Tuesday, December 04, 2007
For someone who loves challenges, being in an MA program is like being at a carnival. My inbox fills up with emails about conferences, job opportunities, research grants. Professors and fellow students compare the challenges we taken on, how full we've filled our plates.
If I'm shown new opportunities - esp. if they're difficult or competitive - I can't help jumping at them. I don't even stop to think if they are what I really want, or how they fit in to my already busy life.
So the thesis option is more time-consuming and difficult? Let me at it. A conference? I want to present. Ooh, and at that one too... and at that one. A research grant? Please, pretty please. An employment contract - ooh, that too! And I don't just want to do it, I want to do all of it and get an A+.
But these balloons are lead and I've finally realized I'm sinking.
I might not be able (or willing) to drop them all now, but at least I can assess what I'm holding, and why. Maybe see how tightly I really need to hang on to everything, and if it's okay if they slip a little.
So this today, instead of sitting at my computer for my usual 8-10 hours, I went outside and built a snowgirl. You might not be able to tell, but she has dried flowers on her head. If you could see what my life's been like for the last two weeks, you'd know what an accomplishment she is for me.
And you'll notice there's not a balloon in sight.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
I haven't blogged in a quite a long time... It was a busy summer with travel, weddings, etc. And I wouldn't even know where to begin now in writing about all that. So I will write of something completely unrelated: Harry Potter. Or, more accurately, why I am a hypocrite.
The first Potter book came out in 1997 - but I don't think it was till the 4th (2000) that it became huge with adults as well as children. Now I tend to be a snob about all things popular. If there is a television show (Survivor, Desperate Housewives) everyone talks about, I won't watch it. I'm unlikely to go to blockbuster movies, or buy the latest charting-topping album.
Perhaps I have been disappointed too often by what the majority adores (i.e. I don’t think violence is entertaining). And even while I am pro-democracy, I tend to disagree with political choice of the electoral majority. Or perhaps I am just a plain, old snob. Or a hypocite.
This brings me back to Potter. I didn't understand why adults were going gaga over a kids’ book. I picked up a copy a few times. On first time I opened the book at random and found a misplaced modifier - something like 'while running down the stairs, Harry's glasses fell off'. Now I love misplaced modifiers for their unintended hilarity (a favourite of mine is from the Globe and Mail describing the dangers of post-earthquake
I clung to my self-congratulatory position for years. When the latest book came out I puzzled at all the adults I saw around town with noses buried in the book. I marveled at the hype of the books, movies, merchandise, etc. I maintained I was above it all.
Then came the summer of 2007. We had a lot of driving to do in August – 24-hour round trip to
I grew accustomed to Jim Dale's smooth voice, his talent for giving characters unique voices... There was also something very passive about sitting and listening to Potter. I wasn't reading the books. They were being read to me.
Back home, after all the craziness of August, I found myself turning to Jim Dale and his Potter narration. I would sit and knit while Mr. Dale read me Book 4, then Book 5... At some point a friend lent us the actual books 4-7 and eventually I realized it was much faster to read them myself than to listen to Mr. Dale. A new bedtime ritual was born...
And so, for the sake of honesty and humble pie, I must admit that the once adamant Potter-rejecter has read and listened to 6 books since August. And I am half way through the 7th. Perhaps you won't believe me when I say I am still not convinced of their greatness. The author misuses words in strange ways and creates one-dimensional characters. There are stretches of each book which bore me greatly and the endings are rather trite... And yet, I can't deny, despite the mountain of books awaiting my attention, that I will have finished the entire heptology in less than 4 months.
Saturday, August 04, 2007
First, some background. I took a summer-session course in June and July which looked at research ethics in a Canadian post-colonial context. The professor grew up in Nunavut and brought an Indigenous perspective to the course material. We examined the 'isms' - racism, sexism, regionalism, etc.... We criticized structures of dominance... Basically, the class opinion seemed to be that everything the white, male, Christian says is wrong. Yes, I exaggerate, but not by much.
In Amsterdam I found myself at a conference filled with white, male Christians. A paper which I had written in the context of my Conflict Studies program did not quite toe the party line here.
This conference is pinned on the work of French philosopher René Girard. After 'coming out' as a Christian in his later years, his work has attracted a large number of Christian academics who appreciate his interpretations of the Bible and other literary texts.
My paper was a Girardian analysis of the Legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. Girard understands violence as a destructive imitation (you hit me, I'll hit you back) and an infection which can spread within communities. His theory offered an interesting perspective into the long-term effects of the violence children experienced in Residential Schools.
Along with violence such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse I included the removal of children from their families and communities, and forced conversion to Christianity.
Thus, the point of controversy. After my presentation a man said something to the effect of 'we may not have done it well but at least we brought them Christianity. Are you saying we should all go back to being pagans?'
The moderator said I was controversial because I suggested that healing within Indigenous communities is being done as people return to their traditional identities and reject the inferior identity imposed on them through colonialization. In other words, it is not being done through the 'saving grace' of Christianity.
I don't consider myself someone who likes to swim against the tide, but I enjoy being around people who differ from me. I learn more that way. I am also challenged to reassess what I think. I didn't take back anything I had written in that paper or had said during my presentation. But presenting it in a context which differed greatly from the one in which it was written challenged me to reassess it.
I took into consideration the views of an Anglican minister who rose to say that lawsuits from survivors of Residential Schools is crippling his church, and the evangelical Christians who sincerely believe that spreading the gospel is a great gift to others. I weighed my responses carefully.
When I ran into the session moderator after my presentation she told me she thought I was "courageous." I got the feeling she really meant stubborn and wrong.
The conference gave me an award for the paper, so they couldn't have all thought it was bad. Either way, it was a great experience to present. If I am going to be critical of the way a certain group acts, I should be prepared to listen to their point of view. I like to think of it as studying the shades of gray.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
On July 2 I flew from Ottawa to Philadelphia, sat in that airport for 8+ hours, then flew the red eye to Brussels. With a small child kicking my seat, I got very little sleep and arrived rather dazed and groggy. Took the train straight to Amsterdam and arrived there even more dazed and groggy. It was around 2 p.m. - far too early to go to bed - so after depositing my backpack at a youth hostel I roamed the streets.
The centre of Amsterdam is a maze of canals and small streets - confusing at the best of time and more so when I was too tired to properly read a map. I kept heading the wrong way, turning around, twisting upon myself.
I had another chance to visit the city after the conference and was just beginning to get my bearings when it was time to leave. What I loved most was all the bicycles - vintage, uprights that were everywhere. Streets have several lanes - one in each direction for bikes (photo is of one of the signs designating bike lane), one for trams and others for traffic.
Of course the red light district is partly what makes this city so famous. My last night in Amsterdam I was in a youth hostel right in the heart of this - but I had chosen it because it was one of the few that has a 2 a.m. curfew. Most hostels advertise with 'No lockout! No curfew!' which isn't great if you want some sleep. The streets were full of young male tourists who strutted by the windows where prostitutes in glowing bikinis put on a half-hearted shows. There were also rasta youth with glazed eyes, drifting between coffee shops and hanging out in the cobblestone plazas.
For the most part I was alone in my wanderings, but Amsterdam is a great place to people watch. I liked the accepting, non-judgmental attitude. Those which are considered vices in most cities are placed in the open - and become much more humane.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
It has been two weeks since I last visited Mr. Ditchfield, a senior I have been visiting almost every Sunday for over 5 years. I went this afternoon, ready with apologies, hopeful that I may be able to convince him to allow me to take him outside so he could see the roses and day lilies.
"Where are you going?" Theresa asked when she saw me in the hall. I know her from the Saturdays at Bingo and as a friend of Mr. Ditchfield.
"To see Mr. Ditchfield."
I can't say the news came as a total surprise. He was 96-years old and his health wasn't good. For the last few months he has had difficulty eating, has fallen a few times and was in considerable pain.
"We didn't have your phone number. I was thinking about you and wanted to let you know... Come with me, I'll show you the paper for his funeral."
I walked with Theresa down the familiar hall to the nurses' station. The head nurse was glad to see me. "I've been thinking about you," she said. "We didn't know your name or how to contact you. I've seen you here every week, but I never got your name."
Theresa showed me the obituary pinned on the bulletin board. She fought back tears as she recalled what a good friend he was to her.
It seems he died a few hours after I last saw him. Theresa had also visited him in his room that day and was building a puzzle in the common area when someone came to tell her he had passed away. Quietly. Alone.
In the picture I've posted here he is standing beside a hook rug he made. Ever since I first met him, he has almost always been working on one of these, or taking a break with a jigsaw puzzle. He made a beautiful, large Canadian flag that hangs in the cafeteria on the main floor. All his friends have at least one colourful square.
In the last year he has had more difficulty following patterns and often during my visits I would help him by re-doing sections, filling missed stitches or outlining an area. Time passed quickly as I worked on his rugs or helped him build the difficult part of a puzzle. He would watch me work and tell stories of the days when a riding the streetcar cost a nickel and horses pulled sleighs and carriages down Bank Street.
Theresa has offered that I go with her to the funeral in the car that is being sent for her. The head nurse gave me a hug and told me that Mr. Ditchfield talked often of me and cared for me. I choked on some tears and left with the obituary in my hand. It really shouldn't be surprising. Perhaps I shouldn't even grieve. But Ann passed away in February and now he is gone too. It's a quiet sort of sadness... a passing, a loss of a loved friend.
Friday, June 22, 2007
The TRC is part of the negotiated settlement between government, churches and Indigenous peoples in response to the recognized human rights violations of the Residential School system. I'm taking a spring course right now which is looking at post-colonial, Indigenous issues in Canada - so this discussion is really relevant to what we have been studying. In other course work, and in preparation for my thesis, I have been researching TRCs in Africa and reading a lot about healing and reconciliation. Sometimes reading can seen sterile - removed from experience. So it was exciting last night to watch and listen to how a Commission could be set up in Canada - what are the expectations, the limitations, the hopes and the fears. It seems corny to say, but it was one of those times when I was aware of being part of history.
I also felt like I got a little taste of what a TRC could look like. Two speakers talked about their experience in the Residential School system. Violet Ford, an Inuit lawyer and Residential School survivor spoke through tears about the feelings of anger, loss and frustration that she and her community is working through. "I see the TRC as such huge hope for our people, for our nieces and nephews and those who come after us," she said. She added that she hoped it would not only help heal her community, but also allow the Canadian public to understand "what we've been suffering from." When she talked about the need for Canadians to attend the TRC and "hold out their hands" to survivors, I could see my place in all this.
I am also excited to be finding opportunities to use my role as an academic and researcher. I met someone who recently finished a conflict resolution master's at University of Victoria. She is doing research for this TRC process in order to provide Commissioners (who will be selected in September) with background on TRC process as well as the input received from these forums. I talked to her about the possibility of doing some of my course research on the TRC project and she welcomed the idea. I know that I tend to bite off far more than I can chew when it comes to research papers, but often doing coursework just for the grade seems inefficient to me. If I'm going to be putting in all this time, why not make it count?
That is a huge part of what it means for me to be an academic. How do I make it count? How can I contribute to social justice? Last night I saw an opportunity.
Friday, June 08, 2007
I found this fabulous patter at the Red Cross this week. I brought it home to show V what I could knit for him and his greyhound (should he ever get said greyhound).
Wouldn't they make a stunning pair strolling down Byron Avenue?
There was also a great sweater set I could knit for us as a couple. It may not be exactly what is in the fashion magazines these days, but it will catch on.
Now where am I going to find someone who can style my hair like that?
Monday, May 28, 2007
There was a minister behind a ticket-booth like window who gave me a form to fill out. The first question was, 'Who is the person in your life with whom you get along with the least and how are you addressing this problem?' Apparently I have to pass a conflict studies pop quiz before I am allowed to get married.
I was then in a car with V, driving in snow-filled streets on last-minute errands. We were stopped waiting for something and I offered to run to Tim Horton's to get him a hot chocolate. But I kept missing the restaurant and got lost in the snow. A car stopped to give me a lift, but once in their car I realized we were leaving town so asked to get out. I was walking through the snow when I met a good friend of mine out walking her dog Beemer. She and her boyfriend gave me a lift back to the church where it was now time for the real thing.
Suddenly it was summer again and I was told that my mum had my dress. Someone handed me a long silver gown. "But I've never even tried this on before," I thought. Behind the chapel was a series of curtained stalls to change, with small signs indicating the stalls for bride, groom and wedding party. I was just trying on the dress when I woke up.
Right now I can't remember the other dream, but know that in it as well I was rushing around disorganized and late. I actually have to plan and organize very little of my wedding - in fact all I really need to do is show up. And yet in my dreams I rush and worry. I rush and worry during the day too - but not about that. I guess I save my wedding dreams for bedtime.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
For four chilly nights I slept in parks and learned the value of cardboard. I ate at homeless shelters and begged for food. I learned how generous people are, especially those who have the least to give.
This was part of a 'street retreat' called Bearing witness to Homelessness. Organized by a local Shambala mediation center and lead by Zen peacemaker Sensei Gauntt, it was described as an opportunity to go beyond our selves and our limits, to open ourselves to the experience of poverty and homelessness. Indeed it was all this and more.
The 15 other participants and I had been instructed to come to this retreat with warm clothes, a bus ticket, a piece of ID - and nothing else. No money, no watch, no cell phone or notebook. For five days we had not washed our hair; the men had not shaved.
Since we would be availing ourselves of some of the homeless services in town, in order to participate on this retreat we were required to raise $350 for local shelters and services. I am sincerely grateful to my friends and family who collectively gave me $420. For each person who gave, their initials were written or carved on my Tibetan mala which I carried with on the retreat.
But those are the logistics of the retreat. The experience is harder to describe. I'm still processing it.
What stands out most is the time we spent in shelters and missions. In the past I have volunteered and worked at drop-in shelters, but that was always from the perspective of me offering something to others. This time, I was receiving.
I am grateful for every meal I received - made sweeter by the hunger and by the community I shared it with. One morning at the Salvation Army I sat across from an elderly woman with plastic bags at her feet and gold in her teeth. She noticed that I had not taken the small carton of milk that came with breakfast and I tried to explain that I didn't want it, but she did not seem to understand. "Milk," she said again. I went back to the counter and got my milk and gave it to here. "Merci," she said with a smile. There was bacon on my plate, I gestured to see if she wanted it and gladly she took it. "Merci." When she saw I was not eating all my toast, she pointed to those as well. I handed them over and she carefully wrapped them in a paper napkin before putting them in a plastic bag. She got up to leave and I realized there was a small container of margarine on my tray. I touched her arm to get her attention and handed it to her. "Merci," she said again, then bent over and kissed me on the cheek. That kiss stayed with me all day.
'Sharing' could probably be the word that best describes this retreat. Body heat at night, food during the day. When my lips were chapped and burning from the cold and wind I panhandled for $2 to buy a small container of lip balm which soon was being passed among all. A man living at the Salvation Army gave us toothpaste and sunscreen. One loaf of bread fed 16 mouths.
There are so many other stories I could tell. Of old André and his dog Mutt. Of the restaurant which gave us delicious soup at closing. Of the construction of cardboard condominiums. Of circles of sharing and community. Of a man who gave me two bags of groceries when I had only asked for some bread. All together, I feel very blessed.
"Let us forever remember the causes of suffering.
Let us forever believe in the end of suffering.
May we always have the courage to bear witness,
To see ourselves as Other and Other as ourselves."
- Zen Peacemaker cantation
Monday, April 09, 2007
But the end is in sight. Two more classes (at both of which I need to hand in term papers), then a take home exam on Thursday. Then I'm done for the summer! I'll be able to read novels! Paint the walls! Excavate the den and find my desk under the piles of papers...
It actually has been a good term. I took a class in identity-based conflict where we looked at the basic human needs - security, connection, action, meaning and recognition - and how threats to these fuel conflicts. Our prof had a supplementary reading list for the class of about 50 books and we had to read 120 pages from this list each week. These books were so excellent though that often I didn't stop at page 121. Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning actually made me change certain thoughts and patterns in my life. Other books like Destructive Emotions and No Future without Forgiveness have also challenged me to reexamine the way I do things and my motivations.
But during these last weeks, curling up with an inspiring book even seems too much of a luxury. I've been tied to my computer cranking out assignments and term papers. I'm proud of myself though - in the last 3 days I wrote a 5,500 word paper, complete with about 40 pages of appendices! Today I have to finish a 5,000 word paper. Right now I'm sitting at around 3,500 words.
This last week reminds me of when I walked the pilgrimage to Santiago in 2004. Toward the end, I was so tired and so ready to arrive. There were over 50 kilometres left and instead of breaking it into two legs as most people did, I decided to push all the way through. I had never tried to walk more than 50 kms in a day, but then again I always had to be keeping some energy in reserve for the next day, and the next. But so close to the end, there was no need to hold back. I set off early and paced myself. For the last 15 kms I did not stop walking, since I knew that if I sat down I would not get up again.
I made it to Santiago in just under 12 hours. The next day my aching feet would barely carry me from the hostel to a cafe. But I was proud to have pushed myself, seen what I was capable of.
This is no physical feat I'm attempting this weekend. But if I can write almost 10,000 words in 4 days, it will be a new record. And oh what a feeling of satisfaction when I can hand it both papers on time and have nothing more hanging over me.
Now back to work.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
I've never before seen Mr. D in bed. Usually when I come he is bent over his little table, working on a hook rug or a puzzle. Sometimes he is dozing, but he has always been more or less upright. But he's been mostly in bed for the last few weeks - the time that I have been away.
I can't say for certain that he is dying. But he certainly doesn't look well and it is hard to know what to hope for. He had surgery in his stomach years ago and apparently it has become infected and he is coughing up some nasty stuff. I held a glass so he could sip water through a straw - such tiny, weak sips- and gave him spoonfuls of ice. But when the nurse came by to give him his pills crushed up in chocolate pudding, he spent the next 15 minutes coughing up brown phlegm.
He seemed alert, but very tired. He would lose his breath mid-sentence. There were long pauses when we did not talk at all and I just sat in the wheelchair beside his bed, watching him breathe heavily, squirm in discomfort. Felt helpless.
I stayed for an hour, but eventually had to leave. That felt wrong. It is one thing to come and go each week, when I know that he is going down to dinner, will come back to his room and puzzle or hook for awhile before going to bed. But to leave alone a man who is dying. That is just not right.
But yet, here I am back home and there he is across town, alone in a room on the 5th floor as the sky grows dark outside and a long night falls.
Saturday, March 03, 2007
I am looking at her picture as I write. I wish I could scan it in so you could see, but I can't find the cord for the scanner. So let me tell you what I see - a cautious smile; thin shoulders overwhelmed by a blue jacket made for a woman the size she once was; her soft, grey hair which was letting grow this last year, fans out around her face. The face is soft, wrinkled and pale. The eyes are weak and surrounded by old fashioned, over-sized glasses. She seems uncertain, a little shy, but like she has her own little joke she will keep to herself.
The day after we got back from Europe, there was a message on my phone from Ann's friend telling me Ann passed away on Thursday. Peacefully at 7 p.m.
I had been looking forward to seeing Ann that Sunday. I hadn't told her I was going away and felt bad about that. In fact, I had missed the week before as well. The last time I saw her was shortly after I got engaged - I am glad at least that I was able to share that with her.
Why is it that guilt is usually my first reaction upon hearing of someone's death? When I heard that Uncle Henry had passed, for weeks I was overwhelmed with guilt that I had not done more for him in his last months, been there with him at the hospital, written him, called more often. It is hard to forgive myself for these things, even though I know I must.
But when I put aside my own guilt or regret, I can actually be happy for Ann. She truly was ready to go - she would tell me so almost every time I saw her. Parkinson's had robbed her of so much and her body was a burden, a prison. I am glad she is free.
Even the funeral was not so mournful. Everyone knew she was ready to go. As the minister said, she longed to be free of this world. We sang her favourite hymn, 'What a friend we have in Jesus' - a wavering, weak rendition that somehow seems so appropriate to this old, familiar song. Ann's friend read a touching eulogy. The minister said a few words and led some prayers in a passionless voice. We sang 'Amazing Grace', a hymn that apparently Ann had agreed 'would do', and the service was over.
When I came out of the funeral home into the bright light of a cold winter afternoon, everything seemed vaguely surreal. Ann was gone. This simple, brief funeral was the last tangible connection I would have with her. It actually felt like a chapter in my life was ending. I have known and visited Ann for almost five years. I always knew she wanted to go, but now that she is there is an emptiness in the space in my life where she was.
Monday, February 26, 2007
Monday, February 12, 2007
But schooling aside, there have been some rather momentous events in my life.
We knocked down a wall in our house.
And I said yes.
Monday, January 08, 2007
But there's something about doing a master's in conflict studies - makes me evaluate any conflict in my life from a more theoretical point of view. Personal conflicts take on more significance as I found myself analyzing them and how they should be handled.
If I really believe that people in conflict should first try to talk honestly about the situation and hear the other person's perspective... well I guess that's what I should do.
But for all my lofty theories, I am still a chicken. It took my physio's secretary calling to check an address for sending my last bill for me to ask for an appointment to talk with her. I then had a week of restless dreams before the appointment - this morning at 11:30.
I went in prepared for the worst - armed with receipts of almost $350.00 in physio bills and a copy of the doctor's diagnosis of an A/C sprain (a separated shoulder).
She greeted me with a warm smile, wished me a happy new year and asked how my Christmas was. I was too nervous to make small talk, but I did make an effort to demonstrate friendliness and good intentions.
I started by saying that I wanted to talk about the 'whole shoulder thing', to give my perspective. I went over the events quickly and she agreed with me. She seemed glad to hear that I had got a diagnosis and treatment that has helped. She said it is very unusual for a shoulder to separate like mine did, but did not in any way deny that she had done that to me. I told her that since she knows my situation (full-time student, working part-time for an NGO), she could appreciate that this has been not only painful and disabling, but also very expensive. I asked if she would consider refunding the money I had paid for her treatments. She agreed immediately and asked if I would also like her to refund the physio I did at Carleton University. I handed over all my receipts and she said she would mail me a cheque for everything.
It was all over so quickly! Not five minutes had passed and everything was resolved. How long have I been mulling over this, frustrated and complaining? I'd like to think I've learned something today.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Spent some of the Christmas holidays in St. John this year. They have rather strange traditions there.
For example, on Boxing Day (during which, incidentally, all stores are closed) they build miniature snowmen and carry them down to the river.
They sing 'Frosty the Snowman' and hop on one leg.
Then pitch the poor snowmen into the river, which immediately melt.
It's a grisly, but strangely hilarious, spectacle.