Right moves and the universe moves too

Moving to new places is so weird. Like relationships, each experience, and how it comes to be, is completely unique.

When, in my mid 20s, I finally moved out of my parent’s house into Vancouver, I lived in a bachelor suite full of suites directly across from Vancouver City Hall. Amazingly, that house is still there, I think. One morning, I opened my door to leave and a dead mouse was perfectly positioned right in front of my door. I thought someone had put it there as a joke. I was indignant. I knocked on my neighbour’s door, who, at the time, I’d never seen nor heard nor met. I quizzed her on the dead specimen on the ground between our feet. Her name was Kelly. We became fast friends. She was at BCIT doing radio broadcasting. That’s how friendship happens. She’s in Edmonton now where she has lived for a long time and has been married forever, which, at the time, I would not have predicted.

When I moved to Salmon Arm all those year ago for a community newspaper reporting job, I moved there in a whirlwind, tears streaming down my face, because I didn’t really want to leave my former Journalism instructor who I was in the throes of the honeymoon phase of a relationship with. And we all know how that ended. Well, those of you who need to know, know. If that was SO LONG AGO, why is it still so completely vivid in my mind, like maybe it just happened ten years ago or something?

When I moved to the West End around 1999 or thereabouts, I moved into an old Art Deco building on Haro Street. It was so hot, every single window in the building was flung open 365 days a year. My landlord was a former youth care worker but a designer/artist at heart. He was in his mid-fifties at the time, I think, and he had a long grey beard and long scraggly grey hair always topped off with one of those square hats. When I walked into his apartment I was completely shocked. It was like walking back in time into some 16th century castle, all dark wood and iron, as if some Benedictine father might emerge from the galley kitchen.

In the West End, I became good friends with a woman named Heather. We met at work. Her husband, whom she’d been married to from the time she was 20, (she was about 40) had just passed away in six months from Multiple Myeloma. I can still recall us sitting in Delaneys coffee shop on Denman, surrounded by mostly gay men, tears streaming down her face, which I could usually turn into that hugely relieving crying-laughing emotion. We had a good friendship for a reason and a season.

When I moved to Salt Spring, I can still go immediately to that time in my mind and be filled with the most overwhelmingly joyous feelings. That little cottage had a little hot tub under the evergreens and a delicate feathering of wisteria climbing up the deck. Heaven! I would be in my car and I’d just be letting out sounds of happiness. I can say without a doubt, I’ve never been happier than when I first moved to Salt Spring.

I tried so many different things in the past five years. I mean, honestly, I don’t know too many people who put things “out there” as much as I did in the past five years trying to make SOMETHING happen. The Writer’s Studio. All those psychology and counselling psych courses trying to gather pre-requisites to apply to a Masters in Counselling Psych. Oxford Seminars, ESL course. Temping. I have the resume of a writer even if I’ve never written a book.

You want to talk to me about your shit. Go for it!  I won’t be taking it on but I’ll listen, with compassion because I. Have. Been. There. At least in my own unique way. Mine all mine. Get your own!

You know you’re really getting on when you’re suddenly proud of all you’ve overcome instead of being ashamed of it. THAT only took 50 years.

The last few years have been job interview after interview and so many stupid questions as if nobody has a brain left in their judging little heads and can’t use their intuition, references, and best of all, me, right in front of them as a good enough reason to say, “Okay, get your ass in here five days a week and we’ll pay you.” I’m still pissed about it but I just have to let it go.

Just a little while before this latest move, I was seriously preparing, mentally, to pack up and just move to Thailand. It’s why I took some ESL training in December even though teaching kids how to speak English, mansplaining in a female way, has never been all that high on things I’ve ever really wanted to do. Still, I was ready to do it.

I even got offered a job working in a place called Buriram or City of Happiness in the North of Thailand. I accepted the job, sent them a copy of my passport and never heard from them again. It just wasn’t MY happiness, I guess. Although I do think it would have been such an adventure. Thailand for the winter or a government job. Which would you take? I accept that if it was meant to be it would have happened. Besides, I’ve already been to Thailand.

I now have a very intimate understanding in a hugely positive way, (Salt Spring), and a not so positive way, (New West), that when The Universe thinks something isn’t quite right, it just won’t budge. And when it thinks it is right, you can practically just ly down, have a nap, forgetaboutallofit and things just fall into place, handed back to you on a silver platter.

I’m now here in Victoria, employed, within walking distance of my workplace which is in a brand new Leeds Platinum complex, which I can actually see from my balcony. Walking to work ETA: 10 minutes or less.

It’s as if your thoughts really do create your reality or something. Go figure?

Not getting on any kind of transportation to get to work was probably my number one criteria for a job, and yes, I realize that doesn’t actually have ANYTHING to do with work but that was my criteria. Now, done!

I’m feeling very positive about this move. I’m feeling like all that stuck nothingness leading up to this is going to be a distant memory very soon.

Hallelujah and gratitude!

A tried and true solution for retreating from the world: fiction

“Buddies” by gayle mavor

I’m sure I’m not the only person feeling overwhelmed by the ugly events in the world this week, this month, this year. It occurred to me that not since 9/11 have I felt so overwhelmed by circumstances out of my control. Today feels especially bad. I was wondering how to rid myself of these feelings of anxiety and angst and worry.

You could meditate, I told myself. I closed my eyes. Breathed in. Breathed out. Breathed in. Breathed out.  But I couldn’t stay with it. Not for more than a few times. I couldn’t stay with the breath. Not today, a day that most certainly is the kind of day that would benefit from such a practice, even though, my day, my safety, at this moment, unlike others, has not been threatened or decimated.

I opened my eyes and looked around.

I noticed a book on my coffee table. I’d checked it out of the library earlier this week. Flash Fiction International. Very Short Stories from Around the World.  I began flipping through it at random. I inhaled the one to three page stories and then I came across a story that seemed so perfect in its irony and in its sad truth that even though I shouldn’t feel better, I did. The act of reading, going somewhere else, words delivering an unexpected journey, beckoning through sentences, an escape from social media, was comforting. It reminded me that retreating into books, enduring monuments to the best of civilization, can help.

The book, Flash Fiction International, was published in 2015 and edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill., director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

The story I’m referring to above is called My Brother at the Canadian Border by Sholeh Wolpe (for Omid). On the story, the author, a woman, is identified as Iran/United States. I hope you’ll click on her website  and read this short piece of flash fiction.

Understanding trauma through storytelling

photo by gayle mavor. Art by Suzanne Fulbrook.

I went to a panel at the Growing Room Festival on Saturday called “No Way out but Through: Writing about Trauma.” The panelists were: Evelyn Lau, Christine Lowther and Sonnet L’Abbe with Elee Kraljii Gardener as the moderator. 

I was invited to be one of the active listeners. I’m not sure who suggested me. Someone, I suppose, who knows that I’ve taken quite a few counselling and related courses (eight to be exact) as pre-requisites to a Masters in the past few years. Poet Jonina Kirtan was the other active listener.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, nobody needed to talk to us.

Let me rephrase that. Some women may have benefited from sharing their feelings. There were no outward signs (except coughing) to indicate that. The thing about coughing is maybe you have a cold or maybe your emotion is being manifested through coughing.  Who’s to say.

How strangely serendipitous it should be that I would find myself being invited to that event because what some of the panelists had to say set off a bit of a light bulb moment for me in understanding that some of what I’m writing about is, of course, trauma-related. And if I re-examine some of the things I’ve been writing about from that perspective, it’s much clearer to me how to focus the stories and perhaps my entire manuscript with that in the background as the “golden thread” of explanation.

Evelyn Lau spoke to how she needed to be completely in her own space, in silence, in order to have the psychological space to work through her stuff.  She spoke about forming her commitment to writing long before a commitment to people.  “When talking hasn’t worked, writing is all that’s left.” And she also reminded us that trauma can also translate, eventually, into strength.” That, I believe, for me, has absolutely been true.

As a writer, a storyteller, you have to decide who you serve. Do you serve the writing or do you serve the people around you? Christine Lowther recalled hearing that (from Evelyn Lau) and as a result, (and she’s not alone in this experience based on what I’ve heard from other writers), she’s had relatives not speak to her for periods of time because of some of the things she’s written.

I think it was Elee Kraljii who said “the closer you are to a trauma, the more catharsis feels like the impetus for the writing. Years later, however, if you are still writing about it, it can feel psychologically damaging.”  Interesting insight to mull over.

Christine Lowther has been writing/re-writing about one specific image left over from a childhood experience, approaching that trauma and having new memories surface to add new layers and different ways into the story.  

She recalled having some student say to her 20 years ago, “Well, I hope you’re not going to be writing about this 20 years from now!” And she still is.  And maybe that’s what every writer is doing. Writing about the things that were the impetus for writing in the first place, in only slightly revised ways, but with layer upon layer of new insights impacting the words on the page.

Sonnet has this incredible project where she’s using Shakespeare’s sonnets to write around and interject her own writing over top of them, layering her experience as a woman of a Guyanese, South Asian and African mixed descent over some of the most seminal works in British colonialism.  I hope I understood that correctly.

I don’t know when trauma became a commonly referred to word but it didn’t exist when I was growing up. Or if it did, the depth of understanding related to it is greater now. At least that’s how it seems to me.  After a lot of therapy, some education and my own insights, I can’t help but see how that term – trauma – gets loaded with so much misinformation and misunderstanding.

Our stories, after all, are just our stories. They don’t come with labels alerting us to the clinical box they might fit inside. We can so easily forget to recognize how the scenes we’ve been a part of in life can be defined clinically in ways that we can so easily overlook. Sometimes that acknowledgement, not just in life, but on the page, can not only lead us to be kinder to ourselves, but to a more cohesive narrative.

Finding love and finding meaning, the human reasons to keep going

buddhaWhen we entered the temple last week we were told that we couldn’t go into the Hondo because a family was grieving and we’d have to enter in a little while.

Later we learned that it was actually the family of that young woman , Natsumi Kogawa, from Japan who had gone missing in September. Her body was found on the grounds of that mansion on Davie Street in Vancouver’s West End. They had come from Japan to plan her memorial service. It’s impossible to comprehend the sad reality that her family is now facing.

All I could think of was the excitement this young woman surely felt in coming to Vancouver, in improving her English. In thinking about all the new friends and experiences she imagined having before stepping onto the plane from Japan, and how unlikely it was that something like whatever transpired and that led to her death would happen to her here. 

As my attention focused back on the room, I wondered what had motivated all my fellow students to take an introduction to Buddhism course. I wanted to know their real motivation, deep inside, not the sanitized reason they shared about being interested in Buddhism and wanting to learn more.

For myself the past few years have all been about seeking, some people might say to my detriment. They would say that I just need to find a way to accept my life where I’m at. But I think I’ve finally recognized that it goes against my temperament to ever be satisfied for lengthy periods of time if things just stay the same and if I know I could be doing so much more, and I can’t seem to make that work where I’m at.  Isn’t that what “life” is about – experiences and moving through change?

Some things haven’t worked out, in fact, sometimes it feels like nothing has worked out very well in the past few years, and with  Salt Spring as the contrast where everything just felt like it was seamless and worked out with ease and little effort, the opposite has been a shock, another disappointment, an ongoing frustration and endless questioning about what I’m missing that surely must be right in front of me. 

On the other hand, the trying to make things work have led to the meeting of many people I wouldn’t have otherwise met and learning, and yet, I’m missing the key ingredients it seems: love in the way I feel I need it or would like to share it (which may be the problem and I’m smart enough to recognize that)  and meaning.

Zen Buddhism was the topic on our last week given by Reverend Michael Newton of Mountain Rain Zen Community at 2016 Wall Street and a professor in religious studies at SFU.

There were two things that really stood out for me from his words. The first was about how when we wake up from the stories we’ve been telling ourselves, stories that others have told about us since we were children that may or may not reflect who we really are, and we let go of those stories from the past, we can begin to step into the beautiful, clear presence, that’s the essence of Zen.

Each person according to their past and their uniqueness finds unique truths and that is why the truth cannot be told. Someone else cannot tell you your truth. You must find it within. Truth comes from your own experiences, your own practice.

That really resonated with me in the moment because I feel that looking around, looking at others isn’t giving me the answers I need, isn’t showing me my own very personal path. Their answers, their way of living, is not mine. So it requires that I get to the heart of what matters as my own very personal truth about my own life.

Yesterday as I was driving to a friend’s place to hear about her recent trip to Morocco, I was lucky to catch a radio show, Meaningful Man, on CBC Sunday Morning. It was about Viktor Frankl, the former Holocaust survivor, a brilliant man, and the author of  the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that apparently poured out of him in nine days, and one that he had to dictate into a recorder to capture the manic stream of thoughts.

Today on Twitter, I’ve learned that Oct. 10th is World Mental Health Day, and I think some of the ideas spoken within the above documentary have the potential to bring comfort, or at least food for thought, to anyone who is struggling.  Please set aside about 50 minutes to listen to it.

Online learning knows no boundaries

“The best poetic moments are moments when you’re allowed to reside in the moment without looking to the future,” – Jonathan Bates, University of Warwick.

In the past year I’ve learned, firsthand, the value of online education.

It started out when I took a course in Developmental Psychology for credit through Athabasca University. In spite of my initial resistance to doing an online course, I found it a much more enjoyable way to learn than being stuck in a lecture hall, hearing just one human, blah, blah, blah ad nausea and surrounded by others who, of varying degrees, may or may not want to be in the course.

In the Athabasca online course there were pretests and post tests and challenges and study tips and it was a much more interactive and focused experience than I expected it to be and it resulted, for me, in what seemed like greater retention of the subject matter than is typical for me.

More recently I completed a four week online course about PTSD in U.S. Veterans and how to interact with them and their families. It was called Mental Health Care for Family Members of Post 9/11 Veterans: Practical Approaches to Addressing the Impact of the Invisible Wounds of War on Families.

It was offered through the Massachusetts General Hospital and directed mainly at therapists and mental health professionals. Registering as a student, they let me in and it was free.  There were role-playing therapy exercises that were videotaped that used experienced therapists doing therapy with volunteer actors and volunteer military family members to demonstrate interventions. They highlighted the intergenerational model, how to manage substance abuse and communication methods using the CRAFT model,  as well as educating around the DSM V definition of PTSD including symptoms to ask about and be aware of. The videotaped sessions, and then a roundtable of case exploration at the end was so fantastic in terms of giving insight into key factors to be aware of in working with many of the common problems that arise in this specific population. But would be transferrable to others.

More recently, I saw a course offered through the University of Warwick and a portal called FutureLearn.com about Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Well Being. In this recent course, very well-known personalities, Stephen Fry and Sir Ian McKellan, along with university professors discuss the impact of literature, poetry specifically, on stress reduction and mindfulness. It’s wonderful to hear and see others, especially an actor of McKellan’s quality, read a poem aloud beside the river Thames in keeping with the lines in the Wordsworth Poem, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge.’

When I read this poem below, it was my favourite of the bunch. By the late W.H. Davies, a welsh poet.

Leisure

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

The discussion boards on this course on Literature and Mental Health have a ridiculous number of comments, up to 2,500 on a single question.  It’s AMAZING!  The students are dropping in from all over the world via their computer screens. There is no reason to leave your house anymore. And yes, that is a problem!

There has perhaps never been a better time to embrace lifelong learning than in any other time in history, and the fact that it’s free elicits delight indeed!

Have you ever taken an online course? What was your experience? Do you even think about how you can continue to learn into old age and all the ways that’s possible?

Cultural appropriation or reverence?

nativebracelet2With all the talk in Canada these days fuelled by the new Liberal government in relation to Aboriginal peoples, I opened this blog, my blog, and realized not for the first time (but with deeper consideration) that what people see is a photograph in the header of a bracelet created by an Aboriginal man and I’m a middle- aged white chic.

What’s THAT image got to do with anything relevant to my life?

I wear this bracelet every day, and a silver with gold ring that was given to me by the UBC Department of Computer Science, after I worked there for almost four years doing Communications for them.

It was such a special gift and so amazing to receive because it was something more than I could have imagined any work place would ever give me, and because it represented something that I really revere: Aboriginal art and the culture it emerges from.

After all these years, (I left there in November 2006), I almost never take it off and it has become a part of my identity, a comfort, a symbol of rightness in feeling, when it’s on.

I realize that I have never even acknowledged the artist who created it, and now, unfortunately, I’m having trouble really recalling who that was. It could be Tony Hunt Jr.  The image on the bracelet is representative of the Wolf.

mynativebracelet

I’m thinking about this now because it is so heartening to see that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is at least moving in the right direction in terms of inclusivity and acknowledgement of Aboriginal peoples trying to build on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As a non-aboriginal person, it can feel awkward speaking to aboriginal anything. Are you using the right terminology? What’s the difference between indigenous, aboriginal, and First Nation’s? Here’s an article from UBC about this topic of terminology. I’m hoping it’s as up to date as it should be in terms of understanding.

Where’s the line between appreciation and cultural appropriation? Is it wrong to call in aboriginal dancers and carvers at every major event (think Olympics) while throughout our country our lack of valuing Aboriginal peoples is carved into the landscape in reserves without running water, in missing and murdered aboriginal women whose numbers continue to grow, in the homeless,  in our prisons where the percentage of Aboriginal people is disproportionate.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2013/2014, Aboriginals account for one-quarter of admissions to provincial/territorial correctional services in spite of representing three percent of the Canadian adult population.  They made up 26% of total custodial admissions in 2013/2014.

Recently I was reading a paper written by Amrita Roy from Manitoba about Inter-generational Trauma and the implications for Mental Health in Aboriginal Women during pregnancy.

One of the sentences in this paper that really struck with me was this one: “The explicit patriarchy embedded into Aboriginal societies by missionaries, residential schools and the Indian Act have yielded inequities and oppression based on gender (LaRoque, 1994). It goes on to talk about how “the symptoms of the Intergenerational Trauma experience have been absorbed into the culture and transmitted as learned behaviour from generation to generation”(Sotero, 2006, p. 96).

When I read what now seems like such an obvious statement,  I had this lightning bolt realization that of course there is a connection between  missing and murdered aboriginal women and this history relative to Aboriginals, especially Aboriginal women, in Canada.

Now, you might think to yourself, “Duh, where have you been?” But, to really realize how the history of patriarchy has played out in the individual lives of aboriginal peoples, and focus that lens on how that continues to impact girl children and women, with the most obvious signs being that of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal girls and women, seems pretty key to learning how to overcome the humanitarian crisis in Canada in relation to Aboriginal people in general, and girls and women in particular.

So, that’s a very convoluted thought process to say that I wear this bracelet because it was a beautiful gift, because of what it represents to me in what I have overcome in my own life and how that specific job was a part of that, and for hope that understanding through cultural sharing can create a bridge to emotional recovery and success.

Revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

It must have been about 20 years ago now that I started to read the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values and then, like a lot of people, I got a little overwhelmed by the density of the content in spots and put it down.

I love reading about road trips. I have fantasies about being a motorcycle owner and riding off into the sunset. Who hasn’t?  Robert Pirsig’s descriptions along the way kept me engaged even though I was increasingly frustrated by not really understanding what the philosophy behind the book was really about. I didn’t get it.

A few months ago, I heard a really engaging radio documentary about the book which brought it back to life, and as you might have noticed in your own life, the universe conspired to put the content right in front of me, albeit in a bit of a round about way.

I stumbled across, Zen and Now, a book written by Mark Richardson, the editor of the Wheels section of the Toronto Star newspaper. Richardson published his book in 2008 after doing the Pirsig Pilgrimage, following the route that Robert Pirsig took with his young son, Chris, back in 1968. Pirsig’s book was published in 1974.

Richardson had an inkling about writing a book before he took off on his copycat journey in 2008 but really wasn’t sure he would follow through on it.

What I enjoyed most about Richardson’s book was the background information on Robert Pirsig’s life, written with the advantage of history on Richardson’s side.

Robert Pirsig is still alive. His son, Chris, was robbed and murdered outside a Zen monastery in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco when Chris was 22-years-old.

Pirsig is now 86-years-old according to Google and his whole life (at least to the public) has been defined (for better or worse) by taking that motorcycle journey from Minneapolis to San Francisco and his compulsion to write about it, and then follow the first book up with a second book, Lila: An Enquiry into Morals.

If you’re interested, here’s Mark Richardson’s website, Zen and Now.

Here’s a timeline of Robert Pirsig’s life: http://www.psybertron.org/timeline.html

Watch an 8 minute video and hear Robert Pirsig speak and hear how the title of the book came to him.

Here’s a discussion group on the Metaphysics of Quality. http://moq.org/

I now have the little pink paperback, the original Pirsig book. I purchased it at a used bookstore near UBC and I’m feeling a little more ready to commit to getting through it this time, now that I’m a little more clued in to what he was trying to communicate.