Recently at the naturopathic medical school where I teach I was approached by two students requesting that I record a guided meditation for students to use during final exams. I was pleasantly surprised, and curious about the request ... why me?
They told me that it was important to them that the person making the recording be authentic. They said that when I teach, I seem very calm and peaceful.
I found this very interesting. I have been teaching for close to a decade and a half, and throughout that time I've struggled with the dichotomy in the student feedback I receive. Very consistently I hear two strong themes. The first is that I am smart, strong, passionate, and a good role model - especially for women. The second strong theme is that I am unapproachable and intimidating.
This has always intrigued me. I'm the same person. I'm unaware of changing my persona from student to student. However, while some people are in a place in their journey where my assertiveness and confidence is motivating and exciting, others find it off-putting. As I've explored this over the years, I've played with looking at it from different perspectives. From one angle, I could simply say, "This is me - unapologetically me - if you don't like it, that's a you problem." From another angle, I could feel the need to hide my light and be less demanding in order to make others more comfortable.
As almost always, the wisest approach is a hybrid of the two. I have been sitting with the Serenity prayer over the past little while, reflecting on what role I have to play in situations, and what I can release. I don't ask anything from anyone that I don't ask of myself ... which is part of the struggle. My current prayer is to balance the pursuit of excellence with compassion towards myself. I have been working on fostering that, believing that it will spill over in my interactions with others. From a practical perspective, this means that I recognize when my students (or patients! or kids!) haven't done what we've contracted to do (prepare for a class; make the lifestyle change we discussed; done their chores), my role is to have compassion and curiosity about the obstacles to success. As the original serenity prayer acknowledges, the path to peace is often along a difficult road.
A very helpful tool along the way has been Metta, or loving-kindness meditation. I have danced with various types of meditative approaches over the years but I don't currently have a seated practice. I believe I am becoming more skilled at moment-to-moment mindfulness, and am practicing yoga quite regularly, but I have struggled with other types of meditation. Other than loving-kindness.
I find this style beautiful and healing. I was first exposed to it through song at my church - a simple, yet powerful musical prayer that consistently brings me to tears. When I discovered that this was a core practice of Buddhism, I found myself drawn to its cultivation. I can be moved to anger and disappointment quite easily; I find that practicing loving-kindness is powerful at fostering compassion ... both towards myself (where it needs to be directed most of all) and towards others. And how fascinating that students - at least two of them - are feeding back to me that I am, "calm and peaceful." I must be making progress along that road.
Different scripts phrase the sentiment in different ways, but the central theme is to extend a prayer for peace and serenity to oneself; to one's loved ones; to one's acquaintances; to those to whom the prayer is a struggle; and to the wider world. I find it nourishing and calming.
If you're curious to learn more about loving-kindness meditation, visit:
There are many resources available to explore this style, and every meditation app that I've used offers guided versions. May you be at peaceful and at ease.
My partner and I were skating tonight at our local rink. There weren't too many people there, going counter-clockwise, a blend of abilities from total newbs right up to my guy's mad skills. Three 12-or-so-year-old girls were there too - super strong skaters - messing around on the ice. I loved watching them play and skate BUT they weren't being terribly mindful of others around them. We spoke to them three times about watching out for others, and I almost got hit in the face with a glove that they were playing with. Finally, as I turned the corner at the end of the rink - cutting my circle short because they were playing there - one of them turned quickly and crossed my path. I stopped hard to avoid crashing into her, tripped on my pick and went down. Fortunately I was okay (we skated with a friend a couple of years ago to whom the same thing happened and she broke her leg), but I was pretty frustrated and spoke sharply to her. She gave me a very defensive "sorry!", but didn't ask if I was okay, didn't take any responsibility, and when I called her on her flippant apology she said, "You can't put this all on me!"
Her mom was on the sidelines, and the girls left the ice after the near collision. Mom didn't ask if I was okay either. I went around a few more times, and then went into the change room to try and discuss it more calmly. I sat down on the bench across from the girls and told them how impressed I was with their skating. I had fun watching them play and was happy to see this was how they spend their Saturday nights. And that they have a responsibility - being such strong skaters - to look out for others who weren't as capable. The girl who was involved told me, "I said I was sorry!" That's a real pet peeve, and something I talk to my kids about all the time - don't say you're sorry unless you mean it. There's got to be some humility there and willingness to change, especially since we had spoken to them three times. At that point, the mom spoke up (to her credit, she had kept quiet the whole time) and said she saw what had happened - I had tripped on my pick - her daughter said she was sorry, and it was her job to parent her kid, not mine. If I'm a weaker skater, it's my responsibility to keep out of the way ... I didn't respond that I tripped on my pick and fell to avoid crashing into a kid half my size and hurting her! I sighed and went back to the rink, and they left shortly - the girl looking back at me as they walked away.
I tried to create a positive exchange. I was upset when I fell, but made an effort to try again calmly. To take advantage of a teachable moment. I know it's not my place to parent other people's kids (and I would have come to my kids' defence too), but it IS my place as an adult in society to try to set an example to others - isn't it? I tried to be kind but firm, and I feel like it backfired. I was in tears after.
I'm not sure what I should have done differently. I'm struggling to see my role. I want to be humble too, and I acknowledge that she's a child ... which was kind of my point. I don't back down in the world when people treat me poorly ... my partner could tell tons of tales of me engaging in confrontation and standing up for myself when he'd rather avoid the conflict. This was different. I don't worry too much about getting into it with adults. But kids ... there's an opportunity there. Maybe I overstepped. Maybe I should have let it go. Maybe I could have kept my cool a bit more. I'm not sure. I feel sad about how it went down (no pun intended).
We never know what other people are carrying. We had an encounter with a rude teenage grocery store clerk when we were in Vancouver in December; we were telling about it at a party that night and learned from someone who knew him that this kid had had a very tough year and was coping with some pretty tricky stuff, including the death of a friend to an overdose. Not an excuse to be rude, but always my responsibility to be kind. I wrote him a card saying something along those lines and had a friend take it in to him - apparently he got teary and said he hadn't received anything like that in five years; that it gave him hope. I guess the lesson for me is to continue to find a way to always be kind ... without being a doormat? Tricky balance.
Yesterday was Remembrance Day - the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, and the official end of the Great War. The War to End All Wars.
Many things bubbled to the surface yesterday, and this will be a true musing ... I'm not sure that it will be a coherent flow of thoughts.
This morning I finished Joseph Boyden's "Three Day Road," a novel graphic both visually and emotionally. It just happened to be that I was immersed in it as Remembrance Day approached and passed, and it happened to be that the weather in Toronto on Friday, November 9 was cold, wet and miserable. I had biked through the sleet to and from my daughter's Remembrance Day assembly at school, mindful of my frigid hands and face on the barely 10 minute ride, thinking of Boyden's description of life in the trenches and knowing that - with god's grace - I would never experience that level of despair, fear and discomfort. It almost felt like a necessary pain - like a penance for the pain suffered by so many for the freedom that I live daily. (Incidentally, I also recently finished Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See", an intimate view into the personal experience of individuals in Germany and France during the Second World War; equally moving.)
In the church where my choir rehearses, there are many plaques lining the walls in honour of fallen sons and husbands ... all in their 20s. It struck me this weekend that if there was to be such a war today, both my son and my partner would likely be taken from me - a though that sears my soul. I can't even imagine the anguish of loved ones - then and now - as they wondered and prayed and hoped for the safety of their dearest. An anguish that continued upon their possible return as veterans were and are plagued with deep wounds to body and spirit. This year, Anita Cenerini personified that pain as the first Silver Cross mother to a soldier who died by suicide.
I admit that I have been ambivalent about Remembrance Day most of my life. I am a deep pacifist, and I struggled with the idea of honouring soldiers - as if it is synonymous with honouring violence. With time and curiosity and experience I am developing a greater understanding of the horrors and dynamics of war. I am so grateful to be Canadian, to know that our soldiers have generally fought in the name of peace (though that still seems like an oxymoronic statement); the role that violence sometimes must play in liberation. I think this year was the first time that I really felt connected to the sentiment of November 11, and truly felt moved by the history and the importance of carrying forth the memory of that terrible, terrible war, and all the battles since.
In my own church on Sunday, the service was a beautiful exploration of these themes, and tears rolled down my cheeks as thoughts and feelings swirled through me. Our minister's reading referenced Barbara Kingsolver's description of the cemeteries of another war in Normandy: “There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves. Nothing to do with nature, unless you count human nature.”
My parents took my sister and I to those graveyards when I was 12. I was bored. I didn't understand, hadn't yet studied those wars in school. I do remember the vivid geometry of the cemeteries. I remember the expressed appreciation of citizens of small villages in Belgium and the Netherlands as we bicycled through with Canadian flags on our gear - still, 50 years later. But it didn't sink in at the time. We ventured down into the trenches at Vimy, and though it was interesting from an intellectual level, I didn't feel it until I returned when I was in my 30s. It breaks my heart that around the world that unlike me, and unlike my own littles, 12-year-old children know first-hand what war is like. I'm grateful to my parents for taking me, for showing me the consequences of battle, for exposing me to ground zero, for not protecting me from the truth. It helped to foster a deep need to do what I can to make the world a better place.
And yet, that is the exact conundrum. It can feel so overwhelming and hopeless to read news of hatred and violence that still plagues the world - instead of ending all wars, that horrific mess simply ushered in a modern approach to war and mass murder. Even in our own communities - gun violence, and road rage, and horrible verbal attacks from those that are supposed to be our leaders. It can be easy to spiral into a dark place where it seems that nothing will make a difference.
And then I think of my children. My students. My family and friends. I think of time spent reconnecting with colleagues over this same past weekend at a professional convention. I think of the actions - small and large - that we can each take to leave the world just a little bit better, and to send out ripples of love and peace and healing. Our minister Shawn reminded me of this in his sermon yesterday, as he invoked Lao Tzu:
"If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations. If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities. If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbours. If there is to be peace between neighbours there must be peace in the home. If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart."
I also think of the Dalai Lama who expressed:
"World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion."
I will continue to nurture peace and compassion in my heart and in my home. I pray that I can extend that to peace in my community, and hope that peace will ripple to encompass the world. Sending love.
It has been just over three months since I started taking sertraline daily to help me manage feelings of depression and anxiety. It's magic. On a side note, I took part in an academic meeting yesterday in which a colleague was angered by being accused of "magical thinking" with respect to the use of certain medical approaches ... I refrained from commenting that I tend to think of anything that results in amazing improvements in health as being magical ... I know that wasn't the intent of the dis, but I call many things magic ... Calendula, Arnica, a good night's sleep ... and for me right now, sertraline.
You can read the backstory here. Since my very first dose of the medication, I've felt better. I knew at the time that the initial improvements in my mood were due to a placebo effect, and I waited to see if it would wear off. However, I have continued to feel great. I don't mean great as in I'm joyful all the time. Life isn't like that. Hills and valleys, light and dark ... pick your metaphor. But I feel a greater sense of peace and acceptance. The tricky times feel logical and manageable and I feel optimistic that they will pass. I can run across a bridge without thinking about jumping off (truly ... prior to starting the medication I had very dark thoughts as I ran across the bridges over Toronto's ravines; I wondered about instigating an "accident" as I rode my bike), and I've caught myself smiling - actually, authentically smiling - as I spin along a trail through the changing autumn leaves. I've woken both my children recently - on separate occasions - laughing uproariously out loud at a passage in a book. In situations that a year ago would have sent me into a tailspin I'm aware of a greater capacity to take what I need and release the rest. I have more clarity. I feel like me.
It's very possible that this is all placebo - I'm on the lowest possible dose of the medication. But I really don't care (I'm a big fan of placebo). Whatever the magic is, it is allowing me to engage in the deeper work that is the long road. It is allowing me to see myself more clearly, to sweep out the cobwebs in my spirit. For now, I'm content to continue using this tool - one of many in my repertoire of pursuing a full and meaningful life. Magic. Grateful.
I found myself with an unexpected week of vacation last week (how nice!). Usually my holidays are planned long in advance - I take them very seriously (like most things in my life!). However, this one was a bit more flexible. My kids were at their beloved camp. My partner would be working. I was on my own! I'm too restless to just indulge in a "stay-cation" - at home, there is always something to DO! My partner moved in with us the weekend before (eek!), and I felt a bit badly about immediately leaving - a bit too metaphorical for both of us! So the first two days were spent unpacking and organizing and culling (my things as well as his!). And then I set out for the start of what I hope will be a long-term project! I biked a section of the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail!
The trail is the result of an incredible effort and collaboration between the Waterfront Regeneration Trust and many local and national recreation trails. The path traces the Ontario edge of Lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River. It spans 3000 km through an enormous range of landscapes and communities, all in celebration of this amazing freshwater resource.
I happen to have dear friends who live in just the perfect positions along the trail for me to have connection, dinner, a beer and a bed on this leg of the journey. Kate, a soul sister from treeplanting in Kapuskasing lives in Niagara Falls. Heather, my kindred spirit from the University of Guelph is in Hamilton. Heather (yes, there are two) lives in the Toronto Beach neighbourhood - she and I are avowed life partners. All three women have beautiful husbands, and children that are a joy. What a way to spend a few evenings! And they all live approximately 80 km apart along the trail (I had planned to carry on to Whitby to visit with yet another couple I love ... next time).
I took the GO train to Burlington, and the bus from there to Niagara Falls. Hooray for infrastructure that supports bikes! I had a tough time maneuvering the bike rack on the GO bus ... the driver commented that I mustn't be an engineering student ... I was honoured that she thought I was a student at all!!! I enjoyed a wonderful evening with Kate at an amazing restaurant in St. Catherines, and thoroughly caught up - it had been a while! After a filling breakfast (thanks Fish family!), I set out on my bike. Kate's door to Heather's door should have been 80 km, but that would have cut off one of the most beautiful sections of trail. At the start of my ride, tacking an extra 20 km on to ride the Niagara Parkway didn't seem like a big deal. It really is a lovely route. Spectacular view of the river, fields of grape vine, impressive Fort George, picturesque Queenston and Niagara-on-the-Lake, local fruit stands ... it was tough to ride by all the ripe peaches and cherries, knowing I couldn't carry them on my bike! I did stop and enjoy a small sample.
The next part of the day took me along the lakeshore south of the QEW. The trail meandered through small towns, along proper park trails, and for sections, along the north service road. I stopped for an extended rest in Historic Grimsby Beach. I didn't realize until I got up and left the park that I was surrounded by the famous painted houses ... (I realized after my ride that I took next to no pictures, so others' will have to suffice). Continuing west along the lake, I eventually encountered Hamilton's beautiful Confederation Park. I was sorry to have to detour off the trail here ... but I was pretty pooped, and the shortest route to Heather's was through the city ... urban Hamilton riding isn't the best, but I rolled in in time for a delicious dinner of veggie burgers and Greek salad and a radler. Thanks Harvey Family!
I have a long history with riding. As a child, our family took extended bike camping trips. I am no stranger to long days in the saddle. My dad always reflected that cycling was a wonderful way to see the world ... fast enough to get somewhere, but slow enough to appreciate the world going by. I've driven the route between Toronto and Niagara innumerable times in my life, but by bike I was able to really take in the details. As an adult, I have done many long rides in the form of training for or competing in triathlons. The distance I was riding each day was comparable to the distance of the ride in a half-Ironman. For years I've been driven to train and improve and push myself physically. Recently I haven't had quite the same mojo. It was an interesting process on this ride ... rather than push myself, to listen to my body, to take my time, to enjoy the scenery. I didn't bring my GPS watch, and I didn't have an odometer. I could have done the math to figure out my pace, but really, to what end? I had no agenda, no itinerary.
Day two took me through Coote's Paradise (and up an insane 200 steps to meet the trail again!), past the Royal Botanical Gardens and into Burlington. Many lovely homes and parks along the lake through Burlington and Oakville, and I took the opportunity to look around and finish my cherries while gazing at the lake .... until a water truck parked right in front of my bench to water the flower beds ...
The second stretch of day 2 was very familiar to me. My partner lived (until just last weekend!) in Long Branch, and grew up in Clarkson (Mississauga). I've run and biked the trail between Clarkson and Toronto many, many times in the past five years. It was nice to revisit it, especially because - now that we live together! - I may not have as many opportunities! I met his mom and dad (and their little princess Fiona) for a stroll through the Rhododendron gardens near Port Credit. I planned to stop for a cone at Dairy Cream - the classic 50's hot spot - but there was a long, long line of kids from a local sailing camp humming and hawing over their preferred flavour, so I carried on. I'll be back Dairy Cream! Instead, I stopped for refreshments at Sweet Olenka's in New Toronto - delicious chocolate sweetness! I spun through the familiar sights across the Humber Bay bridge (reminds me of the beautiful bridge in my Japanese home of Fukuchiyama), past the butterfly habitat, and parallel to the Lakeshore and the Gardiner past Sunnyside bathing pavilion, the Boulevard Club and Ontario Place ... the beacon of the CN Tower looming larger all the time. I negotiated the minefield of Queen's Quay past the Harbourfront Centre, airplanes coming and going to the island airport all the while. Out past the Redpath sugar refinery and its namesake beach. Through the port lands - the Leslie Street Spit extending gracefully into the lake. Into Ashbridges Bay and the Beach where I enjoyed a relaxing evening with my partner and dear friends. Thanks Hudson-Cox clan!
And in the end? 190 km travelled. A very sore bottom. And the satisfied physical weariness of hard work. Time spent on my own and reconnection with love ones. A spark ignited to ride the rest of the trail! Only 2800 km to go!
A timely article given the debacle around sex education here in Ontario. Hats off to Rachel for her wise input! Part 1 and part 2. You're welcome!
Last week I took a giant step into a new frontier. After a lifetime of navigating a volatile mood, and a decade or so of very deliberate efforts to manage it, I decided to start a pharmaceutical anti-depressant.
I'm not gonna lie ... despite years of counselling others that taking meds isn't a failure ... that it creates the space to do the hard work of healing ... that it may make things a little lighter and more manageable ... that it's not a life sentence ... despite all of that, I still struggled with the decision. As a naturopathic doctor, this seemed like a last resort, and I struggled with feeling like somehow I was a failure for not being able to fix myself in a more natural way. I was afraid of side effects (most significantly the possibility of weight gain, which surprised me ... I've never lived with weight as a motivator, but this came burbling up when I pondered the meds), and was focusing more on them than on the possibility that they might help.
I have never been terribly even-keeled (ask my parents!) ... I feel deeply, and I generally celebrate my ups and downs as the rainbow of being human. For years I have practiced all the things I would recommend to a patient. I am a voracious exerciser, and have always felt better when I make it a daily priority. I eat well. I drink minimally. I don't smoke or do other drugs (though I have dabbled with edible marijuana recently as part of my explorations). I make sure to get the sleep I need (which in my case is a lot) and usually sleep deeply. I mostly enjoy my paid work, I volunteer, I have many hobbies. I have a spiritual community. I have a partner that loves and supports me. I have kids in whom I revel. My life has meaning and purpose. I am surrounded by powerful circles of loving and supportive family and friends. I've worked with therapists and practiced skills of mindfulness, gratitude, acceptance and cognitive-behavioural therapy. I've woven in evidence-based natural health products.
However, a series of events over the past year tipped the scales and left me lower than I ever remember being; even when circumstances improved, I couldn't climb out of the hole. A combination of more intense anxiety and depression punctuated by dark thoughts of not existing have forced me to take greater notice. The things I have always done for balance aren't balancing me anymore. My motivation has tanked. Exercise no longer helps - not only am I not driven to do it, I feel worse when I do - I feel weak and my body hurts all the time. I am exhausted constantly, not wanting to get out of bed. I resent my responsibilities and commitments - even those I willingly make. I am deeply affected by all the terrible things happening in the world and feel incapable of making a positive difference. I know my life is blessed - I can identify every wonderful thing. But I feel so little joy or genuine appreciation for it. It all seems unmanageable and heavy and dark, and in many ways, I feel guilty for having such abundance when so many others suffer. I feel like an ineffective teacher, doctor, parent, partner, child, friend. I am never doing enough and I don't have any more to give.
For a time, I wondered if this is due to age: my body not having the same energy as it once did; injuries taking longer to heal; maybe a bit of a midlife crisis. But I always imagined myself doing triathlons until I was 80 ... there is no good reason to feel this way at 40. I'm okay with slowing down, and I appreciate the concept of making transitions in life, but this feels like a particularly needless, abrupt, and unpleasant one. A colleague suggested that I learn from the stoics - embrace getting older with grace ... though when I watched the lecture he sent me, it only suggested doing all the things I am currently practicing.
Both my medical and naturopathic doctors ran a litany of tests. Did I have an autoimmune disease? A thyroid issue? "Adrenal fatigue"? We even did a sleep study to make sure my sleep was all I thought it was (that was an experience I never want to repeat!). All came back pristine - a good thing, but still leaves me without answers - the only thing left to check is Lyme, which is entirely possible given my lifestyle. When I suggested to both my MD and ND that I might be depressed, they questioned it ... saying I didn't "look" depressed.
Isn't that the thing though? A person struggling with depression doesn't always fit the classic profile of a low-affect, poor-hygiene slug dragging themselves (or not) through the day. I don't always want to get out of bed, but I pull myself up. I don't feel like exercising, but I arrive at my appointments by bike. I dread going to work, but I show up and invest in my patients, my students and my research. I make my family healthy dinners; I send birthday cards; I reach out to friends; I plan vacations; I shower (occasionally). How many stories have we heard lately of people committing suicide when no one knew they were struggling? I suspect most people see me as a capable, confident, energetic, strong person. I'm aware of my persona. I strive to be authentic, but it's tough to let on when things are hard. The effort of maintaining this identity makes everything infinitely harder. I am exhausted. (And let me comment on our cultural obsession with being "fine" ... such an internal debate every time I am asked how I am ... I want to be "great!" ... I'm not ... but that's the expected response, so as not to be a downer, or to burden the person asking. But it feels like such a lie.)
My MD wrote a prescription for an anti-depressant at my request. I wasn't sure if I was going to take it, planning to give the combination of a new therapist and a new supplement regime (along with being kind to myself) a few weeks to see if I felt better. However, I reacted to a relatively minor incident last week in a way that let me (and my loved ones) know that I am really having a hard time keeping a grip on things. My partner and my best friend both urged me to give the meds a try ... telling me all the things that I tell my patients (see above). My therapist agreed. A dear friend was staying with me the night that I walked to fill the prescription. She too has struggled with her mood for many years, and I have at times played a central role in supporting her journey. It seemed very symbolic that she was with me as I took my first dose. Despite weeks of doubting and second-guessing and self-judging, I felt hopeful. I know it will take a few weeks for my serotonin levels to rise to a degree that I notice an objective change, but in the meantime, I'm aware of a reassuring placebo effect. I connected with some of my dearest friends over that week - as it happens - and was deeply reminded that they have my back.
I still struggle with the idea of pathologizing human emotion. I truly believe that the terrible things in this world are worthy of our despair - but that awareness ideally motivates instead of buries. I don't want this medication to numb my compassion for others' struggles - I've been assured that this won't happen. I have always had high standards - for myself and others - and I don't want to stop caring. But I'm also aware that the weight I've been feeling has been interfering with my ability to act and to experience joy. That's not how I want to live. (And it's definitely not what I want to model for my kids.)
My goal is to be lighter. To be mindful of suffering, and find a way to release some resistance. Compassion for others shouldn't be mutually exclusive with my own sense of joy and gratitude. Striving for excellence is not opposed to extending kindness to myself. Someone once told me that nothing worth having is upstream - that blew my mind, because all my life I have worked so hard and taken things so seriously. Perhaps it's time to go with the flow a little more - at least as an experiment.
I will continue to practice acceptance of my emotions, even when they are difficult. I embrace sadness; anger; joy. Fear and disappointment are harder, but I will practice acceptance and curiosity about that too. I find solace and healing in the gifts of Thoreau, Emerson, Brown, Brach, Kabat-Zinn and others. I believe this is the ultimate solution to my suffering - embracing and loving my imperfect humanity with kindness, compassion and a sense of humour. And extending that loving kindness to others. This will likely be my life's lesson. In the meantime, I'm hoping sertraline will help make it all a little lighter.
Here's the latest - a DIY natural first aid kit, just in time for summer! You know you want it - you know you need it! Enjoy!
My daughter (9) and I were recently downtown; as we moved through a subway station, she pulled on my sleeve to ask for some money for a woman who was panhandling. Rachel was so affected by the woman's face; "She looked so sad mom! Her eyes! All these people were walking by her and no one was giving her anything!"
Both my kids have always been very attuned to folks they see on the street, and we've struggled over the years to navigate comfortable action. I know that on one hand giving a dollar to two to someone will not make a tremendous difference in the grand scheme of things ... but on the other hand, it might contribute to a bit more nutrition that day, or a smoke if that's what they need most, and at the very least, an acknowledgement of their humanity and dignity. I also feel overwhelmed by the visible (and invisible) need in our city. Especially when I think about the tremendous privilege my own children have ... more than one quarter of children in Toronto live in poverty, and many of the people we see asking for a hand are asking not only for themselves. And yet I can't give to everyone we see. It's not sustainable, and it's not a hand up. That's why I try to contribute in more tangible ways, such as volunteering for and giving to organizations that provide a more coordinated approach to supporting those that need it. Organizations that not only provide food and shelter, but employment services, barrier-free healthcare for body and mind, and education. A dollar a day in the hand of someone on the street is not likely to make as great an impact as a dollar a day to a fiscally-responsible organization that makes a coordinated impact. My kids know I volunteer my services regularly, and we make space for it as a family. My son is old enough now to volunteer himself at street-level - he will be attending a workshop on Sunday with a group that facilitates teens' efforts. We've organized food drives and book drives. We've baked cookies for shelters. Both my kids donate a third of their allowance to causes that are important to them.
And none of that is directly related to the disappointment and despair that Rachel saw in that woman's eyes. The struggle was made more real as we noted that we were headed to a birthday party for a friend. We had planned to stop on our way to buy a gift. It felt gross to both of us to have not helped this woman only to spend $30 to buy a gift for a friend who didn't need more stuff. In the end, she decided she wanted to give the money to someone in need, in honour of her friend's birthday. So that's what we did when we got off the train. I handed her the cash and she gave it to a man sitting amidst a stream of people. She will tell you how much the man's face lit up when he realized what she was giving him. "Thank you, little lady," he said, with his hand on his heart. She lit up too. And proudly wrote in a card for her friend a simple note about what she had chosen to do, though not sure if her friend would understand, or share her perspective. I was a little concerned too for Rachel. But when we picked her up from the party, the friend's parents immediately expressed their gratitude and appreciation for the gesture.
And though our small contribution may not have changed the world, it made that man's day a little brighter. It reminds me of the story of the starfish ...