The auntie thing…

As my nephew and I sat on the back deck drinking beer, watching the trees, and discussing the state of the world, I remembered my relationship with Aunt Mabel, when I was his age – mid twenties.

We’ve lived nearby since he was a little boy.  He spent a lot of time over the years on our shady front porch, painting pictures, or watching the birds. I too grew up with the experience of regular visits from my aunt, who would always spend  one on one time with me, talking about any subject under the sun – no holds barred.

She didn’t bring me story books about fairy princesses; she brought unusual things – like a book about “Indian Corn”*.   She gave me the experience of respect; of valuing my curiosity and interest – when I was widely considered ‘dumb’.   She introduced me to “alternative” everything: religions, health theories, even yoga before most people had heard of it.  She was an explorer.  I believe that’s why I am too.

Interesting thing, that.  The impact of different adults on us.  But she was outnumbered in my life.  Far too long,  due to my father’s dominant influence, I cared about other peoples’ opinions more than I should.  So, for instance, when she married late in life  a southern gentleman who was a racist, I distanced myself from her in a fit of  embarrassment and intellectual snobbery.  She eventually moved far away, and I had virtually no relationship to her for many years.

Before she died, I visited her.  One day I told her how much she had meant in my young life.  Suddenly I saw in her eyes, in her face, the deep hurt I had caused her, the loss it had been for her.  For the first time really, it wasn’t about me.  And as with all histories, there was nothing I could do to erase it.

I have a number of regrets like this.  The thing about regrets is that they are useless – a waste of energy – unless we can find a way to turn them into something positive.  It’s like basic arithmetic, in a way: perhaps it will take two or three positive contributions to the world, to take away my negative acts.  I’m working on it.


Posted in aunties, awareness, experience, Insight, Memories, reflections, relationships | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

“Do unto others…all the rest is commentary.”

Okay, folks; it’s been a tough-ish few months, I admit.  At times it’s been challenging to focus long enough to write a paragraph.

On March 22nd, it was Raymond* whose twinkling eyes and affectionate smile would no longer warm our lives.  On April 16th, my friend A** quietly passed away in the armchair where she spent most of her time.  And April 22, my dear friend Teresa*** lost her battle with cancer.   Three friends in a month.   Leaves me feeling a shocked respect for life.  And a strong urge to live it as fully and richly as I can….

Yesterday Raymond’s family, friends and other loved ones, held a big, beautiful, celebration of his life.  There must have been 200 or more who just didn’t want to let him go, and needed to say this out loud, to live music.   It was held in a large, white, lofty-high room.  Up high on a far wall as we walked into the room, was a huge black and white photo of him – the best I’ve seen – projected with a quote, “Do unto others… all the rest is commentary.”   With live classical guitar playing softly in the background, it had quite an impact.

Everyone who knew him had known that smile, and the resonance of his voice; easy to imagine him as a spiritual leader of some kind.  He often seemed that way to me.

His brother in law, a poet, said, “He wrapped his personality around people the way others give a hug;  Both feel good but his had an added warmth in touching friends and strangers equally. “  He referred to Ray’s “27 years of relentless advocacy” —   primarily for people with disabilities.   In his advocacy – and consciousness-raising – role, he founded Abilities magazine (and the foundation that supported it).   His wife, whom he demonstrably adored, probably was inspired by him, and inspired him too – she who rapelled down a skyscraper in her wheelchair —  gave a passionate and inspiring talk reminding us of how Ray could live on through us.  And the world would indeed be transformed if  more of us lived by his values.

In the quest to make the world a better place, there are many warriors and worker bees.  Raymond Cohen inspired and led them, and in the process left the world a much finer place than it was when he entered it.

I was one of the worker bees he inspired.  When I wanted to influence change in the community and wasn’t sure how to begin, I turned to him.  We met for breakfast at Aris, a favourite neighbourhood restaurant.  In his usual open, generous spirit, he shared his insight and wisdom, as smart and witty as ever.

He was modest.  He never mentioned in my presence receiving the Queen’s Jubilee Medal last year.    He was a quiet hero to many —  a kind of knight in shining armour,  especially in the last year or two of his life, when he carried on despite what must have been great discomfort.

He was my close friend’s brother, and over the last three decades made me feel like a sister and family member.  Several days before he died, we had a quiet dinner, the six of us.   When I kissed him goodbye, he said “bye sweetie.”  No big deal.  And yesterday, when everyone was trying to sing ‘The times they are a-changing” through their tears, I kept hearing “bye sweetie”.

Posted in accessibility, advocacy, friendship, grieving, Inclusion, loss, Raymond Cohen, values | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Ah, insurance! Let me count the ways…

These days we’re seeing an increasing consciousness about ‘mental health’ issues.  We seem less aware of how such issues can affect insurability – or even employability.  The same could be said about physical ailments.  So when I think about the underlying problem, what comes up? The insurance industry.  And the way we do things of course:  “The system”.

There’s a thread running through each individual’s experience (story?), starting with an individual’s ‘symptom’ – whether physical or emotional – the doc has to come up with a ‘diagnosis’.  Why is that diagnosis so important?   Well, the doctor has to categorize the service he offered in order to be paid.  For any prescription to be filled: category.  For any insurance claim: category or diagnosis.  And so it goes.  Slots.  Categories.  Little boxes.

And this is where the trouble starts.  Ever fill out a travel insurance form (for example) and come across a question along these lines?

During the past 5 years, have you been diagnosed with any medical condition, received treatment (including medications and consultations), or been hospitalized for any medical, mental, or nervous conditions?  

Coincidentally, I’ve had two friends die weeks apart recently – both uninsured and uninsurable, in both cases because of what Americans call “pre-existing conditions”.  The problem exists here too.

My friend A* had “schizophrenia”, but this had little to do with her death (though some believe her anti-psychotic meds could have contributed).  No, her pre-existing condition was the heart-attack and quadruple bypass that occurred in her late forties.   She was “lucky”.  Her late husband had died about six years ago, leaving her well taken care of.  Good thing he died first, right?

My friend R’s pre-existing condition was the Hepatitis C he’d contracted about 30 years earlier.  Ironically he lived a lot longer than many who had no problem getting insurance.  His wife also lives with a pre-existing condition that could happen to anyone; she is now a widow having to cope with both her condition, and her new financial straits.  Talk about unfair.

It’s all about ‘risk’ and numbers – arithmetic.   People are not numbers; but you’d never know it from insurance industry policies.

Of course the insurance industry is private, market-driven, for-profit, and I sometimes wonder if that’s appropriate.  Do we need a long, loud, public discussion about the need for a new human right: the right to insurance?

Posted in insurance, non-profit, pre-existing condition, profit, social justice | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moms + family cultures

This being Mother’s Day, I posted a photo of my Mom on Facebook.  I found myself remembering mothers I once knew.  Of course, we’re talking about the Father-Knows-Best/Ozzie-and-Harriet era, when moms were always there for you, always had wise answers for the young, and always resolved conflicts in a sweet, brilliant way.  Need I say these things didn’t really happen that much?

My Mom, Edie,  actually was there for us, all day, every day.  And as the oldest of five siblings, I know they would all agree she was the sweetest Mom we ever knew. But one or two others did come close, I’ll admit.

There were a few real ‘characters’ in that group – not at all like our collective ‘memory’ of suburbs in the fifties.

One of my favourite Moms was Mrs. O’Connor, mother of six unique characters as well.  I remember her on at least one occasion,  in the living room in her bra and pants (in the fifties, mind you!), smoking a little pipe, watching television.  She did not do housework, and made sure we knew that.  An early feminist?

Am I even remembering her accurately – or has she too become one of my internal myths?  To me, she was fascinating.  She made me think.  We felt welcome, never judged – ‘free to be’. I found it a downright exciting atmosphere – at 12 or 13, I had the feeling that just about anything could happen there at any moment.   The fifties were ‘the fifties’ because most people wouldn’t dare behave unconventionally – which is why the O’Connor home was such a great place to be.

Remembering the O’Connors helps me see things more clearly.  I long attributed my teenaged misery to ‘suburbia’; but I would now have to acknowledge the role of my ‘family culture’.  Mom would have been freer, more spontaneous, but for our little critical-judgmental sub-culture.  This was my father’s family culture dominating.  (Would that be the notorious ‘dominant male’ phenomenon?)   This kind of family culture tends to erase individuality and creativity, replaced by learning how to ‘measure up’ and ‘do the right thing’.

When I think about all that, I often find myself searching for a blame-label: was it “Scottish Presbyterian” culture?  Was it “Protestant ethic”?  And deep down I understand that it’s not healthy to be looking for a label – that’s like easy answers.

Looking back at the O’Connors, I am forced to admit that it comes down to individual ‘family cultures’, and theirs must have been relatively unconcerned about what others might say about them.  Ours was far too concerned.

And after all is said and done, 53 years on, I can’t even say how they might have ‘turned out’.  I can say that each of the five children in my family was profoundly affected by our family culture.

We five could probably debate ad nauseum about the details, so I shall speak only for myself.   I can say that I was 70 before I began to leave behind the critical-judgmental internalized voice I carried with me always.  The same voice that prevented me from speaking in front of groups, or  any kind of visibility really; I quit my beloved peace movement because after eight years, I was becoming slightly visible.  That voice filled my soul with shoulds and shouldn’ts of every variety, always reminding me in a whisper that I was supposed to be self-conscious, embarrassed, shy, humble.   That voice never let me thrive.  I’d bet my bottom dollar the O’Connor kids don’t have voices like that.  I’ll bet they’ve thrived.

I was 70 before I began to understand that I had as much right as anyone else to be totally imperfect and just enjoy the pleasures of living.   My family culture had – however unintentionally — reinforced a belief that I had some kind of moral obligation to aim for perfection, and try to hide my flaws.

Mom was a kind person, who welcomed differences.  But in my family’s belief system at the time, one was “born” kind, not bred to be; and the same would be said for other character traits.  So we were not taught to respect each other, to be kind to each other, generous, and so on.  It was just assumed we were each a certain way.  Nothing we could do about it.  Later most of us realized that we did have some choices in this life, and my own belief is that the awareness of choices, and then the choosing, is the beginning of personal power.

I’ve had conversations with siblings about this over the years, and we’ve reached a stage of mutual affection and appreciation.  Interesting that in my 70s, in my evolving, gray-haired radicalism, I’d love to sit down with those O’Connors and chew the fat over how it was then, and how it is now.  All this, from thinking about mothers.

Posted in criticism, family culture, mothers, reflections, the fifties | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

My tender cafe

How precious is the kindness and gentleness that surrounds me every day.  I treasure it.  It is part of a sub-culture hard to find in many places.  I think that’s why I head here every morning.  I can’t imagine a better place to start the day.

It is expressed in the generosity of people who readily invite others to sit at their  table, when the place is full, or donate a ten or a twenty in case someone comes along who can’t afford a coffee or a breakfast.   And there isn’t a split second of wondering whether that donation will go where it’s supposed to.

Someone recently took a fiver out of the tip jar though, and everyone assumed the thief must have really needed it.  No one got upset.

For about two weeks,  a woman shuffled in when the doors opened every day. obviously exhausted, obviously without a home, she’d have a coffee, sip it awhile, then nod off for the morning.  The group of men who sat a few tables from her, spoke in lowered voices the whole time,  patiently.  If there were such a thing, I’d give them the “Lovable Guys” award.   The scenario is typical here.

Over the years, people of perhaps a less compassionate spirit have gradually emigrated to the newer cafes opening up as the neighbourhood gentrifies.   They contribute their attitude to different café cultures down the street, while making room here for these warm creatures.  For me, it is fascinating how even the choice of a café is an expression of who we are, in much the same way as we choose our clothing each day.

It is also often an expression of our needs.  And I, in my two months of grieving three lost friends, express and fulfill my own need for the comfort I find here.   They naturally overlook the shadows under my eyes, as I heal.

Posted in cafe culture, compassion, generous, grieving, kindness, reflections | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The toilet at my favourite cafe

Your bum
My bum
His bum
Her bum
Their bums
Some bums
Many bums
Any bums
Smart bums
Dumb bums
Old bums
Young bums
Dirty bums
Clean bums
Large bums
Small bums
Fast bums
Slow bums
Wary bums
Smelly bums
Lovely bums
Sweet bums
Rich bums
Poor bums
Caring bums
Sharing bums
Posted in humour, Poetry, toilet | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What’s in a name?

People change their names for so many reasons.  I first became aware of this with women I knew who changed their names as a part of their working through experience of abuse.

Then there are those who have felt oppressed for one reason or another, and something about a new name feels liberating.  In many cases, the magical power of the name reflects a religion or other belief system they have adopted.

It’s kind of a shame really, to select either a name or belief system in one’s youth.     The insight and wisdom that might make for better choices doesn’t generally happen in the first 35 years of life – and the early choices may themselves have a profound impact on the person’s future.  On the other hand,  the individual’s choices then become a part of his story.   Besides, there’s no guarantee that age will bring wisom!

Then there are those who change their names for ‘practical’ reasons – often seen in new immigrants who think a name like Bob or John will remove at least one of the obstacles to fitting in.  This happened more in my generation, when there was high pressure to conform.

Above all, we did not want to be unusual in any way.  Even having an old-fashioned name – like Hector during the Bob-and-John era – was an excuse for teasing.  Absurd, really.   I remember when Elvis Presley hit the bigtime – we adolescents spent the following school day talking about his ‘funny name’.  The jokes soon stopped.

At the end of the day – or at the end of a life – the name is just a label for identification.  What it has become, its meaning, its poetry, depends entirely on the person behind it or under it – and how he lives. However odd a name may seem at the first sound, it may well be sweet as a cello by the end of a life.  Someday, people may even sing it.

Posted in beliefs, choices, heritage, identity, Insight, names, psychology, reflections | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Notes from the blogosphere #2 (+ last!)

As the world-wide web becomes foreground, national borders become background.   Other languages recede, and English – the language that just happens to be in the right place at the right time in history – has become the most used language in the freest  forum of the world: the internet.

For someone like me, this is an incredible stroke of luck.  I am endlessly curious and interested in how the world and the human race are evolving.    Most of the world’s conversations about those things are happening on the internet.   As it happens, I can follow a lot of it because I had the amazing good fortune to be born into the English language.

And what a vast new world to explore out there: There are brilliant experiments in concepts, in teaching, in communicating.* Yet not everyone is experiencing it.  Sometimes I feel like the guy who opens the curtain at showtime: for awhile I can see on both sides of the curtain, but the busy people on either side of that curtain can’t see each other, can’t hear each other, don’t know each other, and are definitely not communicating with each other.

People who still get their information and entertainment from periodicals and TV and don’t spend much time online, really have no idea what a vast and amazing new world is forming out there – just out of sight.

There’s the “Creative Commons” for example.  Begun in 2002 by Lawrence Lessig – as a non-profit, the Creative Commons “seeks to support the building of a richer public domain”, and it does.   As an example, Wikipedia says, “as of October 2011, Flickr alone hosted over 200 million Creative Commons licensed photos”.   What is Wikipedia?**  Yet another free online phenomenon: an encyclopedia contributed to by users.  Wikipedia describes itself as “an online community of individuals interested in building and using a high-quality encyclopedia in a spirit of mutual respect.”  Both Creative Commons and Wikipedia operate in a spirit of trust, the extent of which is amazing.

Both of these online phenomena are there for the enrichment of us all, and they are constructed out of good will as much as anything.   They are both instantly accessible to all through “Google” – no doubt the world’s most popular search engine.  I ‘googled it’ is a common phrase.  If I perform a search for information on a subject I’m curious about, Google will provide me – in most cases – with anywhere from dozens to millions of sources.  It will help me refine my search, and I will likely end up with a selection among which I can explore.  They could range from websites spouting nonsensical belief systems to objective scientific journals – and it is up to me to decide which to trust.

Learning which sites to trust is a lot like learning what people to trust, or learning the best path to a location.  Just another part of this Brave New World!

Another phenomenon is the free availability of instructions-made-easy for just about every skill or machine in existence.  If your thingamajig came with instructions you didn’t understand, there’s a good chance someone out there on the world wide web will make it easier for you —  probably with a video demonstration.  Want to learn how to lip-read, or how to give yourself a perm, it’s out there.  Or – how to blog.*** Even more amazing is the increasing availability of university courses – even credits – online, free.

Becoming a part of this world is as easy as turning on a computer, and hooking up to an internet service provider – which are freely available in most urban centers of the world.  Many of us became regular users long ago, and have evolved an online culture that moves freely about the world like mist, over borders and through sky-rises, invisible but real,  changing the world as we speak.

Ah, but this is dry!  I think I’ll go look for a new idea somewhere…




Posted in blogging, education, enrichment, Internet, modern life, social change, video | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Notes from the blogosphere #1

The process of blogging has been such a rich learning experience. It reminds me of wandering  through a forest.  At first, it is strange; we notice more over time, like the leaves turning when rain is coming.   Ever so subtly we leave behind feeling intimidated by it all.   And finally we are comfortable with it.

A friend asked me about blogs, what is a blog, how is blogging different from email, and so on.  And I’m sure millions are going through this in a similar way, because it’s a new experience and in the last few years the activity has exploded.  There are currently over 65 million WordPress sites alone** and still growing.

It’s a little like the beginning of TV.   When I was a little girl, the people across the street got the first TV in the neighbourhood.  Suddenly we were all visiting them.  I can remember sitting on their floor amidst a cluster of kids, staring at the small screen of black and white – or more like shades of gray.  As often as not, we’d be watching two men talking.  We stared and stared – as if to make sense of it.  And aren’t most significant new life experiences like that?   All about making sense of them….

So what is blogging, to me?  It’s not like writing a book, or an article, having it published, then perhaps a response of some kind appearing months later.  And it’s not like emails.  Those are essentially just a faster, much easier, way of letter-writing.  It’s more than that – more like a new kind of conversation.  And it’s new in more than just a ‘technological’ way, like when the telephone became commonplace.

When we ‘blog’, while we are starting a conversation of sorts, we don’t really know with whom we’re communicating.  Anyone in the world with an internet connection might read what we just said.   They may or may not respond.  They may “pass it on” – changing our message or misinterpreting it, like the old ‘telephone’ game, or they may just pass on our internet address.

Until recently there were many social rules governing conversations.  For example, we didn’t talk about certain things.  (Some things we weren’t even supposed to think about!).  Fewer and fewer people live by these rules with each passing year.

Whatever the idea, if you can think it, you’ll find someone else out there in the blogosphere – perhaps even a whole group – who’ve thought about it too.  Well, there goes that rule, about topics out of bounds.  You may even find a whole worldwide movement around what you just thought about for the first time.  Or perhaps you’ve been thinking it for decades and just now stopped feeling alone for the first time.

There’s an entirely new dimension happening to our communications and changing us, the human race; changing how we see, hear, read, even reflect.  Even how we see each other. It’s something about the peculiar combination of the speed and the numbers of communicators involved.  Vast numbers of people around the globe, communicating at faster-than-light speed.  Like ‘the universe’ somehow.  It is a universe.  It is humanity getting to know itself face to face.

As with other areas of human interaction, we are all learning a new ‘etiquette’ of blogging.  It has more to do with ‘structure’ than content.  And we are learning –how to live with it, how to relate to it, how to fit it into our lives, like electricity, or sidewalks.

Some people are feeling this new territory is ‘unnatural’, and somehow harmful to us or to civilization.  Some see it as a barrier between or among people, rather than a connector.  Some ‘unhook’ themselves from it, issuing dire warnings to the rest of mankind.   Others welcome it, the way no doubt many welcomed books into their lives centuries ago.

Come to think of it, the Catholic Church tried to control what was read by followers until “The Index”* was abolished on June 14, 1966, by Pope Paul VI.  In a similar way, it appears that governments of the world, corporations and other bodies would like to control what we access online and how we use the internet.  On the internet as in other media, the ongoing virtually hidden war between transparency and “security” (secrecy) continues.

In blogging, self-expression and ideas are transmitted faster and further than ever before in the history of the human race – sometimes even translated on the way.  In the sixties, a relatively small counter-culture revolution took place, led by “baby boomers”,  that created change in the world.  I have high hopes for those same boomers as they retire: there is something of a new revolution taking place, in a much broader context.

For awhile, we in the blogosphere were still learning how to blog.  But now, blogging has become an enormous world-wide forum, which people are beginning to use for social change.  The other day I read a blog about some Americans experimenting with conversations in their living rooms, trying to find common ground with former political enemies.  Enough polarization.

I myself have begun small ‘living room’ discussions related to affordable housing and urban planning.  Every day I read about more such efforts at social change. Who knows – we may yet put an end to war!   Just wait til the ‘military-industrial complex’ hears about this!

*the R.C. church list of banned books, movies, etc.)


Posted in baby boomers, blogging, change, communication, experiment, Internet, social change, urban planning, values | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Neighbourhood fascists?

I’m sitting across from someone who should know better, but he says “Well I don’t want tall buildings either!”  We’ve been talking about the need for densification to reduce urban sprawl, slow down gentrification and increase affordability – my favourite topic.   Should I accuse him of being a ‘neighbourhood fascist’?  No, name calling just makes people defensive.

I despair.  How, I ask myself, do we persuade people that we humans need to give ourselves the chance to adapt?  Survival of the most adaptable….   And then the obvious creeps into my awareness: we’ll do it a drop at a time, like water on a stone, just as we did with women’s rights, civil rights, and so on.  Well, hopefully faster than water on a stone…. That would take forever, and forever’s too long.

Of course many would scoff at the idea that this has anything to do with rights.  But it does – if we believe in the right to affordable housing.  Surely it also has to do with compassion.  Do we care that most of the next generation has to leave the neighbourhood for more affordable accommodation?  Do we just say ‘nevermind, more are arriving every day, to replace them’?  But won’t we miss our daughters and sons?

And what about  urban sprawl?*

The trick is to never give up.  And don’t get angry, get clear.  Will information win the day?  Not if people aren’t listening or reflecting on it.  Maybe the solution would be to make people aware that what they’re really reacting to is the idea of change.    Like not wanting to change the “character of the neighbourhood” – wanting to protect “heritage”.

But protecting character and heritage does remind me of Nazis.  Yes, really.   Why, after all, do we resist change?  Why do so many want a neighbourhood to remain the same?  I remember feeling that way myself in my twenties, in Montreal, when a whole slew of beautiful old grey stone buildings were being torn down to make way for an expressway exit.  That expressway exit eventually ran right up my street – St Marc St.  I ran through the buildings taking picture after picture feeling as if the world were crumbling, not just a handful of buildings.  I still have those photos.

When I visit Montreal now, decades later, I drive down that street that I loved.   That street is – and was – an interesting mix of architectural styles.  Some hundreds of years old, some built in the twentieth century, some two or three-stories, others 20 stories, some privately owned, some low-income rentals.

One of my professors at Concordia owned a very old house around the corner.  He taught a course called “Sociology of Deviance”.  Was he ‘deviant’ to live in such a neighbourhood?  Walking distance to the university.  Am I ‘deviant’ to want to live in that kind of neighbourhood now, in Toronto?  A perfect “Jane Jacobs” neighbourhood it was and is.

Urban life.  That’s what it seems to me.   But many of my neighbours don’t think of our street as an urban street.  They don’t like it when one of the old houses is demolished – especially if it’s replaced by an architecturally modern one.  Today, when I think of St Marc Street, I think of a street which tells the story of our real heritage, through its varied architecture.  But my street here in Toronto tells a short  story of only a narrow slice of Toronto’s heritage.

If the resistors were being honest with themselves, they’d acknowledge that even among the ‘beautiful old buildings’ are some built in the 1890s, others built in the 1920s.  Why not include some built in the new millennium?  Even the old church at the end of the street is a combination of different styles – some old and elegant, some added more recently and not elegant at all.

In any case, what does it all mean, to ‘retain the character’?  And if saving the character of a street means that people have to leave Toronto, what does that mean?  At the end of the day, we are choosing one of those narrow ‘meanings’ – whether we know it or not.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew what we were doing.


Posted in affordability, densification, fascist, gentrification, heritage, Jane Jacobs, neighbourhood, reflections | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment