also hear the opposing side. Yes, pollution is bad but what causes pollution can also provide jobs. Yes, organic food is good but is it still good when it travels 1000 km to our plate?

Extremist views — the rigid kind, the ones not open to debate —are based in fear. If I don’t believe or act this way, something bad will happen. If I compromise, I will be seen as weak, or maybe even die. If I don’t believe this, then who am I?

Fear, as I’ve written before, is a factor of the bystander effect and is what gives bullies their power. It creates victims and pyrrhic victories and is what keeps us from acting interdependently. Fear, however, is not a “bad” emotion (even if there was such a thing). It is part of what makes us human. Fear lets us know where there is danger or something unfamiliar. It helps us be cautious and provides the adrenalin to get us into action. The problem comes when fear is unacknowledged. Unconscious fear sets the stage for unconscious expression: we lash out or hide, hurting ourselves or others. This kind of fear stops us from manifesting our humanity and brings on the rigid, uncompromising extremist beliefs that polarize our communities.

I just read about an abortion conference that took place last year in Princeton’s University Center for Human Values. Both sides of the abortion debate, pro-choicers and pro-lifers, were present and the extremes of both sides were well represented. In reporting on the conference, William Saletan wrote an article on how the two sides of the abortion debate can learn from each other— how they could seek an understanding that is progressive rather than threatening or hostile. How, in other words, pro-lifers and pro-choicers could step down from their fears and be more creative in their thinking. I’ve included the links to his article below.

Part one is “What pro-lifers can learn …

Part two is “What pro-choicers can learn …

I invite your thoughts…

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ring the Bell

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

L. Cohen

More reflections on how to step up to the plate of interdependence.

Sometimes the answer is simple yet so profound. Take this example from Plan International’s report, Because I am a Girl: So, what about Boys? The study argues that gender equality is good for both boys and girls and that “there needs to be a shift in thinking from ‘men and boys as part of the problem’ to ‘men and boys as part of the solution’”. To that end, men from diverse countries such as Nigeria, Brazil, El Salvador and India are coming together and discussing topics such as “gender-based oppression and violence, power dynamics within the family, intimate relationships, sexual and reproductive health, human rights and democracy”. From these discussions projects such as ‘Ring the Bell’ in India are not only promoting gender equality but stopping violence.

Here is an excerpt from the report:

"In 2008, men and boys started to break the cycle of violence against women in India with a simple, effective action: when they heard a man abusing a woman inside a nearby home, they rang the doorbell or found another way to interrupt the violence. They made their presence known. They halted the violence simply by lifting one finger.

This campaign, produced by the organisation Breakthrough, known as ‘Bell Bajao’ (‘ring the bell’ in Hindi), has now touched 130 million people, won a Silver Lion Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and become a metaphor for stopping abusive behaviour in any form. In addition to inspiring thousands of people to ‘ring the bell’, Bell Bajao has led to an increased awareness of laws against domestic violence and increased reporting of the crime.

Today, more and more men and boys are ringing the bell. And around India, a conversation is happening. It is challenging social norms and changing behaviour. And it is making violence against women, which was once seen as acceptable, unacceptable."
North Americans are not immune to gender-based violence or inequality. The question as always … what can we do as individuals to ring the bell?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hiding in the Stairwell

It is wash day and I carry my two loads of dirty clothes down the stairs and into the laundry room. I happily spy both washers idle; I load the machines, feed them coins and go on my merry way. Half an hour later I come down to do the exchange and find, of the two dryers, one is running and the other one stopped but occupied, supposedly finished. Inside are two items of slightly damp clothes. Laundry ethics come bubbling up: what do I do?

Most apartment blocks in which I have lived tend to have unspoken rules about laundry etiquette. Queue jumping is a universal no but when to take another person’s load out of a machine is fraught with independent notions of right and wrong. I tend to be on the side of time: once your drying time is over, you best be there to care for it or, damp or not, it ends up on the table. That was, however, a theoretical stance. I’ve never had to put it to test … until today.

I looked at the facts and explored the possibilities. There were two items of slightly damp clothes sitting in a stopped dryer. I could wait for their owner to come down and put more coin in the machine or I could take the clothes out and lay them flat on a table in the suggestion of care. As the machine was stopped when I got down there (for who knows how long) and my dithering added more time, I figured I had already given the unseen owners at least five, maybe ten minutes to be time attentive. I weighed the options and made my decision. Out went their clothes, in went mine and off went I, merry once more.

An hour later I came down to retrieve my dry clothes. I was just about to open the laundry room door when, hearing voices inside—a man and a woman—I stopped. I knew with gut certainty that one of them was the bearer of damp clothes and, although I felt righteous in my decision, I wasn’t in the mood for confrontation. It was nighttime, I was tired and not a little defensive. I did the sensible thing and hid in the stairwell. I figured I could wait there until they left, how long could it take? Meanwhile I practiced poses in case someone came upon me: “oh, you surprised me, just walking down the stairs was I.”

It took awhile but finally the man’s voice left the room and headed for the elevator. I breathed a sigh of relief and decided to wait out the other. Minutes went by. As the cement stairs chilled my patience my gut urged me to accept the truth: the woman was not going to leave. In fact, she was probably waiting for the dryer thief to make his or her appearance. I looked into the proverbial mirror of my soul, agreed, and entered the laundry room.

It was Eunice. Now Eunice and I have a history of laundry day tactics. She once accused me, falsely I must say, of queue jumping and you could see her reviewing my sordid past as she confronted me again. I leaped to my defence before she could get in a word and convinced her of the rightness of my actions. She begrudgingly agreed so I magnanimously apologized for my part in her disrupted routine. Whew, friends again. Federal politics have nothing on what happens in the laundromat.

I bring this up because every day we make decisions which we either take responsibility for or, in avoidance, hide in the stairwell. Take last week for example. My father, who lives a good two to three hours away, had a short stay in hospital. I bussed out to his place and when he was released, stayed a day and a half to make sure he was okay. Standing at the bus stop, the morning I left, I was overcome by feelings of guilt: I should stay another day; I should care more; I should cancel my appointments in town; I should prioritize; I should, I should, I should.

Finally, my rather opinionated gut stepped in again and said, STOP! You’ve made a decision, now take responsibility for it. In other words, stop hiding in the stairwell of guilt and get on with life. And so I did. Once I put the “shoulds” in their proper place, I was able to review my decision to leave and come to peace with it. My father does not need my guilt or overwrought care. He does, however, deserve my respect and compassion. I can respect him more when I not only take care of my needs but take responsibility for the decisions I make however right or wrong they may be. Plus, in taking that responsibility, I can have more compassion to both him and myself.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Because I am a Girl

I subscribe to Plan International’s Because I am a Girl e-newsletter and recently received a link to their 2011 global report, Because I am a Girl: So what About Boys? It states: “Men and boys, just like women and girls, are set back by gender stereotypes and inequalities, which they learn from a young age and that are influenced by a variety of factors.”

As part of the report, 1003 Canadian youth (aged 12-17) were surveyed to learn more about attitudes regarding gender equality. Here are some of the more positive findings:

91 % of Canadian youth believe equality between men and women is good for both boys and girls.

96% believe girls should have the same opportunities and rights as boys to make their own choices in life and 95% believe parents must take equally responsibility for their children.


31% of the boys believe that a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for the family.

48% of the youth (both boys and girls) think men should be responsible for earning income and providing for the family.

78% of the youth disagree with the statement “boys should not cry” but 77% believe boys are likely to be made fun of if they cry.

45 % of youth agree that “to be a man you need to be tough”.

I have just started reading the full report but looks like there is still work to be done…

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fixing Family Dynamics

It is always interesting how the process of trying to fix family dynamics usually backfires. Here’s the most recent example: An aged member of my family has profound hearing loss and a tendency, as the years go by, to personalize things in a morose way. The former condition has him missing out on the mundane conversations that make up much of family life and the latter has him sounding, at times, like a petulant child. He never used to be like this and alongside the hurt and dismay I feel at the loss of his emotional strength, I also feel frustrated and a little petulant myself: Why do I have to listen to this stuff?

Recently, at a major family event, he was involved in a miscommunication to which he felt slighted. I didn’t hear about it until a few hours later when he groused about it. The first time I heard him left me dumbfounded: did that really happen? Tired and not taking it too seriously, I brushed it off saying, it wasn’t intentional, don’t let it get to you. The second time, I realized my error and I validated his feelings but, once again, reemphasized there was nothing personal in what happened, it was human error. The third time, I validated, I reemphasized and got frustrated. I did not want to hear about it a fourth time, let alone a fifth or sixth. I took action.

I emailed the “offending” party, explained the situation and very gently asked if they could acknowledge what happened and apologize to this mutual relative. I said, “he’s older, has developed tunnel vision, and I know you didn’t mean for this to happen but this is how he took it”. I thought I did a good job. Seems like I didn’t. Short story? Big upheaval where I was portrayed as the instigator of familial riffs. And the gist of it was that the miscommunication was just a by-product of impaired hearing — there was no personal slight.

Okay, the riff is somewhat repaired — an apology was issued and I vowed never to take responsibility for this relative’s emotions again. But I think I missed the boat. Let’s review the facts: I knew he, the aged relative, wasn’t going to talk about the issue to the people who mattered. I knew the alleged offending party was ignorant of the situation and I knew I was dreading hearing about it for the rest of my life. The most important fact, however, and what experience has told me again and again, is that the only thing I can ever change is my attitude and thoughts.

The problem didn’t lie with anyone but me. I had two uncomfortable feelings that I was not taking responsibility for: One, I was frustrated and, two, I felt bad that my relative felt slighted.

Interdependence requires mutuality, respect and leadership. Underneath these requirements is honest communication and the profound right of choice. In relationship, we need to respectfully let others know how we feel or think so that the other can respond in a respectful manner — we take leadership over our emotions. This may or may not involve a change in the other’s behavior but, more importantly, it involves not hiding behind the fear of conflict or the desire of trying to make another feel okay. We can only change how we feel and how we act. In exercising that ability we acknowledge both the limit of our power with others and the abundance of our power in choosing how we live.

More facts: my aged relative has 85 years of experience not talking about his emotions. In the last few years he has made great strides in this but he is not yet at the head of the class. Stepping in like that, however, I took away his freedom of choice: I acted for him without his knowledge or blessings. Because of that I was accused, by the other party, of harsh judgment and condemnation. What I really should have been accused of was patronizing behavior.

In retrospect (and in an interdependent mind frame) I should have talked to my aged relative first. I could have helped him understand the options of how he could take care of his feelings and how it makes me feel when he complains yet does nothing. Perhaps we could have reached a solution even if it meant him continuing to grouse and me, letting him know I did not want to listen, walking away. The bottom line is that we are the only ones who can take care of our emotions.

In going behind his back, with whatever genuine and compassionate ideals, I disrespected him. I took away his rights by bypassing honest communication and thereby limiting the choices we had to deal with the situation.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Umbrella

I dreamed
the other night. I forgot my umbrella,
you said you’d wait. I knew you would. You waited
while I ran down the long hallway that seem to grow longer.
I passed people, so many different people I passed, not really seeing. I almost fell
off a platform thinking it to be stairs. I complained to someone, he said, people should look more closely. I ran and got tired of running. It was a long way, longer than I thought at first.
                                                                                                                                    The umbrella
was in your office, in your home, tucked away beside  a gymnasium. Something
was going on, many people were there, different people, many people
I didn’t see. There were colours and interesting things,
and good looking men, but I was too busy
searching for the umbrella,
because I didn’t want
to get wet if
it rained.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Fear of Acting

Hard to be interdependent in a suspicious world … hell, it’s hard to even show you care. I was thinking about this the other day when I saw a parked car with its headlights on. The car was outside a house and parked in such a way as if it belonged there. I took a chance, walked up the path and rang the buzzer. The front door was made of glass giving me a view of the small and tidy closed-in alcove with the shoes and jackets of outdoor wear. After some time, the solid inner door slowly opened. A man appeared. He seemed confused to see a person standing there. He hesitantly walked forward. His face held a combination of what seemed like fear and suspicion and, as he got closer, maybe some inner admonishment. It was if he was asking himself: What am I scared of? It’s a just a woman. His partner followed behind him, looking even more tentative. I smiled in hopes of easing their anxiety. He opened the door, eyes still wary, ready to slam it perhaps if I was more dangerous than my looks warranted. “Yes?” he asked. There was more confusion as I gave them the info and then, with vague suspicion still on their faces, they thanked me and I quickly went on my way. No need to have them thinking it was a ruse to get them out of their house.

Since I wrote the blog in August about taking responsible action, I’ve made a quest, so to speak, to not only step up to the plate when needed but to look for the plate — a sometimes risky business. I remember doing a similar deed about thirty years ago. I was walking down Davie Street in Vancouver’s West End when I noticed a fairly expensive parked car with its lights on. I walked over to the driver side and tried the door. It was locked but I still felt good that I had tried to help someone. No sooner had I taken my hand from the handle when two well-dressed business men came strolling up to me: "too bad you found it locked, eh? Couldn’t get your hands on it." Their accusation shocked me but also embarrassed and angered me. How dare they think I was trying to steal their car. I wanted to respond with something hard and biting but all I could say was: Your lights are on; I was trying to turn them off. I walked away, hating the shame and vowing never to do that again. And, I didn’t. We learn from experience, don’t we?

People tend to assume the worst. I recently listened to a podcast on mindfulness. One of the things the researcher, Daniel Siegel, stated was that our minds are programmed to remember negative things: it is good for survival to remember that tigers can attack and dogs can bite. I am taking a small leap here but I wonder if we are also programmed to assume the worst?

This tendency to assume the worst or, perhaps better said, to be fearful of the worst was just witnessed in Foshon, China. I am sure many of you saw the awful video of the toddler, Yueyue, getting run over twice and then eighteen people walking by and not doing anything. (This was captured on street surveillance camera.) It’s a stomach wrenching video to watch so I suggest instead you read an article by Globe and Mail’s China correspondent, Mark McKinnon. He thankfully shoots down the racist comments about the Chinese being less moral and gives two possible reasons why this tragedy occurred.

1) “The legal system [in China] is unpredictable and unfair to those without money and political connections. Getting involved can often get you in trouble.”

2) An authoritarian state, such as China, instils fear in it’s citizens from acting, doing and /or getting noticed.

I would add to these two points the “bystander effect” where “[t]he mere presence of other bystanders greatly decreases intervention.” This is a well documented and researched phenomena instigated by the horrors of what happened to New York’s Kitty Genovese. The bystander effect has been witnessed all over the world — ignoring pain, hurt and trauma in another is not an ethnic trait.

There is, however, a commonality to why people do not respond or help another — fear. I will let you read these stories and draw your own conclusions but until we get over the fear of acting, of risking responsibility, of being seen… our humanity will suffer.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Is it Just Me ... or is my right leg Codependent?

A few weeks ago, to the ultimate of horrors, I became a cliché. There I was dancing, strutting and bumping —moving to the music like a sail boat gliding through the water and riding out an ocean swell when pop went the hip and crumple went the leg. Yes, it is true, middle aged women do throw their hips while dancing to Billy Idol. Sigh.

Ligament strains, of course, are nasty to heal. They like to take their time, teasing you with feel-good days that entice you to push it just a bit further only to screw up all the healing already achieved. I am not amused. However, this minor injury has given me time to reflect on the nature of codependence and, for that, I give thanks. After all, it ‘tis the season.

What got me thinking about codependence was how my right leg wants to compensate for my left, where the injury lies. I notice it when my left hip starts to stiffen after walking too long. I recognize this as my body’s attempt to protect the afflicted region from further damage — the stiffness is a natural cast seeking to immobilize the injury. The best thing to do when this happens is to stop and rest and allow my body to heal. Not known for doing the best thing, however, I ignore the stiffness — I am not in pain, after all — and keep on walking. When I do this, regardless of the fact I am not in pain, the right leg will start compensating. It is subtle at first but if I pay attention I can feel my gait changing. This is not a good sign. From past experience I know that once I start compensating I am only asking for another strain, this time on the otherwise healthy leg.

So, once again, instead of resting, I continue moving but bring focus to my injured leg. I concentrate on walking naturally, willing the leg not to limp. The result is only half successful: yes, I reduce the limp so that a person walking behind me might be fooled but no, not so much that my body is fooled: my right leg continues, however subtly, to compensate. I turn the tables and focus in on my strong leg, willing it to relax. It works but only to a limited degree. If I was to impose my anthropomorphic ideas onto my leg I would say: It wants to help; it needs to help; it lives to help. And why does it do this? Because it feels it is in the best interest of the whole body to support the injured area.

When I first contemplated this, I thought, hmmm, a part of my body supports an injured area to the extent where damage is done to the caretaking part. What an analogy to codependence, I conclude. What a mistaken one, I later realize.

A quick review of codependence. Codependence is the addiction of looking elsewhere: of finding value and worth not in yourself but in the reflection you see of yourself in others. It is not whether you feel yourself worthy, but whether others deem you worthy. Codependence can be manifested in a variety of ways from caretaking to bullying and one can be in a codependent relationship with a person, pet, hobby or even their god. For more information check out the side bar or go to my other blog

Coming back to my strained left hip, my good leg will do anything (it seems) to compensate for my bad leg. It does this to the extreme of hurting itself. This is what often happens in codependence: the person who is looking for self worth outside themselves often makes themselves sick in the process. They do, and continue to do for the other with no conscious regard for their own well-being. Or, said another way, they believe the best way to take care of self is through taking care of or controlling another. At it’s extreme, a codependent relationship can feel like it is a life and death issue.

Now let’s flip the coin and look at interdependence. Interdependence is the process of taking care of self while also taking care of the community as a whole. Pure interdependence is a win-win situation. Of course, that is the ideal. Sometimes one must make sacrifices or, alternatively be selfish but decisions are made with a consciousness that acknowledges that everyone has value and everyone deserves respect.

When a part of our body gets hurt or sick, biological defences go to work. The community, i.e. the cells, the organs, and the different body systems, immediately strive to fix the situation or at least mobilize the body so to decrease the risk of further harm. This initial action is a beautiful example of interdependence — everything or everyone working together for the good of the whole. My first reaction when this happened to me, however, was to find fault. My right leg, I jested, is being codependent with my left — it is working twice as hard, to the point of injury, in order to safeguard my injured leg.

I kept with this idea until I actually wrote it down and, as what usually happens, found a more honest assessment. It is not my leg that is acting codependent but me. If I had listened to my body, that is, if I had rested when my leg stiffened and took care of the injury, my good leg would not have had to compensate to such an extreme. Yes, it would have stepped in (ha!) and helped out but not to the point of acquiring its own injury. The only reason my good leg felt strained was because I didn’t listen to my body; I didn’t rest. And why didn’t I rest? Because a part of me finds identity and self worth in a healthy body that can run and hike and dance with no limitations. To stop and rest would be to question my worth.

Something to think about.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Remaining Human

My friend, Bonnie, recently posted a link on her blog to an article written by Michael Stone. Remaining Human: A Buddhist Perspective on Occupy Wall Street. Worth reading the full text but here is a small excerpt:

In the Lotus Sutra it is said that the quickest way to becoming a Buddha is not through extensive retreats or chanting but through seeing others as a Buddha. If you see others as Buddha, you are a Buddha. You remain human. You no longer try to get beyond others.

… If you can’t trust that you have the possibility to do good, to see everyone and everything as a Buddha, then how will you even begin? Our Buddha nature is our imagination.

These protests are reminding us that with a little imagination, a lot can change. We are witnessing a collective awakening to the fact that our corporations and governments are the products of human actions. They aren’t serving anymore, and so it is in our power and in our interest to replace them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Sacred Art of Not Writing

During a recent conversation with a friend I was given a not so subtle hint that I was neglecting my blog and, therefore, my writing. I protested: I am writing… just not there. Not good enough, she said. She’s right, of course. Even though I am in the midst of working on a collection of short stories and therefore putting time into my writing practice, a commitment is a commitment: I need to blog.

Ironically I was saying something similar to someone else just last week. I had arranged to do a 30-day challenge with him in which you write 500 or more words a day and submit to the other for comments: one comment about what works and another stating what needs work. I had just finished a similar challenge in August and found it extremely satisfying when, that is, it was not excruciatingly, mind blottingly difficult. Out of that challenge I got about twenty-four short stories of which I am now reworking and making readable. My friend, in this new challenge, reneged on the first day and pleaded a week’s extension. I agreed. He reneged again. I phoned him and said, “500 words tomorrow. I don’t care if it dribble … it probably will be dribble, it doesn’t matter. One, you made a commitment and two, if you want to write, you got to write, period.”

I was feeling kind of smug as I was in the creative mode and actually writing everyday but smugness has a way of pushing my eyes open till they bleed the truth. Sure I was writing but it is just recently that I had managed an “everyday” routine and, more to the point, I was just as brilliant as my friend in devising ways not to write. I sit down at my computer, for example, and fatigue will come over me and I have to lie down. I rest for twenty minutes and, sitting back up with a great idea, be overcome with hunger. I’ll find a hair on my leg that got missed while waxing; get thirsty, have to dental floss, stretch, or have a perishing need to call the automated weather service. Last week, to both my horror and delight, I cleaned out two of my junk drawers.

Now you may ask why cleaning a junk drawer can elicit such emotion. Good question. I have a long history with these compartments of wonder and cleaning them can seem, well, irreverent. I wrote a story about junk drawers four years ago (see below) which may enlighten my distress. But, coming back to my cleaning them out last week, what it really shows is the depths I can go in the avoidance of actual writing… I will even desecrate a sacred altar, otherwise known as the Lady of the Junk Drawer.

Our Lady of the Junk Drawer

I have a fondness for junk drawers. I love them in fact. I always have one, usually two and, on occasion, three. In there is the answer to all problems. Need a screwdriver? A paperclip? Candle for the cake? The junk drawer. Curtains need hanging? A felt pen? A twist tie? The junk drawer is your answer. Why just as I was researching this story, I found the phone cord I have been thinking of buying. Saved me seven bucks! Junk drawers are grand, they give me hope.

What a grand thing, hope. Growing up, I watched my older sister gradually fill her hope chest with dreams of the future. It was a combination trust fund and wedding planner overlaid with a wellspring of pride: a modern day dowry. I never really knew what she was putting in there– it was her private domain – but ever so often you could see her opening it up and adding something to the pile. It was part of the mystery of becoming an adult, one day I too would have my own box, my own source of wonder.

I was inspired early on to seek that sense of wonder. In the spare bedroom cum formal dinning room we had a floor to ceiling bookcase. It was filled with your typical kitsch: snowfall scenes in sparkly water filled domes; football pennets; tacky orange glazed vases and ceramic “Lassies”, alert and ready for Timmy’s call. I spent many an hour examining all its inherent treasures but it was the sparkle that lay above my reach that held me in thrall. Sometimes when courage got the better of sanity, I would climb the lower shelves and ever so carefully peer over the edge in anticipated delight. I was never disappointed. Whether it was a dust filled bowl of spare change or a lucky rabbit foot key chain it was a cornucopia of pleasure.

Later years I tried transferring that joy of quiet exploration to the empty lot across the street, old musty book stalls and curiosity shops but they never quite met my expectations. Perhaps it was the knowledge that what lay on those dusty alters were somehow related to me. My family was not close knit nor strong in their ability to communicate thoughts or feelings. Those trinkets – contemporary family heirlooms – connected me in a way that human relationships could not. They rooted my fragile sense of being-ness to something solid: the mess and disorder of the dining rooms shelves was not only my joy, but my safety.

With this lineage, it is no wonder that I love junk drawers but it was not always so.
For many years, I took them for granted: doesn’t every family have one? In a way I treated my junk drawer like a prayer: I didn’t look to it until I was really in need. Save me now (oh God) and I promise to be good; please be in there (oh Junk Drawer) and I promise to clean you. The funny thing is, both Spirit and Junk Drawer don’t care for that kind of attention. What is more important is how I honour them as part of myself. You see, the secret of the Junk Drawer is not so much that it holds answers and gives hope but that it mirrors my mind. Just as Spirit manifests through my soul and I feel comfort in that connection, the chaotic meanderings of my thoughts are reflected in the anarchy of the drawer: like meets like and I feel peace and tranquility. Yet there is more to this than a homeopathic metaphor. The brain seeks solutions to its internal chaos while the Junk Drawer surrenders to it. Where the mind empowers action, the Junk Drawer just is. The Junk Drawer, much like the yogi sitting in calm stillness amidst the fervency of modern day life, is part of, yet detached from the chaos. Rather than the coming together of similar energies, then, it is the union of the male and female – the active and the passive aspects of who we are – that truly restores a sense of calmness. The Junk Drawer, for all its innate pandemonium, reunites me with my feminine self and brings balance to my otherwise dominate male side.

Stop, you say? Enough silliness? You understand how junk drawers give hope and inspiration but truly, connecting it to the feminine and finding balance in one’s life is a bit of a stretch. How can a box of chaos compete with rubbing the Buddha’s belly, a weekend meditation retreat or saying a few “Hail Marys”? Well, sit down grasshopper (mind the rice paper, though) and learn. The Junk Drawer is about to expand your mind.

One can always trust the Junk Drawer. She, the Junk Drawer that is, is intuitive about needs but patient in waiting for requests. She is eclectic with her own sense of language, revels in the art of disorder yet trusts what will be will be. She decries rule making and rigidity, preferring anarchy over hierarchy and, as noted earlier, is chaotic. But just like the chaos that gave birth to Mother Earth, the Junk Drawer (JD or, more formally, Our Lady of the Junk Drawer) is the wellspring of creativity. From chaos to form and back again, the Lady continually reinvents herself: a modern day Phoenix arising from the ashes of enforced structure.

The Junk Drawer is a comforting presence in a world where organized sport is considered healthier than spontaneous play and performance is elevated above creativity; where air conditioning is preferred over a cool breeze and swimming in the ocean is passed over for the chlorinated pool. She is the one that eats a second piece of chocolate cake and sits around all day reading whatever she pleases; dances to the moon at midnight and feeds the crows from her window. The Junk Drawer in all her chaotic stillness and creative intuitiveness is the feminine incarnate.

With JD as my new feminine symbol my inner chaos will experience its mirror and finally come to rest. In meditation, while still imagining roots sinking deep inside the earth I will now visualize corkscrews and napkin holders at the core, sitting idly into the night. The Lady’s motto will become mine: I sit and await in detached passion; my being-ness is all that matters. Safety will be nurtured by the assurance that all I ever need is close at hand while the chaotic and uncomfortable feelings of the past will be welcomed into the mosaic of who I am today.

I imagine it now: a new path created and the dawning of a new era. Goddess followers, Wiccan priestesses, and earth worshippers will forgo all previous incarnations of the feminine: nature, fertility statues, the colour pink and Easter hats. Women will still run with the wolves, belly dance and gossip over coffee but they will do so now with reference to their inner Junk Drawer. Chaos will be respected and all households will have one, preferably two, alters in ever changing permanence. Balance will be restored as the Yang of our past will come to terms with the Yin of our presence. Men and women of the world unite as the Lady of the Junk Drawer reawakens in us all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Single Story

I read a story recently about an organ transplant that went horribly wrong. It happened in a prestigious Taiwanese hospital, well established in these procedures. A patient, who was on record as an organ donor, died and blood work was done to determine his suitability. Human error ensued and, instead of his results being recorded as reactive, or HIV+, his organs were given clearance and, as a result, five people were given tainted donations. I thought about the ever widening circles of people affected: the clerk who made the original mistake, the five organ recipients and their families and friends, the surgical teams, the hospital administration; people like you and me, thousands of miles away, who read the story. It was a small human error, a miscommunication of terms, but with tragic consequences. My first thought was how could one live with themselves after making a mistake like that.

I told this story to several people, all medical personnel, and it was interesting the different reactions. The first person I told immediately felt sick at heart and went into fear of her own work and the potential for mistake. The second could only look at the bright side of the issue. She stated that those patients were at low risk and, anyhow, they were lucky to get an organ in the first place. The last person was morally outraged at the erroneous clerk and the “minions they hire these days”.

I just listened to two TED Talk by Nigerian authors Chimananda Adichie and Chris Abani. They both spoke of the dangers of what they call the “single story” — the essentialization of culture and the people within. The single story, for example, that Africa is a continent of dictatorship, strife and poverty, rather than a complex region full of multiple stories with the same contradictions, living conditions and philosophical extremes found in North America and Europe.

I thought about this when I reflected on the medical error reported above. Each person I spoke to, including myself, attached a different story to the tragedy— each perspective coloured by the individual’s unique response to life. There was deep pathos, fear, optimism, and anger. And there was my reaction to their viewpoints. I found the Pollyanna response naïve and judged the holder of that view to be fearful of confrontation. I deemed the outraged person to be steeped in unexpressed anger, always on the lookout for a way to vent and I thought the fearful reply to be reflective of one who was not confident in their skills. My judgment, or story, melded into their judgments or stories — it was no longer a human tale about a tragic mistake but a vehicle to condemn others or, as the case may be, ourselves.

Everyone I spoke to — each single story — was correct to some degree about this medical mishap. Yes, it was a horrible mistake but true, the organ recipients might still be better off. Yes, it’s a cautionary tale to inspire diligence but also one to encourage stronger checks and balances, and yes, it is a story of ineptitude, however singular, however chronic. Each story viewed alone gives us one perspective and through that perspective, seemingly one path of correction. Generalizations are made and a complex story is simplified into a single narrative and a platform for our beliefs. The story and the storyteller become one-dimensional.

But life isn’t like that and either are our stories. Being human, among others things, is a complex tale of erroneous beliefs, judgments, missteps and communication breakdowns. It is also about love and compassion, innocence and open-heartedness. The question is, which story will we follow, which story will we tell and which will we believe?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Human Dance

He walked up to me as I sat on the bench, enjoying the sun and the people watching. He was a thin man — “all bones” mom would say —wearing loose, well-worn clothes, dirty sneakers and a baseball cap. His movements were jerky, like those of a marionette’s puppet, and they accentuated his angular frame and the flows of unused material. He smiled. Hello, he said, going travelling? I said no, deciding against explaining the baggage sitting next to me. The packsack and suitcase belonged to a friend. She was the one travelling but had run an errand while I watched over her gear. Oh, he said, coming home then. No, I replied, returning the smile. My expression kept his hopes up, he said: Vancouver sure is a beautiful city. Yes, I said, it is.

Despite my monosyllabic answers an internal debate was raging in my head. I knew, or assumed I knew, who and what he was: a panhandler who, needing a fix, wanted money; but I also saw, or tried to see him as a person deserving of respect, polite conversation and human connection. I didn’t want to lead him on, that is, I didn’t want him to expect money at the end but I also wanted him to know that I saw him.

He asked if I was from Vancouver. Yes, and you? No, Saskatchewan. Lots of people here from the prairies, I said, better winters. His toothless smile broadened, eagerness barely hiding his anxiety.

The internal debate got heated. What was I doing? Why was I giving this man monetary aspirations when I was only going to disappoint him? I felt like the cat teasing the mouse, sadistically playing with his emotions. No, I rebutted, you are treating him like any other person you enter into conversation with, just pretend he came over because he thought you were interesting, pretty or perhaps, even lonely.

Lots of culture here, he said. Hmmm, I murmured, thought there was more on the prairies, I’ve heard Saskatoon is quite the place for the arts. No, he corrected, I mean cultures, you know, multi-cultures. Oh, yes, I agreed, we are a port city, more cultures here.

He looked over his shoulder, gums biting his lips. His eyes transversed the streets and came back to mine, making a decision. Don’t suppose you have a loonie or something you could give me? Ah, I am sorry… I have some food though, some nuts. I held out the leftovers in the bag I had. He shook his head reminding me he had no teeth. You could give me money for food, he said, the last word wavering on a high note. Shaking my head, I once more apologized. Fifty cents even? No, I can’t.

He closed his eyes for two, maybe three seconds, overcame a slight grimace, nodded and moved on. I took a deep breath. I almost called him back but he had disappeared into the crowds. I felt bad as if I mislead him somehow, made him work and then denied him wages. I don’t have a set rule regarding who and when I give money. Sometimes it’s on a whim; other times because of the pathos involved, the panhandler has creative methods or makes me laugh. I try to smile and greet whoever asks for money and usually I get a smile back but it is not easy being poor; even harder if you have an addiction. One could counter that it is not my fault he needed a fix and not my fault he lives on the street but I question whether blame is where we should focus our queries. Maybe it is more about what we value. If I value smiles and conversation between strangers, perhaps that would be given more value by the person, however destitute, that I encounter. Just maybe, if the internal debate was not raging within me, I would have been more present, more able to join in a moment of true connection. Maybe, just maybe then, he too could have, at least momentarily, forgot about his needs and joined me in a human dance that holds more value than money could ever buy.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Black Bear came to a meeting late and said, “I’m feeling frazzled after dealing with my cubs. What if don’t feel compassionate?”

Raven said, “Fake it.”

“That doesn’t seem honest,” said Black Bear.

“It doesn’t begin with honesty,” said Raven.

From: Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Remembered Dance: Acts of Courage or Betrayal?

Was this a betrayal, or was it an act of courage? Perhaps both. Neither one involves forethought: such things take place in an instant, in an eyeblink. This can only be because they have been rehearsed by us already, over and over, in silence and darkness; in such silence, such darkness, that we are ignorant of them ourselves. Blind but sure-footed, we step forward as if into a remembered dance. The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood

This passage touched a tender spot. I didn’t want to admit that past acts of betrayal, however subtle or minor, had indeed been practiced or self-rehearsed. They seemed momentary decisions, like the courageous ones, that surprised even me as I found myself committing them. I sat with it, first digesting the easier one, that of spontaneous acts of courage.

In previous years, I often critiqued my ability to act fast when witnessing an accident or even a minor mishap with another: I wasn’t the first to grab the parcels dropped on the ground or the first to ask a stranger if they needed help when in distress. In reflection I put this down to a reluctance to put myself forward and, in effect, be seen. To be seen was not safe — it risked exposure, ridicule; humiliation. Safety involved being behind the scenes, going slow; avoiding visibility. The consequence to this supposed safety, however, was that my humanity suffered: I was no longer involved in life in a way that gave internal satisfaction or a feeling of being connected.

So, I started practicing, rehearsing in my mind, things I would do in case of mishap. It started quite innocently, just a desire to be a more compassionate person. I watched as elders got on the bus and imagined how I would help if they fell or dropped something. I observed others and, creating sometimes absurd stories, planned how I would assist. It worked. Through this rather active imagination, I am now quicker to move when adverse things happen. Not that I put myself in danger, but I am less concerned with what I look like and more with how I can show another, whoever they are, that they are important enough for a stranger to offer support.

This example is by no means the equivalent of saving children from burning houses but for those, like myself, who have not felt safe enough to risk being seen it is, however subtle, courageous. But what about betrayal? I thought about the times I betrayed another and, once again, I do not talk of betrayal on a grand scale. I speak of the little betrayals from thoughtless gossip, minimizing a friend’s hurts or assuming the worst about someone. Had I somehow rehearsed these actions?

The answer is, unfortunately, yes. Not that I planned how I would hurt someone but, in an indirect manner, have contributed to this way of being by falling into self pity or negative thinking. From melodramatic “nobody likes me” and “they hurt me” to “I’ll show them” is, in a way, rehearsal for larger actions. Is it not easier to withhold support for a friend, for example, when you feel nobody likes you? Is it not one short step to gossiping when you assume (but don’t ask) what the other really thinks? Dark thoughts and actions like these compulsively swirl inward and stop us from connecting to others and from manifesting our interdependence.

Blind but sure-footed, we step forward as if into a remembered dance. The remembered dance is the steps we take every moment of the day. Are these steps ones of courage? Or are they ones of betrayal that ultimately lead us to hurt ourselves and others?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Eve Ensler and Interdependence

I’m a big fan of Eve Ensler. I respect her work, her courage and her voice that encourages others to tell their story. I first saw her on Ted talks about two years ago when she spoke of the “girl cell” in all of us — men and women, boys and girls.

“Imagine that ‘girl’ is the part of each of us that feels compassion, empathy, passion, intensity, association, relationship, emotion, play, resistance, vulnerability, intuitive intelligence, vision.

Imagine that compassion informs wisdom. That vulnerability is our greatest strength. That emotions have inherent logic and lead to radical saving action.

… Now imagine that a few powerful people, invested in owning this world, understood that the oppression of this cell was key to retaining their power, so they reinterpreted this cell, undermining its value and making us believe that it is weak. They initiated a process to crush, eradicate, annihilate, humiliate, belittle, censor, reduce and kill off the girl cell.”

A few months ago, she appeared on video again. She talks about being diagnosed with cancer and finding her healing through love, community and coming into relationship with her body. Although she has always believed in our interrelatedness she now physically felt it: how cancer was not her private personal story but an international tale. One that resonates throughout the world where rampant, heedless growth, abusive power, hate and fear not only threatens us but hurts, demoralizes and kills us regardless of who we are and where we live.

This is a story about interdependence: caring for the world as we care for ourselves; caring for ourselves as we care for the world. Valuing our interrelatedness and thereby beginning the healing of our wounds. Knowing that when we hide or ignore injustices we only hurt ourselves and when we hide from ourselves, injustices occur.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I recall a discussion I once had with a client about choice. Choice, I said, is the only thing we really possess. Even when the power we hold over our daily life is minimal, we still have choice in how we respond to that powerlessness.

The discussion had begun over the topic of suicide, the ultimate choice that, paradoxically, reneges on itself once completed. And, viewed in that way, it cannot really be seen as a choice but an abstention of life. Choice engenders new choices; suicide cancels the vote.

On a smaller scale, we make parallel choices throughout the day. Every choice we make is a new pathway, a new fork in the road. The unchosen path dissolves, a metaphoric death, never to be seen in quite that way again. Sometimes we agonize over these choices, other times they are impulsive moments, forgotten seconds later. Regardless, we choose, and in that choice, we have power. Or we choose to abstain from decision making and we flow with known (or unknown) forces —a potential power in its own right.

Understanding the power of conscious choice is the basis for interdependent living. This fall I will teach three classes on the different manifestations of choice:

Codependence – the choice of living life in false hope

Boundaries – recognizing the choices that are ours to make (and those that our not)

Interdependence – the choice of responding (rather than reacting) to life

Check out the calendar of events on my website.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Creative Living: Being "Paid" to be Yourself

I’ve never been one for horoscopes, couldn’t quite see myself as the home spun nurturer, cooking-up-a-storm while caring for the world kind of “crab” I was typecast to be. So, when I received a 20 odd page birth chart compiled by Steven Forrest complete with the meanderings and influences of all the planets from a client several years ago, I didn’t pay much heed to it. I glanced through it but for whatever reason I put it aside not to pick up again till this year. And what a shock, it was like reading my autobiography. Spooky, really, with its high degree of accuracy.

One of things I most enjoyed in it was the quote: “With the Sun in the Tenth House, it’s as though Spirit has asked you to figure out a way to get paid for being yourself.” Nice. Maybe that is why I have been devoted to writing about interdependence and codependence — the latter to figure out the past and the former to chart a path for the future… all in the name of finding and being true to me.

Unfortunately, many of us “get paid” to be anyone but our self. And I don’t necessarily mean paid in money. We can get paid with approval, status, promotions and just plain acceptance. It is the nature of society, or at least much of society. It is also the basis for codependence. But with interdependence, our payoff comes from within. And that is the jewel worth fighting for.

I’ll be teaching a few classes on interdepence, codependence and the boundaries therein this fall with what I call the Creative Living Workshops. Look forward to seeing you there.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"To know one's limitations and then to act ..."

I like A.S. Byatt. I first fell in love with her writing when I read Possession: A Romance. Read a couple of short stories that resonated deeply and now I am begin The Virgin in the Garden trilogy. Here is her speaking through a charismatic priest recruiting for the church.

"Very few people, he said, knew what they were really capable of. Most were afraid to find out. And afraid that circumstances might nevertheless force them to know. Better —he spread his hand, flickering, straining fingers — better to walk out and face it, purposefully, for a good reason. It was hard for man to know he had only one life, could do only so much and no more. But such knowledge, like all knowledge, was really power. To know one’s limitations and then to act, and act again, was power, and engendered more power. A man must use his life, must think how to use it." (The Virgin in the Garden, p.54)

Priest or no priest, words to live by.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Happy Elsewheres

With summer here, I’ve been getting out into the local hills more often. A few years ago I was on the trails fall, winter, spring and summer; rain, snow, sleet and wind, but for one reason or another I slowed down. I became, of all horrors, a fair weather kind of hiker. Regardless, I am back glorying in the dirt between my sandaled toes, bear spray nestled in my fanny pack and compass reassuring me I am going the right way.

I hike best alone. A friend named it for me the other day, she said it was how I manifested my spirituality. I was telling her how I am most alive in the wood and, while at times a bit lost (I am, sad to say, directionally challenged), it is where I also feel the safest. I revel in the giant firs and towering cedars; the Cornus Canadensis and the damp loving salmon berries. I walk into my church usually full of soul wrenching circular thoughts and come out refreshed; assured that life is indeed meant to be lived: enjoyed to its fullest and met with eyes wide open. I have cried, laughed, shouted and, at least a few times in my healing process, thrown rocks and bashed fallen branches against stony outbreaks to release inner tension. I’ve had many a conversation with my long dead mother and a few never-to-be-heard ones with friends that I needed to falsely denigrate before coming to the truth behind the matter — my role in the offending issue. I’ve had shamanic experiences, moments of grace, confirmation of my interrelatedness and a sense of spirit in all I encounter. I come out of the woods with batteries recharged and the knowledge that I can, indeed, follow my inner promptings: pay heed to the leadership that emanates from my core.

So, in other words, I haven’t been writing as much as my focus has been elsewhere —a truly rewarding “elsewhere” but elsewhere just the same. Hopefully to get back to a more regular writing practice… soon.

Happy hiking or doing whatever you enjoy the most.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Compassion Farms

I’ve mentioned Compassion Farms (run by Dirk Becker and Nicole Shaw) in a previous article. As I write this their organic farm is pending closure due to an inappropriate use of the local by-laws. The Lantzville council and certain members of the press are blatantly ignoring the facts and opinions of a large number of Vancouver Islanders who support their right to grow food on their lot. Read this article or watch the video to find out more.

I leave the last word to Nicole:

In summary, it is very important how we as a community, as a society and as a culture frame this issue. This is not simply an issue of a bylaw. This issue is a matter of sustainability in general, food sustainability, food security and basic human rights. Furthermore, this issue also addresses and delves into our societal values. It begs the question, at this point in time, with what we now know, what do we value more: unbridled development (further destroying farmland, our food system and our ability to feed ourselves by building yet more golf courses and shopping malls on farmland) or do we value our health, that of our children’s and the health of our environment – our earth which we depend on for our health and our survival. The future is for us to decide. Let us decide now.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Small Acts of Kindness

On June 29, I asked the following:

What small act of kindness is considered heroic in the community in which you live? Is it an accurate measure of our society?

I’ve been pondering these questions for the last two weeks and, in trying to answer, silently recorded “small” acts of kindness directed towards me.

There was my sister who remembered my long ago request for a certain birthday gift and my father who was able to stop expressing undo concern and say: whatever you do is fine by me. There was a friend who didn’t put pressure on me to visit even though she really wanted me to and another who understood my need for solitude. And, although the list continues in countless acts, I will conclude with the woman sitting beside me on the bus who stopped me from falling as I stood to leave.

These were definite acts of kindness but were they heroic?

Anne Michaels wrote that turning a blind eye to a man running (escaping) across a field was a heroic act in Nazi Germany. The witness (and the running man) could have been imprisoned if not executed for that small act of kindness.

On June 30, “vog” wrote that active, thoughtful listening (an act of kindness) was heroic.

Vog continued:
…To not let one's ego react, and to instead hold it back and let our compassion blossom, to block our own fears and denials ... to support another, yes, to me that is difficult to do, takes courage, and is self-sacrificing.

Anne Michaels’ example of kindness/heroism was in the face of physical deprivation, imprisonment and/or annihilation. Vog’s heroism is in the face of dismantling one’s ego. Both can result in death, although the latter is symbolic — letting go of a part of ourselves so to fully live; the breaking down of egoic defences (a form of death) so to live in compassion and conscious awareness.

When my father let go his worries and gave me his blessings he was, in a manner of speaking, sacrificing a way of life. He has always fretted about things but with age and, I am guessing, thoughts of his own mortality, his worries sometimes take on a life of their own. Perhaps his worrying gives him comfort or some illusionary form of control. Or maybe this way of being — retreating behind a wall of concern — is just so familiar for him that it is comfortable and a “safe” place to be. To let go of that behavior contains a certain loss and has the potential to feel like death.

By letting go, however, it allowed my father to let his love for me lead rather than the easier route of following his defences against life. His gift to me further opened my heart and we are closer because of it. In a symbolic way, he terminated a part of himself so to bring himself closer into relationship with me and, ultimately, himself. His act was heroic in that it was (and, I admit, I make assumptions) unexplored territory, fear provoking and unbalancing.

But is this determination of heroism an accurate measure of society?
Because I consider this almost simple act of my father’s heroic, does that mean I live in a self serving society, devoid of compassion and meaningful relationships? I don’t think so. Sure there are selfish and superficial people in my community but they are not special in this regard: we can all manifest these character traits on any given day. It is part of being human — we carry within us the light and the dark and all shades in between. Every moment contains a choice on how we are going to respond to life and what aspect of our inner being will be on display.

Acts of kindness, therefore, are only an accurate measure of the person giving it at that particular moment. It is not a generalized statement of who they are, nor a comment about society. It is also, interestingly, a measure of the person receiving… many such acts are ignored or met with disdain. To receive is as precious as to give.

Every time we act with kindness, heroic or not, we open up to the part of ourselves that is compassionate and that dares to live in authentic relationship with others. It is the ongoing human drama this choice we make and it is a heroic act when we make those decisions with an open heart.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Asbestos (oh, forgive me) Chrysotile Revisited

I wrote to several Canadian MPs regarding my concerns about exporting asbestos. (See Political Complicity). Recently I received a letter back from John Weston, Conservative MP for my district. He wrote:

Chrysotile, the only “asbestos” fibre produced in and exported from Canada, belong to the serpentine class. Serpentine minerals are structurally and chemically different from the amphiboles. Chrysotile is the only “asbestos” fibre that does not belong to the amphibole group. The risk posed by using chrysotile fibres can be managed if adequate controls, such as those established in Canada, are implemented and completely observed.

For over 30 years, the Government of Canada has promoted the safe and controlled use of chrysotile, both domestically and internationally. Scientific reviews show that chrysotile fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions.
Excellent, good to hear. So why then the resistance to the Rotterdam Convention? As stated in the Globe and Mail, all it is asking asbestos exporting countries to do is to “warn recipient countries of any health hazards”.

It is also interesting to note that on the Health Canada website it states:
It is generally accepted that chrysotile asbestos is less potent and does less damage to the lungs than the amphiboles.
What it doesn’t state is what exactly does “less potent” and “less damage” mean. It is kind of like saying “light” cigarettes are less damaging to the lungs.

Well, I shall write Mr. Weston back with my concerns. Will let you know what he says.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

An Accurate Measure of Society Continues ...

On June 15, I wrote a blog called: An Accurate Measure of Society. Two weeks later it has engendered some interesting commentary. I’ve reprinted the comments below and invite the discussion to continue.

June 15 entry: An Accurate Measure of Society.

It’s as accurate a measure as any of a society: what is the smallest act of kindness that is considered heroic?” Anne Michaels

Anne Michaels asks this in Fugitive Pieces, an incredibly poetic book of a young Jewish boy who, saved from certain death in WWII Poland, finds sanctuary in Greece and then Toronto. It’s a tale of loss, grief and self forgiveness. It is absolutely beautiful.

In writing about complicity and morality in the war years, Michaels writes:
"In those days, to be moral required no more than the slightest flicker of movement —a micrometer —of eyes looking away or blinking, while a running man crossed a field. And those who gave water or bread! They entered a realm higher than the angels’ simply by remaining in the human mire.”
So I ask, what small act of kindness is considered heroic in the community in which you live? Is it an accurate measure of our society?

June 25 “vog” answers the question with: At times, to me, a small act of kindness is simply to listen with compassion ... to not judge, just listen to one who so desperately needs to express herself ... to not react or respond unless asked to ... the simple support of thoughtful listening, and allowing a fellow human to express their anger, frustration, loss in a non-judgmental environment. Expression can be very healing, and a necessary need.

Jo-Ann responds: Hi vog. I appreciate your "small" act of kindness, it is truly a beautiful thing and not small at all. But, is it heroic? And if it is, what does that say about our society?

Vog responds: To answer your question, Jo-Ann ... Yes, I do think that this small act of kindness in active, thoughtful listening is heroic. To support my answer, let's look at the meaning of heroic = actions marked by courage or doing; supremely noble or self-sacrificing (from Merrian Webster dictionary). To not let one's ego react, and to instead hold it back and let our compassion blossom, to block our own fears and denials ... to support another, yes, to me that is difficult to do, takes courage, and is self-sacrificing. It is wonderful that in this society we have so much freedom and abundance, and yet I think that it also comes with a price ... too many narcissistic personalities who cannot see beyond themselves and their own ego.

Jo-Ann responds: Okay, that makes sense, listening with compassionate can be a heroic act. It takes courage to step beyond one’s reactive parts (aspects of who we are) and respond to another from the heart. But what does that say about our society if letting “our compassion blossom” is considered heroic? Anne Michaels wrote that turning a blind eye towards a Jewish man running across a field in Nazi Germany was heroic. That speaks volumes to the state of which wartime Germany was governed: certain lives were considered worthless and kindness was not so much measured in giving but in not seeing.

If thoughtful and active listening is labeled heroic what does that say about our society?

And, on a side note, is active listening really self-sacrificing or is it more about enhancing or building a stronger sense of Self? If we have a strong sense of who we are, do not our fears, defences and denials lessen their hold on us? With a strong sense of Self I feel our ability to listen deepens and we come more readily from the heart… quite self-enriching, in fact. But maybe, then, it is the definition of heroism that should be changed. Real heroic behaviour enriches all those involved, including the giver.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Political Complicity

I started this series on complicity after reading Nicole Shaw’s, (publisher of Synergy Magazine) article on bullying. Her organic farm is being (or the attempt is being made to) shut it down because of a by-law stating that their residentially zoned area cannot be used for agriculture purposes. The instigator, or original complainant, is a neighbor who, according to Shaw “has deliberately and systematically employed acts of intimidation and bullying.” Moreover, the local council has become complicit in the bullying by continuing to bias towards the neighbour’s viewpoint even though Shaw has received “hundreds of letters” of support with people coming to speak in their favour at community and council meetings. I encourage you to read her article for a more articulate account of what is happening.

During these past few weeks I’ve written about other forms of complicity: the Butterfly in the Jar story and my stint as a telephone solicitor. These are minor compared to what Nicole and her partner, Dirk, are experiencing but, located along the continuum of relatively benign to actively harmful, they are complicit just the same. The Canuck riot is at the other end of the spectrum where, I feel, the bystander’s complicity increased the acts of violence.

Today, I read of another act of complicity, that by the Canadian government. According to the Globe and Mail, “Canada,” acting alone on the UN stage, “has single-handedly blocked listing chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous chemical.”

The article goes on to say:

Listing asbestos on Annex III of the [Rotterdam] convention would force exporters such as Canada to warn recipient countries of any health hazards. Those countries could also then refuse asbestos imports if they didn't think they could handle the product safely.

Asbestos use is so tightly controlled in Canada that it is effectively banned. The federal government is spending tens of millions of dollars to remove asbestos from public buildings, including on Parliament Hill and from the prime minister's residence.
Canada’s asbestos industry is worth 90 million dollar and is mostly used in the production of cement. However, a G&M editorial stated: “most developed economies have forsaken it for other materials…. But it is a cheap enough alternative that growing Asian countries are a growing market for the product. An Asian medical journal recently reported that it expects a ‘surge of asbestos-related diseases in the immediate decades ahead’ as a result.”

Knowing the dangers of asbestos — to the extent that our government severely curtails its local use — makes the Canadian government complicit in damaging health legacies brought on by its use in the importing countries. And, the bottom line is that all the Rotterdam Convention is asking Canada to do is warn the potential buyer of its hazards. Isn’t that why we put such graphic images on tobacco products? Is not the federal government trying to limit its liability (reduce its complicity) while it benefits from tax monies from the sale of known carcinogenic products?

Moreover, exporting asbestos borders on a subtle form of economic bullying.

Bullying, according to Barbara Coloroso, is rooted in contempt. The person who is bullied “has been deemed by the bully and his or her accomplices to be worthless, inferior and undeserving of respect.” When we sell a hazardous product to another country with less stringent health regulations we are counting on their economic desperation to outweigh health considerations. It becomes an amoral transaction where money is prioritized over people’s health and welfare. Money is given more respect than human beings; industrial development over health concerns. We end up vicariously disrespecting the importing country’s citizens because their own government is doing so. We are both the bully and the complicit accomplice.

The ironic thing about bullying is when we hold another in contempt, we not only devalue them but ourselves.

Let us not be complicit in our government’s wrong doing. Write your local MP, Prime Minister Harper and the Industry Minister Christian Paradis.

Bullying, as well as the complicity of passively watching it happen, is the opposite to living an interdependent life of respect, mutuality and self leadership.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Spectator Sports

“Complicity is not sudden, though it occurs in an instant.” Barbara Coloroso

Now I must add my two-bits in on the Canuck riots. I am not the first to ask but I question the value of those who stood idly by while fires were set; stores were looted. No, my mistake, there was no idleness here: myriad of photos and videos were taken by those spectators during the evening hours of June 15. And yes, while those photos have proved invaluable in identifying the perpetrators, if the social media had not been there, would there have been as much violence? In other words, how much fuel did the picture taking milieu add to the mix? In standing by with cell phones held up high to capture the drama, were they not as complicit as those that verbally or physically encouraged the acts of violence?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Accurate Measure of Society

“It’s as accurate a measure as any of a society: what is the smallest act of kindness that is considered heroic?” Anne Michaels

Anne Michaels asks this in Fugitive Pieces, an incredibly poetic book of a young Jewish boy who, saved from certain death in WWII Poland, finds sanctuary in Greece and then Toronto. It’s a tale of loss, grief and self forgiveness. It is absolutely beautiful.

In writing about complicity and morality in the war years, Michaels writes:

"In those days, to be moral required no more than the slightest flicker of movement —a micrometer —of eyes looking away or blinking, while a running man crossed a field. And those who gave water or bread! They entered a realm higher than the angels’ simply by remaining in the human mire.”

So I ask, what small act of kindness is considered heroic in the community in which you live? Is it an accurate measure of our society?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Complicity, Part Two

Inspired by Nicole Shaw’s recent article on bullying, I’ve been reading Barbara Coloroso’s book: The Bully, the bullied, and the bystander. What interests me most is the information on the latter. The bystander can be either an active witness, one who does something proactive against the bullying; or one who is complicit in the act (the passive bystander) by not doing anything to stop it. Although one could argue that they have never bullied or been bullied, I would state that all of us have, at least once in our lives, been a passive bystander as such. The reasons are varied and numerous from being fearful of our own safety; feeling the person getting bullied deserves the attack; or maybe deciding it just isn’t worth our time and energy. Maybe we were running for a bus when we saw it happen, or were late in picking up our child at school… regardless of why we do nothing, bystander complicity has, as Coloroso writes, its own consequences:

“Standing idly by or turning away have their own costs. Injustice overlooked or ignored becomes a contagion that infects even those who thought they could turn away. The self-confidence and self-respect of the bystanders are eroded as they wrestle with their fears about getting involved and with the knowledge that do to nothing is to abdicate their moral responsibility to their peer who is the target.”

To be complicit in bullying then can be as corrosive as being bullied. Notwithstanding the devastating consequences what I want to look at is the delicate line we daily draw for ourselves separating our status of active witness to passive bystander. When is minding one’s own business the correct path and when it is harmful to another (or to ourselves)? When is stepping in being a rescuer and when it is stopping an abusive (or potentially abusive) situation. How do we decide when something (or someone) is worthy of our notice and/or actions? Is our judgment based on ability or scope? Is a bullied country to big a scope and beyond our abilities to assist?

I asked a somewhat similar question at the end of my Butterfly in a Jar blog. There I was, disgusted at what I thought was a symbolic representation of garnering joy at another’s entrapment and yet I did not complain to the store management. Was I complicit in perpetuating the false myth of (hu)man’s dominion over all creatures? Of the grand denial that interconnectness is, indeed, a truism and that all beings (perhaps even representation of) deserve respect?

Here’s another example: I once worked reception for a hearing aid company. Little did I know when I got the job that part of my work would include telephone sales. In my desire to do a good job, I decided to give it a try. Management gave me a call list that I assumed, in utter naivety, were people who had voluntarily submitted their names. I assumed wrong. After calling several hundred people, extolling the virtues of hearing aids, I finally came across an irate “customer” who demanded to know why I was calling. He was the on “National no call list”, my company could be fined, it was an invasion of privacy, and much, much more. I immediately stopped calling people and approached my boss. Oh, don’t worry, he said, a $10,000 fine is a legitimate business expense. Keep calling.

And now I had a choice: keep calling and abusing people’s right to no sales calls or obey my own sense of ethics, cease calling and risk losing my job. Not knowing what to do, I called a few more people and feeling increasingly uncomfortable, decided for the higher road. Thankfully the boss was as concerned about that as he was with the fine. But it is not always this way. Question: If I had continued calling would have I been complicit in my boss’ disregard of people’s rights? Is there such thing as acceptable complicity?

The line of complicity is prone to variables such as job security, physical safety, and ostracism. How far along that line is making telephone sales (to people who are on a “no call” list) to working as a concentration camp guard because “I needed to survive” or “they told me to do it”. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to devalue the horror of prison camps. There is no comparing the two. What I am saying is that the slope is slippery and we must strive to be conscious of it at all times in regards to our actions, our motives behind our actions and the consequences to our self and others.

Anne Michaels, author of Fugitive Pieces, states: “Complicity is not sudden, though it occurs in an instant.” How aware are we in the non-suddenness of it?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Interdependence

I am reading Barbara Coloroso’s The Bully, the Bully, and the Bystander and found this quote by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

In one way or another, as a supporter, as a perpetrator, as a victim, or one who opposed the ghastly system, something happened to our humanity. All of us South Africans were less whole. … Those who were privileged lost out as they become more uncaring, less compassionate, less humane, and therefore less human. … Our humanity is caught up in that of all others. We are human because we belong. We are made for community, for togetherness, for family, to exits in a delicate network of interdependence. … We are sisters and brothers of one another whether we like it or not, and each one of us is a precious individual.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness

Monday, June 6, 2011

Butterfly in a Jar

I was at a garden store, standing at the cash and silently mourning the dearth of celebrity mags, when I spotted something that otherwise filled that need for minor titillation. Perhaps it was because my mind was distracted or perhaps I am just plain gullible, but I saw what I thought was a live butterfly caught in a sealed jar. The entrapped insect was on display in front of the cash with a sign that said: “tap the jar and watch it move”. A puerile yet horrifying desire bubbled within me to do what the sign demanded yet another part of me cried, “It’s a live butterfly; this is cruel … don’t do it”. I looked around, guilt making sure no one was watching and, ignoring my more noble side, tapped the glass. It moved. In fact, it fluttered madly about tearing at my heart. And even then, when I knew beyond doubt that the butterfly wasn’t real, my logical side refused to take charge. I felt complicit to some dastardly deed — a psychopath in the making, creating joy out of another’s pain.

The person in front of me paid her bill and I moved forward. I shamefully looked at the cashier. “What is this?” I asked, pointing at the display. She nodded sheepishly. “I don’t think I agree with this,” I said. Gazing anywhere but at me, she nodded again, vocal chords backed up against the scriptures of her job. I bought my soil and left.

Still in some doubt as to what I saw, I googled “Butterfly in a Jar” when I got home.

Butterfly in a jar - you can't fly so far.
When we were kids, we liked putting butterflies in jars so we could keep them forever and ever. But sometimes they always died. It was sad - extra sad because butterflies (in our opinion) are like rainbows and unicorns: unadulterated creations of magic and beauty.

But “sometimes” they died? And it was “extra sad” because butterflies are like “rainbows and unicorns”. What?? So, it would have been okay then to have a cockroach or an ant in the jar. Perhaps even a caterpillar, because you can’t really compare them to a rainbow. Is beauty the only thing that has value?

Now don’t get me wrong, I did my share of cruelty as a child. Without proper guidance I gave no thought that insects or other crawlers such as crabs had reason to be except for my pleasure. I am not proud of these deeds I did in the name of childish enjoyment but I also see them as a mark of an immature mind: one that we grow out of. And is loss, the death of another, okay in the pursuit of it?

I know this “butterfly” is fake. I also know now that it is attached to some miniscule wire that reacts electronically to vibration. What gives me the creeps is that it symbolizes enjoyment through entrapment; imprisonment and fear. We are supposed to teach our children not to hurt others, to see all of life as interconnected and yet here we provide them with a struggling, albeit fake, butterfly suggesting that man, indeed, has domain over all living things. Rubbish!

The advertisement goes on to say: There is absolutely no way you can look at a Electronic Butterfly in a Jar and not smile. It is like having a piece of magic nature on your desk that defies death. Pick your favorite butterfly flavor (or collect the whole team) and get ready to feel good when you marvel at your Electronic Butterfly in a Jar.

Well, it didn’t make me smile. There is nothing interdependent (or beautiful) about this “Butterfly in a Jar”: no respect, mutuality nor ethical leadership from the store owners or the original manufacturer. And then there is me… how complicit am I when not only do I not speak up to management but that I tap the jar? More on that in my next article.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Half the Sky

Last winter I read a book called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by husband and wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Below is a review I wrote up for my Creative Codependence Blog. My apologies to those of you who read it there but I do feel it is an important enough book to repeat the entry.

I was reminded of this book with this blog’s previous entry on The Interdependence of Choice. In their book, Kristoff and WuDunn relate a story of how girls from rural African villages tend to miss school during menstruation due to lack of adequate protection. FemCare, a division of Proctor and Gamble (makers of Tampax and Always) heard of this and, in their desire to promote education for girls, started a distribution project involving free sanitary pads. The project immediately encountered some problems: “First, the girls needed a place to change their pads and clean up, but many schools lacked toilets. So FemCare began building toilets —with running water —at the schools, and that added hugely to the costs. Then the project encountered cultural taboos about blood, such as resistance to disposing of used pads in the garbage. FemCare had to make special provision for the disposal of pads, in some places even distributing incinerators. (p. 172)”

I tell this story not to conclude that rural African girls should not be given education due to the high costs of providing sanitary pads. Instead, I see it more as an allegory for the relativity and privilege of choice. In North America, the vast majority of menstruating women can choose between tampons and sanitary pads (organic or not), menstrual cups or taking contraceptives in such a way that the period is eliminated altogether. Often, and I include myself here, we choose the most convenient method rather than the environmentally sound one. In these small African villages, the girl’s choice is simple and rather bleak: go to school and risk embarrassing leakage or stay at home. My question to myself then is why, when I have so many opportunities to do the right thing, do I often choose to negate my responsibilities?

In lieu of answering that question, at least for now, I continue with the book review:

Kristoff and WuDunn travel the world investigating the lives of young girls and women in regions where being female is often a liability. They explore sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender based violence and maternal mortality which, they say, “still needlessly claims one woman a minute.” They relate first hand stories from the young women they meet: community leaders and entrepreneurs who have risen from horrific abuse and neglect; and, sadly, second hand stories from those that didn’t survive. But, best of all, they offer possible solutions that may not be perfect but give a glimpse of what works, what doesn’t, and what we can do as individuals to reduce the oppression. And while I don’t agree with all their ideas, I believe they strive for interdependence, specifically regarding social awareness and responsibility.

For example, in looking at what does and doesn’t work in terms of charitable deeds, the biggest thing to note is that no matter how good one’s intentions are, one has to be in awareness of the local situation. Sending money is fine but where and who does it go? Building a school is great but are there better ways to provide or encourage education? Stating that genital mutilation is harmful may be true but do you have local support to help change the inherent beliefs behind the ritual?

As to who to send money to, Kristof and WuDunn suggest donating to microfinancing projects that target women. They write: “some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes, but also by unwise spending —by men…Several studies suggest that when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification [alcohol, prostitution and tobacco] and more for education and staring small businesses (p.192).” These microfinancing groups are peer monitored with local women supporting each other while also guaranteeing each other’s loans.

The authors have many supportive things to say about education but emphasize that solutions do not have to be grandiose. “One of the most cost-effective ways to increase school attendance,” they say, “is to deworm students which affects children’s physical and intellectual growth. ... Increasing school attendance by building schools ends up costing about $100 per year for every addition student enrolled. Boosting attendance by deworming children costs $4 per year per additional student enrolled (p. 171).” Health programs such as deworming, iodine supplements and free lunches help, of course, all children but they specifically give girls a needed boost because in many families girls are the last to receive medical attention. Some regions have even resorted to paying families small stipends to keep their children in school—even bonuses in the form of food if the child is a girl. This is great incentive as girls tend to be the first pulled from school whether due to finances or early marriage.

Regarding the imposition of beliefs onto others, Kristof and WuDonn tell a story about genital cutting that underlines this problem. Molly is an American woman who moved to Senegal, married a Senegalese man and works with local education projects. When their daughter approached puberty she told her mom, “I want to be cut, I promise I wont cry (p. 225).” Although born of parents who disproved the procedure, the child was succumbing to peer pressure —she didn’t want to be left out. Cutting was an important coming of age right affecting, among other things, marital chances. The daughter changed her mind when she was fully informed of the process but it was made clear to her mother that attitudes cannot be easily changed from without, change must come from within.

The authors continually espouse education as the way to improve children’s health, decrease family size and increase societal justice but they are huge proponents to being flexible in the search for solutions. For example, they cite a study finding “that after cable television arrived in a [rural Indian] village, women gained more autonomy —such as the ability to leave the house without permission and the right to participate in household decisions. There was a drop in the number of births… wife beating became less acceptable, and families were more likely to send daughters to schools (p. 245).” Some of the more popular shows, ironically, were not educational in the traditional sense, they were soap operas set in middle class Indian families where women held jobs and had more freedom. These shows modeled a different and more attractive lifestyle that ultimately helped changed societal mores.

Once again, I encourage you to read the book. It contains fascinating and inspirational stories from women from all over the world who are working locally to help themselves and their communities thrive. For more information on how to get involved go to