Finding My Way Home

pink-shoesShootings, random killings, and horrific terrorist attacks are in the news almost daily, and if there is not a new event, we hear yet more commentary on the most recent. I am in danger of not even wanting to know. I already limit my exposure to the stories, by avoiding images and ignoring repeated news broadcasts.

It is perhaps understandable, but nevertheless unfortunate for the message it sends, that the Canadian media give more coverage to incidents that occur in what we think of as the Western world; places that feel more “like us.” I was clearly aware of this bias when last week the young German man attacked others in a Munich shopping mall. I have been to Munich many times with my husband who travelled there for work. I know it well enough to have frequented places mention in the reports, not the actual shooting site, rather high points in city centre like the Haufbrau House – a place of great joy and celebration – Oktoberfest year round!

I felt this particular shooting in a more visceral way, more personally. It makes me only begin to imagine what it must be like for the victims of racist behaviour (violence), especially in our neighbouring country to the south. But lest we feel superior, that sort of thing happens in Toronto as well. I heard a short CBC radio clip of a black man who described how his aunt, who has a well paying evening job and drives a nice car, has been stopped many time on her way to and from work by the Toronto police, who ask who owns the car she is driving. No one has ever stopped me and asked me that question or any other. I never fear being stopped, unless I know I have committed an obvious traffic violation.

All of this can lead to the perception that our world is becoming less safe. Republican nominee DT (I can’t bear to have his full name on my web-site) appears to have made it his personal mission to have Americans believe this to be true, and he will stir up the hate to make it a reality.

I refuse to live my life in fear. Thankfully, living in downtown Toronto, I don’t think I need to. However, I know that many who live outside of downtown think there is much to be afraid of where I live. This is not my experience.

I have been asking myself “What can I do to make a difference? How can I not get caught up in to this communal fear?”

I know that my daily spiritual practices help me stay grounded. Reading the words of others reassures me that I am not alone in my way of seeing things, and that there are alternative ways of being, doing and experiencing the world than those experienced through our “media”.

Can I also be an agent for peace and justice in my own neighbourhood? I find this easier in the early morning when I go out and there are not as many on the street. I look at strangers as I pass them. I smile and say good morning. It is a delight to see a smile break out on a face. There are several folks I see on my bike ride to early-morning yoga, and we now feel like friends as we pass and acknowledge one another almost daily.

When I go through the cash desk at the local stores or ask for help, I really look at the person and sometimes engage in social chit-chat to let them know I see them.

I do give money to those who ask for change. I know all the reasons why not to, but I do it anyway. If I don’t happen to have any, I look at them and tell them I’m sorry.

Years ago my daughter had to spend 48 hours on the street as part of training to work with street youth. She had twenty-five cents for an emergency call but otherwise had to ask for help. She did not have a cell phone. She recounted that one of the hardest things was being so completely ignored, as if she did not even exist, as people walked by.

Yesterday afternoon, after I had written some of this and set it aside, I went for a walk in my neighbourhood to get some exercise. As I was coming down the tree-lined street towards my lane, I was catching up to a mother whose three children were lagging behind touching and observing the various plants, fences, anything that caught their attention. As I came alongside to pass the mother and one of the little girls, about 4 or 5 who held her hand, I smiled and the child looked up at me and said:

“You’re very beautiful.”

I responded with a huge grin:

“Why thank you. You too are very very pretty and beautiful, and you look even prettier in that dress.”

By now mom had stopped, the others kids caught up. I continued:

“I’m Anne, what is your name?”

“ Her middle name is Anne.” her mother offered as her daughter said

I put out my hand to shake hers,

“Isobel Anne, such a lovely name.”

By now her brother and sister were clamouring to proudly tell me their full names. It was a sweet moment. As we continued walking to the end of my lane, Isobel said:

“And I like your pink pants.” Again I smiled and told her,

“Yes, they match your pink shoes!”

As I walked away I let this moment of grace wash over me, even though it occurred to me that what little Isobel really thought was beautiful was my pink hat, pants and multicoloured shirt.

On a completely different note when I arrived back at my computer screen an email offered this timely quote – another brief moment of grace:

“We began before words, and we will end beyond them. It sometimes seems to me that our days are poisoned with too many words. Words said and not meant. Words said and meant. Words divorced from feeling. Wounding words.  Words that conceal. Words that reduce…I think we need more of the wordless in our lives. We need more stillness, more a sense of wonder, a feeling for the mystery of life. We need more love, more silence, more deep listening, more deep giving . . .

Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven

What do you have to give to bring a little more light to your corner of the world?

Check Your Priviledge

mandala black

“Check your Privilege”[1] came to my mind one day last November as I listened to panellists discussing the status in Canada of physician-assisted suicide, or ‘medically assisted death’; the label currently in favour with the medical community.[2] I have watched the evolution of this debate since it emerged in the early 1990’s with the Sue Rodriguez challenge to the current law. At that time, the Supreme Court confirmed that it was illegal for a physician to assist a patient in suicide. Now over twenty years later, our government will move to make available assistance in ending one’s life, under carefully circumscribed conditions.

I am no longer willing to argue, as I once did, for or against. Moreover, in taking a step back, I see how this debate has emerged and developed, and this causes me to offer the opening phrase, “Check your privilege”. Here is why:

I started my professional health care career in 1970, but had been working in and around hospitals for 8 years before that. I have watched how over the last forty-five to fifty years technology and illness care have taken over the system, driven hard by pharmaceutical and business interests, at the expense and to the denigration of health and wellness care. Medically assisted death is a natural progression in a system where it has become hard to die. Inevitable disease processes are interrupted and prolonged by all manner of technological and pharmaceutical interventions.

While these can be beneficial and allow for extension of life, I believe it is the overuse of interventions that impels people to the notion that they must, or can only avoid illness progression by deciding the time and means of their dying. I don’t blame them. Interviewing doctors and nurses who work with dying patients in intensive care, I learned that the care they give is often driven by the availability of the technology, and that none wants such care for themselves. The lure of technology makes it easier to keep treating than to make the decision to stop. Patients and families, as long as the medical ‘experts’ offer more treatment, usually, in hope, are reluctant to refuse it.    So it is our wealth, our ‘privilege’ that has brought us to this place of needing to be able to stop the (advanced medical) process before it becomes unbearable.

While listening to the panellists, I couldn’t help but think what a wealthy first world issue this is. In many parts of the world and even among Canada’s First Nation communities, basic health care is not always available. As Syrian and other refugees flee for their lives, what would they think of this issue?

I realize that it will unfold in Canada as it has in other jurisdictions, and that assistance to end one’s life will be available through our medical system within a short time. But this will not begin to address the issues around the allocation of medical resources, or questions around the best ways to provide care to an aging population.

From my years as both a nurse and hospital Spiritual Care Provider, I find two things: Most people are not in a hurry to die, and even though we ourselves may think we would not want to live with certain limitations, when people have them, they still cling to life. I have known people who are confined to a chair and completely dependant on others, who feel life is worth living just to feel the sun and wind on their face whenever they manage to get outside.

Many people, regardless of religious beliefs, do not fear death itself; they do however fear the process – pain and suffering. Important also is that suffering is not limited to physical pain, but physical pain can be heightened when emotional and spiritual needs are not addressed.

The pressing question is this: How can we ensure appropriate support and care without either prolonging or adding to, a person’s pain and suffering? We just had an election in Canada. The many ’polls’ never failed to state that Canadians view ‘health-care’ as a priority. Our health-care system does not need more money, more resources allocated to the existing system. What we do need, is wiser use of the resources we do have, with more and better attention paid to research-based health and wellness support. Check your priorities Canada!

[1] Privilege is still the idea that society grants unearned rewards to certain people based on their race, gender, sexuality, etc — checking your privilege means acknowledging the role those rewards play in your life and the lives of less privileged people.

[2] This discussion follows as a consequence of the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in 2014, supporting, under certain circumstances, based in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a person’s right to decide to end their own life, and the right to not be opposed in this, by the medical system; rather, to be assisted by it.

Naughty but Safe – Confessions of a Cyclist

a Roman bikeEarly one morning this past summer, I was in the bike lane heading east across the Bloor Street Bridge, just west of the Castle Frank subway station. An out-of service TTC bus sped past; the side of the bus hugging the white line at the edge of the bike lane. It was so close and so fast that my heart either momentarily stopped or skipped a beat. At the next intersection, the bus was idling at the red light. I gently tapped on the door. It opened. I immediately noticed that the driver was not wearing a uniform and was comfortably dressed in shorts. He had grey hair and wore a frown. I said in the most non-confrontational gentle voice I could muster,

“I really need you to know how terrifying it is for me when you come so close and fast as you pass me.”

In an angry voice, he replied,

“You cyclists, you have four feet over there and sit on the white line. Why don’t you stay at the curb where you belong?”

I did not point out that had I been “on the white line,” I would now be under his bus not standing beside it talking to him. I did say:

“Well, sir, sometimes the road is so full of potholes that I have to go around them. Please, I just need you to hear how frightening it is for me when you come so close.”

“Well, if it is so frightening get on the sidewalk.” The door closed in my face and the bus took off.”

I got back on the bike but felt shaken by the encounter. I don’t know if he was a regular driver or someone taking the bus somewhere it needed to be. Not that he would have heard, but I might also have remarked, that had I been lying under his bus, it would not only ruin his day, but both our lives. It was his anger that unsettled me and it made me wonder – if he, a professional, is that angry on the road, how many other “angry” and rushed drivers share our streets?

Several weeks before that encounter, I had just crossed a busy intersection on my bike, and ridden onto the sidewalk for the short stretch to a pathway that takes me towards my daughter’s house. This is a familiar route and I use the sidewalk here to prevent having to cross the busy roadway where there is no intersection. An elderly couple was walking arm in arm, as if for support, towards me. Sensing their fragility, I got off my bike, stood still and waited for them to pass. As the gentleman went by he said in a tone of reprimand:

“Naughty, naughty!”

Without missing a beat, I blurted out:

“Naughty but safe.”

This phrase characterizes how I ride my bike around Toronto. For the most part I stay where I am expected to ride – in a designated bike lane or on the side of the road.

I know many drivers dislike cyclists on the road and for sure many pedestrians dislike sharing a sidewalk with a cyclist. While I recognize it is illegal for me to ride on the sidewalk, at times cars parked – illegally – in bike lanes force me there. There are frequent complaints of cyclists going through stop signs and red lights. I also do this. Here is why: I’d rather be naughty and safe than dead or injured. If I go through a red light or stop sign when the intersection is clear, I have a head start on the cars beside me; they can more easily see me ahead of them, and I can stake out my territory at the side of the road. And because the roads are in such disrepair, I am often forced into the middle of the traffic lane. Bikes and their riders are more fragile than cars when confronted with potholes.

I will admit one more transgression. I go the wrong way on a one-way side street, if it means avoiding a busy main street or is a shorter distance to where I am heading. Shaw Street in Toronto in the only main street I know that has dual bike lanes on a one-way street. While other cites, such as Vancouver and Paris utilize this strategy for safer cycling, it is underutilized in Toronto.

My desire is for cyclists and drivers to respect one another for the benefit and safety of everyone. I have had the joy of cycling in many European countries where there is much more regard and support for pedestrians and for cyclists. Many cities have car-free zones where cyclists and pedestrians happily co-exist. While cycling in Berlin I experienced both buses and cars holding back to let me move into traffic when the bike lane was blocked for construction. In many places there are separate lanes for cyclists, off the roadway altogether so that cabs and other vehicles cannot block them; on shared pathways, a white line separates bikes and pedestrians. Simple, and it works. I felt safe, respected, even relaxed as I peddled through this world-class city.

I have been cycling in Toronto as an adult since 1979. I love the sense of freedom, the chance for exercise and the ease of parking and getting where I want without traffic tie-ups and adding to pollution. In the mid-eighties, I rode around downtown with my young daughter in a little seat behind me. I never felt we were unsafe.

All that has changed. There are many more cars, people appear in more of a hurry and are more distracted in spite of the law prohibiting use of hand held devices. At least ten years ago I realized I needed more help to keep me safe. I wear an ugly lime green, with orange stripes, reflective vest; I’ve had strangers ask if I’m a crossing guard when I step away from the bike; I have multiple lights and reflectors woven into my back carriers. I want to be seen and I no longer engage in risky behaviour. I also say a prayer for myself: “Keep me safe and sensible.”

More and more cyclists are appearing each year; more designated bike paths are being provided. The more there are, the safer it becomes for all of us. However, we are now heading into the cold, often wet, darkest time of the year. I will keep cycling despite these conditions and only personally stop when there is snow or ice on the roads. So will others. All of us need to take heed and slow down ensuring safety for all.

Facilitator, Educator, Counsellor, Artist