My Valentine To Canada

I’m a little weird about the Olympics. They seem to come around every so often (every four years, I hear) and there’s a great flare-up of national pride that goes along with them, along with the inverse questioning and self-analysis of whether this outpouring of overt Canadianness is, well, Canadian.

A seemingly infinite number of op-ed pieces bemoan the dearth of medals we’re earning or have earned, and the inevitable and oh-so-Canadian dialogue as a result of this failure to ‘bring home the gold’ occurs: are we funding our amateur athletes appropriately? Should we be giving them more? How do we distribute it equally? The undercurrent is: how do we instill a love of competition in our kids, a deep-seated and permeating desire to WIN, WIN, WIN, but in a way that doesn’t violate our inherent “niceness” or corrupt the love of those activities that are quintessentially Canadian: swooshing down a pristine powdery slope, twirling on a frozen pond, playing pick-up hockey on a busy suburban street where the goalie has to awkwardly move a tattered net (bought on sale at Canadian Tire, and handed down from brother to brother, neighbour to neighbour) every time someone yells “CAR”?

Other countries don’t seem to get enmeshed in discussions of the amateur sport bureaucracy or economics, or some shameful and stillborn sense of competitive fierceness. When the U.S. speed skating team’s sponsor dumped them, Steven Colbert–a comic!!–jumped in and single-handedly became benefactor, fundraiser and PR/media machine all in one. And then promptly began whipping the team and their supporters into a fervour by poking fun at Canada. How did Canadians respond? In most cases, we found it as funny as anyone else, of course. To really understand how this epitomizes the Canadian character, reverse the situation and think about how the U.S. speedskating team and their supporters would have responded if Jim Carrey did a Second City sketch ridiculing Wisconsi-whiners or Vermont syrup-suckers. Uh huh.

So, the Olympics, to me: every four years, a contingent of young, well-scrubbed and healthy-looking Canadians of whom I’ve never heard are touted as great Canadian hopefuls to bring honour to the nation, by performing well at activities that I pay no attention to, and bringing pride to a nation that is slightly embarrassed by any blatant display of national pride.

Sports, all sports–team, individual, amateur, professional, even the local community centre’s tiddlywinks championships–are “other” to me. Completely foreign. I learned to do the basics, more for survival than any desire for recreation or love of competition. I learned to swim in the freezing cold Vermilion River in northern Ontario, where ice was still floating in June, and where a line up of parents with brightly coloured beach towels spread like bullfighters’ capes waited for us to emerge blue-lipped and goosebumped into their waiting arms after the obligatory three-minute dunking.

I learned to skate on a flooded portion of our backyard under the glare of a rigged-up Christmas spotlight (since darkness would have fallen by 4.30 or 5 p.m.) I can still hear the whoosh-whoosh sound of my ski pants as I lurched wobbly-ankled from one end of the ice to the other, my hand-knit red woollen mittens holding on for dear life to the kitchen chair that I pushed in front of me to keep my balance.

Ahhhhh … the hand-knit red woollen mittens. Could there be any more emblematic object of the Canadian winter, indeed, of how Canada has grown up? Until my NYC-based friend Donna mentioned them, I didn’t even know the red Olympic mittens were a hot commodity. Donna pointed out what I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to, even had I known about the mittens, which was their subtlety. There is no Canadian flag, no flagrant display of brand–not the designer’s, the manufacturer’s, the retailer’s or the country’s. A white maple leaf, made of felt, is appliquéd on the *inside* palm. The five-ringed Olympic symbol and the words “Vancouver 2010” are embroidered in white wool on the outside.

So very Canadian. Self-effacing and discreet. And yet, in what I think is a delightful ironic twist, the mittens have gone viral. They’ve become a must-have Olympic accessory-slash-souvenir, symbolizing the 2010 Winter Games and their host country. And, I noticed, when the Canadian team entered BC Place during Friday night’s opening ceremonies waving to the crowd of 60,000 uncharacteristically loud Canadians, the placement of that white maple leaf, shining brightly against the red wool backdrop (our flag in reverse), said: Hi! We’re here, we’re Canadian, and (please excuse us, but) we’re damn proud of it!

The placement of the maple leaf had to have been intentionally conceived just for that moment. Had to. And at other times, it’s a subtle reminder not to take us for granted, that you may overlook us–we may, indeed, be overlookable at times–but we’re actually always here on the world stage in ways that you might not even realize. We’re walking here beside you, hand in hand with you. The rest of the ceremonies drove that point home, again and again.

The opening ceremonies were a stunning spectacle of Canadian artistry. The choice to produce such an artistic display of Canadiana was in itself very Canadian. They will–for me–be what these Games are about, because it’s pretty unlikely that I will pay much attention to any of the events. Again, I wasn’t going to even watch them…I probably wouldn’t have but for my many U.S.-based friends who were all watching.

Apparently, there is a 100-page media brief prepared to help commentators and journalists understand the meaning behind what they were seeing. I would love to get my hands on that book, but even without it, the images washed over me and tapped in to something pretty deep, pretty close to my heart, and pretty surprising…for me.

I love my country. I’m proud of it and its accomplishments on the world stage in a way that goes far beyond a two-week effort to win medals. I don’t love it in an anthem-singing and blind allegiance-pledge-reciting kind of way. I love that it is filled with forests and surrounded by oceans, and populated from coast to coast by people who want to protect them.

I love that we have apologized to and are doing our best to redress the injustices we’ve perpetrated on our First Nations people and that, despite the swirl of controversy and protest that led up to and continues during these Winter Games, we strive to keep the dialogue going to find acceptable compromises.

Although I wish we weren’t there, I love that we said no to Iraq, but yes to Afghanistan–not out of fear or anger, or as the unthinking act of a puppet, but because we react to and seek to help people who are oppressed and suffering regardless of politics or culture. I love that we donated more money per capita than any other nation to emergency relief in Haiti and that our government matched our citizens’ contributions dollar for dollar–and no one, not even the right-wingiest of wingnuts even thought of turning that tragedy into a pulpit from which to espouse egregiously distorted, hateful and incendiary (not to mention just plain wrong) beliefs.

I love that, even though the 2010 Winter Olympics are taking place right next to the oft-cited poorest postal code in Canada–a postal code incidentally filled to overflowing with the outcome of our appalling treatment and racist policies towards our aboriginal founding peoples–that it is also a neighbourhood populated by safe-needle exchange facilities (although I hate that we have to have them).

I love my country because gay marriage is legal, everywhere, and so is a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, and neither is subject to a legislative system that can overturn the legality of these decisions on a whim or because of the disproportionate but loud and well-organized bleating of so-called “faith-based” or “family values” lobby groups who are eroding the fundamental democratic principle of the separation of church and state while simultaneously turning a religion supposedly founded on love into a tool of hate.

I love my country because it produced Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen–artists whose poetry transcends their medium and genre, borders and time–and I love my country because kd lang, an Alberta-born lesbian vegetarian, can stand on a spartan stage in a white suit and bare feet surrounded by sparkling lights and maple leaves and 60,000 people who couldn’t care less about her sexual orientation and who, instead, are moved to tears by the power of her voice singing an anthem by a Montreal Jew-turned-Buddhist poet, a song of such complexity and paradox whose original lyrics are never sung, a song that no one really knows the meaning of, but one that speaks to us anyway and when voiced by kd, reaches its mitten-encased fingers way deep down into our heart and soul and guts and expresses what it is like to feel gratitude and belonging to something bigger, much bigger, than we are as individuals or even as a country, but what it feels like to be human: to struggle and seek and strive and make mistakes and learn from them and want something you can’t have and get something you don’t want and still want more.

I love my country, because we can celebrate THAT, all of that. That we have all of that to celebrate, and that we did so with such artistry and subtlety this past Friday. And because, god knows why or how or whose cockamamie idea it was and why they believed or even whether they believed it would work as beautifully as it did, the second-most-talked-about (next to kd) moment of the opening ceremonies was the spoken-word poem by Shane Koyczan, a 34-year old Metis man from Yellowknife, who wrote and performed We Are More, holding the crowd spellbound when not cheering for such lines as: “some say what defines us / is something as simple as please and thank you” and “we are an experiment going right for a change / with influences that range from a to zed / and yes we say zed instead of zee.”

I just about leaped off the sofa, screaming “a POEM!” “a POEM!“, so disbelieving was I of the audacity, the brilliance of whatever creative mind chose to include it.  And not just any poem, but a contemporary poem by an average Joe, a poem with real edge and an insidious, revolutionary, cultural-stereotype-blasting purpose.  A poem that echoed a beer commercial, but THAT. IS. CANADIAN. !!!

Even when I couldn’t get all the rapid-fire ideas about Canada and about Canadians as Shane was speaking them, I got the cadence and the energy and the exquisite use and love of language that is also so Canadian and I knew–as did so many of us, whose responses lit up the blogosphere in the hours that followed–that this moment was special and nation-defining in a way that simply choosing to showcase a poem and poet like this was.

This poem “We Are More” is the equivalent of a white felt maple leaf on the palm of a mitten.

If you haven’t already clicked, read it in its entirety HERE.

February 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm 3 comments

Where You Lead, I Will Follow

Are you fully aware of the impact you have on others?  Have you ever done or said anything, or modelled any kind of behaviour, that you later learned had a profound influence on someone else?  Are you living your life in a way that sets a good example?

After leaving my job in early January, I’ve been doing some significant introspection, reflection and self-analysis.  I’m working with a wonderful career/life coach, who is guiding me through the process of redirecting those talents, skills and aptitudes I possess.  I’ve lost track of them over the past several years, as I allowed my life to become dominated by a very stressful work environment.  Slowly, almost unknowingly, the colour leeched out of my life.  Things I once enjoyed and which once brought me great satisfaction, no longer did.  The depression that I have always staved off through sheer force of will, it seemed, settled in like a bad houseguest.

I’ve never intended to treat my blog like an online journal or confessional.  That kind of blog doesn’t interest me either as a reader or a writer.  This blog has languished in direct correlation with all the other activities in my life that I stopped doing.  Its original intent was to offer up my writing for the amusement, entertainment and possibly even enlightenment of others.  Cogito ergo sum has always been, for me, “I think therefore I write.”  Or sometimes, “I write therefore I think.”  The acts of thinking and writing have always been inextricably linked, perhaps causal (although the direction has sometimes varied).  But neither act is solely internally focused:  neither thinking nor writing has ever seemed to me fully or best expressed, unless shared with others.

The name of this blog is Eccentric Muse.  It’s a deliberately ambiguous term.  I both have and am an eccentric muse.  The focus in the early days of this blog was on my own eccentric muse and the wandering paths she led me down.  (As an aside, why are muses always female?  And is that a good or a bad thing?)  These days, as I attempt to clarify and (re)define my purpose, I am necessarily thinking about the impact I’ve had on others.  I’m thinking, then, about my own influence as an eccentric muse–a position much less comfortable for me.  Wandering down crooked, poorly-marked paths is not for everyone, although I find it exhilarating.   Asking others to walk down those paths is far less comfortable but here in the relatively safe virtual world, with material that is intended to be whimsical and inconsequential, the risk is slim.  Even so, I’ve been surprised at the impact I’ve had.

I have often been in positions of influence.  I have been and in some cases still am: an older sister, a friend, a manager, a community organizer, a caretaker.  Heck, even a pet owner.  All of these positions confer upon one authority and power; responsibility and accountability.  The mantle of leadership has not always rested comfortably upon me (and the mantle of followership chafes even more).  I know too much about the perils of following.  I’ve looked at that cloud from both sides now, from up and down … you know the rest.  The all-too human tendency is to accept leadership blindly, especially when it is offered by someone charismatic, persuasive and confident.  In extreme cases, to follow a leader like that is to put your very life and soul into someone else’s hands. One relies on his or her benevolence and purity of motive.  In a corporate setting, such as the one I was in, the chance of running in to a truly destructive, sociopathic leader is relatively rare, and there are usually checks and balances that prevent a leader like that–even on a small scale–from attaining a position of real power.

Usually, but not always.

And so, what do we do when we encounter a leader, or leaders, like that?  Leaders whose lust for power overshadows their capacity to behave with integrity, or who never had the capacity for it in the first place.  This is what I’m asking myself now, and being as clear-sighted and analytical as possible in formulating my response.

I have always led by example; I have tried to lead with authenticity and in good faith.  Whatever success I’ve had in bringing people along on the journey has been because of the honesty and integrity* I tried always to keep at the forefront of my mind as I performed the role. I have tried to be fully conscious of my influence as a leader.  I recognize now, however, that I failed in one central and critical aspect of leadership, and that failure was founded on a dislike of conflict so intense that I sacrificed my common sense and my own values to it.

* as another aside, integrity is such an interesting word and concept.  There is no adjective or adverb.  One’s acts cannot be “integrous”.  One cannot behave “integrously”.  It is a noun and a noun alone–a thing of such substance and import as to occupy physical space .  You must “have it” like you do an organ, like a lung or a pancreas.  You behave “with it”–as intimate but independent as a lover.

Alexander Hamilton said:  “Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.” One could even say, those who stand for nothing, follow anything.  Faced with a leader who was manipulative, egocentric, a pathological liar and a bully, I decided to stand as a buffer between that malignant force and my team.  Instead of the harder (impossible) task of confronting her or challenging her, I was able to rationalize my enabling behaviour.  I believed, arrogantly but not incorrectly, that I understood her better and therefore could manage her better.  I suppressed my own discomfort and in its place, nurtured an, albeit well-intentioned, ultimately futile belief that I could protect others from her.  I allowed my fear of conflict to triumph over the courage of my convictions–because at some level, I didn’t have any.  My integrity was compromised because–by definition–to behave with integrity is to behave in accordance with ethical principles.

It took me about two years too long to realize that not only was I sacrificing myself, but in fact I was setting an example that I wouldn’t want others to follow.  Regaining some sense of proportion, finally reaching a point where the compromise to my values was causing more anxiety than my fear of the unknown or of the conflict that would inevitably occur were I to take a real stand, I took action.  Instead of standing as a barrier, I fled … which even as I write it sounds like I backed down or gave up or abdicated some responsibility, when in fact I took myself out of an unwinnable fight in order to survive.  I surrendered so I wouldn’t be defeated.

As I watch people leave the department I once led, I realize that–indirectly–I have taken people down another crooked, unmarked path.  Yes, their choice to take the walk and their reasons for doing so are entirely their own, but I provided them with an example that turned into an option.  It reinforces for me the ripple effect our actions and our words have on the world.  Eccentric Muse-The Blog was intended to offer up my random journeys so others could enjoy and experience them vicariously and it will continue to do that.  Now, though, as I contemplate my real-world actions and their real-world meanings and consequences, I am aware that my musings have the potential to offer something more by way of example, and I intend to write with that in mind.

February 8, 2010 at 5:39 pm 2 comments

Buttons

(This post was originally written on 7 Jan 2010 and published on Facebook. I’m happy to report that the buttons were successfully secured and attached. ~EM)

Hanging CoatI completed a silly Dr. Phil quiz on Facebook a while ago.  One of the questions was: what do you dream about? I answered “searching for something/someone.”

Earlier, I did the “what 80s song are you?” and it came up I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

Then, last night, I had a dream about searching for a button for a coat I own.

Are you sensing a trend? Me too.

The buttonless coat is years old and represents a very specific time in my life–another time, as now, when I was making some big changes. Because it has no buttons left on it, I have to use one hand to clutch the two sides of the coat together. Because it’s the warmest coat I own, I tend to wear it in the coldest weather (like now) for dog walking and so on, so this means the clutching-to-stay-warm manoeuvre is absolutely critical, and even more awkward. It leaves me but one hand to pick up dog poop, at which I’ve become quite agile, but it also means that I struggle (unnecessarily) to keep myself warm while doing so. When I forget gloves, the situation becomes even more desperate and uncomfortable. I love the coat, and it would be the warmest, most comfortable coat I own, if only I could get my act together to find the right buttons and sew them on. If only I could make one small but important change, a lot of other problems would go away.

The dream was so vivid that when I saw that coat this morning, I said to myself: “now, where did I put those buttons?” intent on finally sewing the buttons on my coat.

Obviously, the dream is highly symbolic for me, especially at this point in my life as I start to reclaim and reassert my own needs for the first time in a long time. So, while wearing the coat and clutching the sides and picking up dog poop this morning — and vowing to buy those damn buttons TONIGHT!! — I started thinking about what I am searching for, and what kinds of things we ALL search for: buttons or transformation? A missing glove or missing love?

Question: what are YOU searching for?

February 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

An Uncommon Cat

Leo

(aka The Cowardly Lion)
January (?) 1990 – March 12, 2009

If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow; but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much. ~Mark Twain

I let Leo go today. I had been waiting for him to tell me when he was ready, and readied myself for his decision. Not that you are ever really ready, and not that it is ever easy. And not that I don’t think he would have tried to stick it out a bit longer. But I am calm and at peace with the decision that I made and, even though I would have loved to have another day or week, I know that it was inevitable and it was the kindest thing to do.

My vet, and my pet-sitter (who works at my vet) were wonderfully supportive, gentle and compassionate. They made him as comfortable as possible, with a soft blanket and lots of quiet time, gentle hugs and soothing voices. And then, they cried right along with me. They have known Leo for as long as I’ve lived where I do now — so that’s about 8 years, or almost half his life.

I knew Leo for 19 years. Longer than any relationship (save for my immediate family) I’ve ever had. He was with me through several nasty break-ups; a cross-country move (and back); and the deaths of both of my parents. He was endlessly patient and uncomplaining of my sometimes complete lack of attention or even presence, requesting nothing more of me than I was able to give. He was my feline hot-water bottle, always there for warmth, comfort and a gentle head-butt when I was sick, down or just needed a friend who wouldn’t say too much, ask too many questions or provide any unwanted advice. Just listen and offer up an ear or chin to scratch, and velvety coat to stroke.

Even though he was well into middle age at the time, he tolerated with remarkable grace and a complete lack of spite the new fur creature who came into my life: the endlessly exuberant, almost dangerously bouncy Molly. They came to be fast friends, although Leo never gave up the upper hand, err, paw, to Molly. Even though twice her age and half her size, Leo was totally the boss of her. They shared the sofa, the bed, the pull-out couch in the TV room and my affections equally. Leo knew he had the preferred spot curled up at the top of my pillow at night, and Molly curled at my side. Frequently, after a long day at work, I’d come home to find them curled up together. Over the past few years, they certainly have spent more time with each other than I’ve spent with either of them, and for that I feel a not inconsiderable amount of guilt. I was glad, though, that they had each other.

From his humble beginnings caught in a raccoon trap, through to his gradual emergence out from under my bed where he cowered for the first six weeks, through to becoming one of the most sociable cats it’s possible to have, Leo graced my life. As my first cat, he taught me about cats–their subtleties and their charms. How they can speak volumes with a flick of their tail or a backwards glance. The special kind of joy that comes from watching them pounce on a toy, and the unique solace that only a purr can give.

I will miss you, Leo and I thank you for being my friend.

March 13, 2009 at 8:02 pm 2 comments

My Christmas Story

shopping2

Time Is Running Out

This is a story that starts in a shopping mall in Toronto and ends in a small village in Gashora Region, Rwanda. It was a journey I took just yesterday, Christmas Eve day 2008.

Let me start with a blanket statement: I don’t like shopping. People who shop as a hobby mystify me. I find the entire activity distasteful–the endless quest for “things,” the con job advertisers do to get people to buy, buy, buy regardless of necessity and only to spur on the competitive spirit of acquisitiveness that gets people to buy buy buy even more.

At this time of year, I find the challenge of shopping intensifies and everything I hate about it comes to a boil. I leave my Christmas shopping to the very last minute, because I am usually so conflicted about what to buy for people, and how awful the whole experience makes me feel.

Then I feel awful about feeling awful, because after all, these are people that I love and I should be much more generous and thoughtful.

The true spirit of Christmas is not about the gifts, of course. And there are dozens of other ways to express thoughtfulness and generosity that don’t require standing in line with my bank card at the ready. But, despite that, I find it difficult to follow through completely on those principles: I can’t imagine showing up at my brother and sis-in-law’s with nothing in hand but a plate of homemade baked goods and an offer of never-ending babysitting. Hence, my conflict.

I get in a mall at this time of year and I quickly realize that no one I know actually needs anything. In fact, very few of us here in North America need anything. True, this year is different: people have lost their jobs or are worried that they are going to lose them; people are struggling to pay their bills, hold on to their homes, save up money for their kids’ educations … and much worse.

And I feel for the retailers: they too are simply cogs in the great economic engine. If everyone shared my disgust for shopping, they would go out of business and millions more would lose their jobs. Our great capitalist system would grind to a halt and our quality of life would decline considerably.

Despite all my protestations, I enjoy the benefits of our great capitalist system, even when I rage against its inequities.

Here in Canada, and certainly in my circle, the current economic hardships that many are experiencing remain remote. I know that I am among the more privileged. I also know that that privilege is largely a factor of luck. Being born in the right place at the right time to a loving family. I have a good job, I have skills, I have an education. I am in good health.

Lest I experience some devastating mental or physical health crisis, it is unlikely I will lose my home or my livelihood. (Even so, I keep my fear of becoming a bag lady–mumbling and cursing as I push my shopping cart full of empty bottles to and from my cardboard shack under the bridge–close to the surface as a way to ward off its eventuality. That is my own idiosyncratic superstition and way of managing that particular anxiety.)

And I am also always conscious of the even more basic things I enjoy: I can turn on the tap and get clean water. If I am sick, I have easy access to health care, and when I go to the pharmacy, I can be assured that I will get proper medication that will help me get better. I live in a very safe neighbourhood, in a clean, well-maintained building with 24-hour security, and in a comfortable home with all kinds of “stuff” in it–much more “stuff” than one person (and two furchildren) could ever need.

Jean Paul does not have any of those things. He is an eight-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a very poor area of Rwanda, just southeast of the capital city of Kigali. Both of his parents are unemployed and too sick to care for him.

I “met” Jean Paul today in the mall, when I was finishing up my Christmas shopping. I had just spent hundreds of dollars on luxury items–among them, an Aveda gift basket with a $31.00 moisturizer and an $18.50 aromatherapy oil in it; two Lululemon hoodies at close to $100 each; a $22 tin of sugar cookie mix from Williams-Sonoma and a $45 box of Godiva chocolates. Ridiculous, frivolous, decadent things that will provide momentary pleasure, but that “cost” me almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. I didn’t feel guilt buying them, or have any second thoughts about whether I could afford them. I didn’t feel much of anything at all, except a generalized annoyance that here I was on Christmas Eve day buying stupid things that will mean little to the people who receive them, and that mean even less to me.

The things that I bought cost more than Jean Paul’s family would spend on food in an entire year, probably.

This was my state of mind when I passed the World Vision display in the mall. I don’t know why I stopped, except that there’s been a raw emptiness yanking at my sub-conscious for much of this year: a feeling that I am wasting my time here on Earth; that I am not contributing or giving anything back that will have much impact after I’m gone. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, maybe it’s the fact that I have no children of my own and thus, no one to live on after me.

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term generativity to describe the key developmental stage of individuals in middle adulthood. According to Erikson, people aged 40 to 65 have “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation; a need to make a difference with one’s life, to give back, to take care of one’s community and planet.” Whether you buy that theory or not, it pretty much sums up how I have been feeling.

World Vision Motto

World Vision Motto

The World Vision display, with its bright orange backdrop and plethora of tent cards with pictures of children on them demanded that I stop in front of it and strike up a conversation with the two people staffing the booth. During that conversation, I asked whether they were getting much uptake from the shoppers. Sadly, no. “The economy is bad …” said the lovely Indian woman in the booth, her voice trailing off. Clearly, she didn’t believe this was much of an excuse. Nor do I. I plunked down my shopping bags and pulled out my wallet.

I went to the mall, and I ended up shopping for a child. Read that as you will.

This was no impulse purchase. In fact, I have been thinking about doing this for quite some time, but simply hadn’t been prepared to take the leap. I was too busy, had too much to think about, was too unsure of what it would entail–not the financial commitment, but the emotional one.

World Vision is a Christian organization. Another reason for my hesitancy. Historically responsible for horrific oppression in the name of eternal salvation, I have mixed feelings about the Christian mission movement. “You wanna be a missionary? Got that missionary zeal? Let a stranger change your life … how’s that make you feel?” Paul Simon’s lyrics were ringing in my head as I stood by the WV booth, but yesterday, I was hearing something else: There but for the grace of God go I. When I say this, I mean it in as secular a way as possible. Just as, in reading World Vision founder Bob Pierce’s quotation, pictured above, I can share that sentiment without dragging faith and religious belief into it.

And if I’m being really honest, I was a little worried that this is simply an easy way to assuage my white, North American guilt. Natural disaster in Indonesia? Humanitarian crisis in Darfur? Drought in Ethiopia? Genocide in Rwanda? Whip out a chequebook or a credit card, and believe you are doing something to help. And you are.

But it’s not my kind of charitable act if my convictions and commitment last only as long as it takes to recite my credit card number to the helpful operators standing by to take my call.

Sponsoring a child is different: it’s a minimum year long commitment (and I intend to extend that as long as necessary). I will write letters. Jean Paul will, I hope, write back. I will learn what his life is like–really like–there in his tiny village in Rwanda, a country that has been through such a tremendous amount of tragedy and that has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in all of Africa. I will be able to help, in some small way, not only him but also his family and his community.

It was disconcertingly similar to the purchases I had made a few minutes earlier. I was asked did I want to sponsor a girl or a boy? From any particular country? Other than knowing I wanted to sponsor a child in Africa (unlike Sarah Palin, I actually know it’s a continent), how could I possibly answer these questions? It seemed too crass, and too difficult a choice to make. The kind lady with whom I was speaking saw my distress–in fact, I became quite emotional during the process. Such a relief–to actually feel something when pulling out my credit card in a mall!

It was recommended that I sponsor a boy (the pretty little girls get more attention; the stoic looking little boys have a tougher time of it). I was asked if I was willing to spend an extra $5 per month to sponsor a “HopeChild”–code for a child whose family is suffering because of HIV/AIDS. Maybe not him (they don’t tell you who, in the family, is affected). Later, when reading the description of Jean Paul’s circumstances, the gentleman in the booth helped me decipher more of the “code.” We can surmise that both of Jean Paul’s parents are sick. His own health is listed as “satisfactory.” That one word contains a world of pain, as do his beautiful brown eyes gazing out at me from his picture. He is not smiling, and his look is one of deep distrust–even challenge. It is as though he is saying, I will stand here for this picture, but while you claim you will help me, I’ll believe it when I see it.

I will meet that challenge, Jean Paul.

Incidentally, World Vision is very careful not to identify who, in a community, has HIV/AIDS–it can be devastating for the entire family, as there is such stigma and fear about the disease. In Africa, AIDS is invariably a death sentence. They can’t get anti-retrovirals to all the people who need them, not only because so few can afford them, but mostly because of poor distribution systems and the shame, stigma and poor education that prevent people from taking them correctly or taking them at all, even if they can get them. HIV/AIDS has and will wipe out entire communities and societies in Africa. It is worse than any genocide could ever be. Standing by and watching it happen, without doing something to help, is as great a crime as any other instance when we in the developed world have refused to intervene in other genocides. End of public service announcement: you probably know all this.

Yes. Yes, let me sponsor a HopeChild and let him be in an area that is most in need of that help. At $40 a month, it is less than I spend on Starbucks. I will spend $480 per year, less than half what I was contemplating spending on a new flat-screen TV that I don’t need.

For the first time in such a long long time, I feel like I’ve put my credit card to good use.

December 25, 2008 at 11:16 am 2 comments

Winter Wonderland

Woman. Dog.  Not me or Molly.

Woman. Dog. Not me or Molly.

Woke up to snow this morning (some yesterday too) and a blistering blue sky that only now has clouded over.  The snow was that powdery early winter stuff–fine as sugar, blown away by the strong winds but still clinging to fence posts and grass.

Molly and I followed a trail of compressed snowprints:  two boots and four paws in front of us, stuck to the paved path where we walk, the warmth and weight of master and pet having been enough to cement their steps to the asphalt while the remaining snow had blown away to reveal a kind of reverse snowtrail.

It inspired a (not very good) haiku:

white winter morning
bootdogpaw embossed footprints
companions in snow

I’ll work on it.  I am reading The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle.  It’s about a boy and a special band of dogs that he and his family breed and care for, so my own and others’ attachments to their dogs is in the forefront of my mind these days.

December 7, 2008 at 4:43 pm Leave a comment

High Hopes

JFK and Jackie

JFK & Jackie - The Early Years

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment that
was known as Camelot.

(from the Broadway play by Lerner & Loewe)

I was conceived somewhere roundabout September 1963, two months prior to JFK’s assassination, and 11 months after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  When sorting through some of my mother’s books after her death in 2000, I found a pamphlet nestled between Dr. Spock’s Baby & Child Care and a book of baby names.  As to the latter, under consideration:  Constance, Judith, Rebecca and Stella, among others.  I ended up a Jennifer, from the Welsh “Gwenhwyfar”, as in Guinevere, the Queen of Camelot.  An interesting coincidence, as Jackie Kennedy didn’t coin the term to describe her husband’s presidency until after his assassination, in an article in Life magazine.

The Holy Grail, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

The Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So while I’d like to think my parents were drawing both a political and literary allusion, they were probably responding less to what was swirling about in the zeitgeist, than to the name’s feminine prettiness and growing popularity (they were actually ahead of the wave on that one…).

The pamphlet, however, was a dramatic juxtaposition to Dr. Spock and the baby names.  As I recall, it was a deep, blood red with somewhat shocking blue and yellow type on the front, probably 8 or 12 pages long.  I think my brother still has the box of books; I must go and try to dig it up.  It was entitled:  “How To Build A Backyard Bomb Shelter.”   It was startling to find it there, and know what must have been going on in my parents’ minds as they started their family.  What those times must have been like for people:  to have had such hope and belief in the future, and then to watch the events unfold as they did–assassinations and riots and the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation.

kennedy-obama

High Hopes

I can honestly say that the two forces:  Dr. Spock’s psychoanalytic humanism, applied as diligently as possible by my two loving parents, and the political turmoil of the 60s with the fall-out residue of anxiety, pervaded my formative years and of course made me into who I am today.  Hopeful, but anxious.  As I read around the Internet, it seems many of us are the same.  It was rare to read or see anything about the JFK anniversary without some parallel being drawn to President-Elect Obama, who reminds so many of JFK and of the struggles of that time.

The Kennedy presidency started out with an incredible sense of optimism and hope, and ended so tragically.  Still today, according to a documentary I watched on the History Channel last night called Oswald’s Ghost, more than 70% of Americans believe that there was some kind of conspiracy behind Kennedy’s assassination, and that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. What do you think?  (While you’re here, why not take the poll in the sidebar?)

The filmmaker, Robert Stone (no relation to Oliver, I don’t believe) was interviewed by NPR when the film came out last year. You can listen to the entire clip below. Stone has a unique perspective and sums up how I and many others feel, that the Kennedy assassination kicked off a chain of events–political assassinations, protests over the war in Vietnam, Watergate–that made us who we are today, and that caused a deep questioning and a fundamental cynicism about our political and social institutions and leaders.

JFK & Jackie Arriving Dallas 11-22-63

JFK & Jackie Arriving Dallas 11-22-63

Which is why I think you find, among Obama supporters of about my age, that sense of anxiety, even fear, underlying the hope, optimism and belief in change.  It’s fear that a bullet will put an end to the Obama presidency, yes; but it’s also a less literal fear.  It’s fear that the change it is hoped he will bring will be exterminated before it gets any traction.

Click here for the NPR interview with Robert Stone on the Kennedy assassination, conspiracy theories and the impact of these events on our worldview.

JFK’s campaign song was, if you can believe it, “High Hopes”–a song that my parents must have loved as  I recall it being played a lot in our house.  It brings back a visceral nostalgia in me, even today. I just found a remarkable video on youtube of a Sinatra version done especially for the campaign.  According to the youtuber, polkadotbox2, only 1,000 copies were pressed and they weren’t distributed commercially, but rather in pubs, bars, bowling alleys, etc. around the DC area in 1960.  Enjoy:

And in case you need the comparison driven home literally, here is another youtuber’s video:

November 23, 2008 at 1:36 pm Leave a comment

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