Saturday, September 27, 2014

Using Our Voices

The past couple evenings, our home phone has been ringing at odd hours. We'd given up racing down for the phone and let the answering machine pick up in the night. This morning, I was baking in the kitchen, hands deep in dough, when the phone rang. I quickly rinsed my hands, hit mute on the soundtrack I had playing, and picked up, only to hear that familiar lapse and click that often indicates you've run for the phone only to be the target of a telemarketer. I somewhat impatiently said "Hello" and then I heard a raspy voice over the line. At first, I didn't know who it was but I believed it to be the husband of a dear friend in Zambia who often places the call and then puts her on the line. Today though, a few sentences in, I realized it was my friend, Reuben.

Reuben was calling on behalf of the family of the friend I assumed it was, asking us to please pray with them. They don't speak English confidently so Reuben was calling to explain their situation.  Over the past few months, they have been harassed by the original owner of the land that they purchased 7 years ago in Mulenga. They have lived there and built a small home there and have been raising their 5 children on that piece of land since I've known them. In the past few months, the original owner has been demanding more money from them, stating that they had not purchased the land, that they had only paid for a lease/rental of the land. Now, the owner wants the land, and subsequently the small home they've built for themselves on it, back.

At first glance, it's about money and greed. On a deeper level, it's about corruption and the instability and vulnerability of even the hardest working families. This little family has worked hard, paid for a piece of land, slowly built a small home over the years, such as it is...and just faithfully put down roots and done their best to care for their children and one another. And yet, they are vulnerable to the greed and whims of those who would exploit them.

On an even more incredulous level, it's about the love of the Reuben for his neighbours. As we talked and he gave me the news, I asked him if he was well. He sounded hoarse to me and I asked if he had been coughing or sick. He said no, he had been up all night for the past few nights, praying for this family, for the needs of his neighbours around him, for the community based organization of care workers that he is leading and for the procurement of land for them to build a larger school in the community. He has lost his voice on behalf of his community. Oh. Indeed.

I should demand that we all take one night, pull an all nighter and pray with Reuben for these things. What I will ask, is give it more time that you think you can afford. And remember that whatever we offer, is less than a small man with a gigantic faith is pulling off every night, while his days are filled with children looking to be fed, widows looking for sustenance, and families looking for stability. If anyone doesn't have the extra energy or ability to lose sleep, it's this man. And yet.

So please pray with Reuben. For this family to retain their land and for the community council to see the original landowner for his exploitive behaviour. And pray for Reuben. That his health would be good and that he would continue to be such a beautiful example to others in his community.

UPDATE: September 30th - I had a text message today from this family saying that they must go to the council for a decision on October 3rd. Please keep them in your prayers. Everything they have worked for is at risk...their home, their security and their kids' stability in a very vulnerable community. Thank you.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Staying Afloat

You may have noticed I changed the photo at the top of the blog. The truth is, this is one of the only photos of myself that I truly love. And it's a bathing suit shot, no less. Thankfully, despite the zoom lens, the fact that I'm in a bathing suit and hate photos of myself, it's an absolute favourite.

I mean, the photo in itself, that my husband took off the deck of his parents' place this past summer, is pretty in the colour and composition, but it's more than that to me. It's a rare and privileged photo because in this photo I am completely and totally relaxed. You may not know that to look at it but it was the result of several attempts on my part to quiet my mind and find a space in nature to just breathe. I had gone for several walks and a long kayak paddle up the lake into the river that feeds it but to be honest, it wasn't until I sat on this floating chair and paddled out to the middle of the lake, that I was able to find absolute calm. I think it helped that the lake that day was an absolute mirror of the sky above it and the only movement on the lake was that of my hands paddling myself out to the middle. I could see each ripple that I instigated and could watch the effects of my every movement as the small waves emanated from where I sat. At one point, I reached over the edge of the chair and rescued a small dragonfly that was floundering on the surface of the lake. I set him (or her) on my knee and continued to float. The water was cool but it was sunny and warm and the longer I sat out there, the calmer it became, and so too, did I.  I fought the thought that I was being selfish, spending too much time alone out there, or that there were other things I should be doing, until I had to actually speak the words out loud, "Be quiet. Sit still." We tell children this all the time and yet we find it so very difficult to do ourselves.

I love this photo because it reminds me that every movement I make has a rippling effect. When I'm busy and being pulled in different directions with things to be done, I know that around me the effect is more tumultuous and erratic waves than the gentle rippling of things done in a calm and serene manner. And yet, I think, there are times to make waves and shatter the surface.  Days like these when things are so still and serene are few and far between, but when they do come, it's in our best interests to embrace them and rest in them, for they come so rarely.

The day after this photo was taken, I was hopeful that I would get to spend another day out on the lake like this. I woke early and as I opened the curtains to peek out at the lake, I could see right away that it was not going to happen. The wind was up, the lake was choppy and at best, we were going to get some warmth from the sun out of the wind. Had I procrastinated getting out on the lake the day before, I would have missed the opportunity.

I'm keeping this photo close as a reminder not only to seek out ways to serve and be active and participate, but to seek ways and opportunities to recharge and be still and remain calm. Somewhere in the balance of those two things is what's going to keep me afloat.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Encouraging the Dreamers

This week, our son Easton, who is 12, was able to live out one of his biggest dreams. Now, some of you may wonder what a 12 year old dreams about and while I know that most of the time, it's about epic battles and floating trampolines from which to propel yourself through the neighbourhood...this one was a big one for Easton.  As with a lot of young boys, Easton loved all things superheroes from a very young age and dreamed of meeting some of his heroes in person. I'm not talking about Universal theme park type dreams...I'm talking the dream of all comic book nerds *ahem* (I say that with the most love and respect)...ComicCon. The fact that I just had to spellcheck that shows the level of involvement I have with this event in my son's life.

As his mother though, I am, however, a big supporter of helping kids set goals and dreams and then chase after them, whatever they may be.  Which is why for the past few weeks (months), I have been listening intently with one ear while Easton chattered about the intricacies of the costume he needed and the supplies and the execution of said costume, which apparently could not be bought online but must be hand crafted by his mother. And then it was two ears open and a mouth full of protest at my lack of skills, but to no avail. Somewhere in the fine print between stretch marks and car pools, was a clause that said I had to design and execute a costume of some unknown-to-me character named Starlord. Thankfully, Marvel had the good sense to release a movie called Guardians of the Galaxy that I was invited (demanded) to attend the weekend I returned home from Zambia in August. And so, Starlord became a part of the running narrative in our household, even as I processed the fact that I had just been in communities where children dream only of food and schoolbooks and football with friends.

This is the science fiction I live with. A parallel universe. One of our North American life and dreams that contrasts so starkly, those of our friends and family in Zambia. And yet, I have come to understand over the years of our involvement in Zambia, that it is okay to teach our kids to dream and to help them attain them. For once a child attains a dream, they will go on to dream bigger and better ones. And so, ComicCon.  Apart from the expense of a couple flights and meals out, what does it cost to let your child dream dreams? Nothing. What does it cost to squash them? Everything. And while we can't finance or grab dreams out of the sky for our kids, when we can, we should. And the extra time and energy on paper routes and recycling cans and mowing lawns...all the things he spent his summer doing to get to this place? Well, from the look on his face in these pics? Totally worth it. 

What began as Value Village boots, leather coat and shin pads became an epic Starlord

Easton and friends from Guardians of the Galaxy.

With his Deadpool tshirt attracts this kind of attention!

I tweeted about this encounter and ended up with 901 retweets/ which Easton had to make a difficult choice between meeting Stan Lee or meeting Nathan Fillion. A "Sophie's Choice" for ComicCon fans.
Logic prevailed. 
 In the end, what ended up being the realization of a dream for my son, really ended up being a dream I hadn't really articulated for myself or for him. I want my kids to be dreamers. I want them to believe that they can make things happen and to realize that their dreams reveal their passions. And I'm all about following your passions. There's the bottom line of what it costs to let your kids dream. Some day you have to release them to follow those dreams, wherever it leads them. I'm watching my youngest figure it out and enjoy where it's been taking him. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the last quiet hours before he returns home with all the stories that achieving this dream has bestowed upon him.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Responsive Ramblings

I was watching the news last night and there was a story of a slum in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia that has been quarantined to help contain the Ebola outbreak.  Read it if you dare, but it is haunting and unsettling, and it cost me hours of sleep and frightful thoughts. Ebola in itself is a horrific terror that has come to West Africa, but to cut off an entire community of approximately 70,000 people who have no way to provide for their families sufficiently on the best of days, is an unimaginable violation of their human rights. A nurse speaks of the "clinic" she works in being dismantled, of what little it had to treat patients, and patients having disappeared, back into the very crowded conditions of the slum that they live in. The images of the poor and desperate who are now unable to go to work outside of the quarantine area, the lack of food and proper sanitation that was already a health risk now becoming a death sentence...I'm thankful I can turn off the imagery but unfortunately, I can't make it stop for them.

And then my thoughts turn to a community, a shantytown of similar haphazard accommodations and overcrowded, under serviced conditions and my thoughts turn instantly to fears. Though not close to where these outbreaks are occurring, there are always things to fear in regards to what faces our children and families in our communities. I think of children in communities I've walked in who are so afraid of strangers and outsiders that they cry and hide wherever they can to avoid looking at our foreign faces. Imagine the fear of a sick child seeing someone in a hazmat suit coming towards them with gloved hands and hidden compassion. These are the lucky ones who have access to medical attention. Not as lucky as those who have home countries who will transport them away from the situation, to sterile and safe environments with nutrition and medications optimal for healing from the ravages of fever and pain and death. I'm struck by the incredible contrasts of it all as the nurse they interview shows the empty "clinic" - bare cement walls, glassless windows and an iron gate that were supposed to be a safe shelter for those who were exposed to the virus. There was little comfort in these walls to begin with but I guess that the luxury of a space to come and feel "attended to" was more than some could allow to go on.  It's unspeakable.

I watch the interviewer speak to a woman in the West Point slum, who works as a hairdresser outside of her community. She now faces the loss of income and the loss of her ability to care for her own family and her extended family because of the quarantine. I recognize the resignation on her face as she explains that she must go and check on her mother, who has sent word that she is out of rice, her staple food, and has no money to purchase more, even if it were available.
There is something in this woman's stature that reminds me of so many I have met and walked with, that speaks of the exhaustion of poverty. It is a weight that these have carried for far too long, with so many extra obstacles added on daily,'s a wonder she can stand up at all.

Here are the facts of the Ebola outbreak, a series of videos that has put together to help pass along accurate information about the virus. While it's important that we educate ourselves, let's remember it's not enough to know...we must speak out against myths and misperceptions and most of all, we must act against the human rights violations such as what is taking place in the West Point slum in Monrovia. Support Amnesty International as it speaks against these government actions that cost lives.  Give to Doctors without Borders who are on the front lines of the fight against Ebola. Be active. Speak up. We can turn off the news but we can't make a difference without being responsible for what we've seen and heard.

This is rambling and disjointed and the result of being again, overwhelmed by the things that continue to make our world an incredible example of the injustices of privilege and poverty. I'm going to just put it out there. Be grateful today for what you're dealing with. And do something to ease the pain of what others are dealing with. I think that's the only way forward.

Friday, August 22, 2014

On the Unimaginable

I don't know.
There is no "why".
In my mind, there is only "now what do we do?"

So here's the "now what's" that I can suggest. And they are just the basics. The starting points. At which I will start and invite you to do the same.

We remember James Foley. As he appears here, full of life, in his element, taking calculated risks to bring to light the stories that are affecting so many. It's unimaginable that he would risk everything for a story that we would flippantly skip over so that we could catch up on the Simpsons or see who gets a rose in the never-ending saga that is the Bachelorette...and yet, I'm sure I'm guilty. Of seeing the images caught by his camera and wanting to move on to things much more pleasant...or entertaining to say the least. Guilty pleasure has a new and darker meaning to me now.  Let's be mindful of what we watch and hear. Choose these images over the ones ISIS released of hatred and beheading. This is James. A son, a brother and a photographer with stories to share. Loved and missed. Think of his family and remember him well.

And we pray for those who are being held hostage and are being threatened with the same fate, particularly, it would seem, Steven Sotloff, another freelance journalist who has been detained and threatened with execution since August 2013. Is it even possible that these men have suffered detention and the physical and psychological torture since 2012, as James had, without us even registering their plight? Indeed it was for me. I was ignorant to their suffering but it isn't without regret. 

And in Ferguson, Missouri, where the protests and unrest continue with few answers or transparency on either side of the situation. My heart goes out to a family who lost a son, whatever the reason, and again, my ignorance assails me. I know nothing of the prejudice that leads a nation of young black men to fear law enforcement. I know less of the pain that a family losing a son feels when it is minimized in the media and his name is slandered for the alleged crime of shoplifting that may or may not have led to his having been gunned down in the street. What I do know is that I feel compelled to figure it out and to stand with Ferguson, if only from a distance, and say that the truth must come forth and that America (or North America) needs to take a good strong stance on this type of racism and eliminate it so that law enforcement is above reproach and young men can move on to their futures without the threat of an abrupt end to their lives for little more than being the wrong colour in the middle of the street.  Let's remember Michael Brown's family, in the midst of the storm, grieving their son in a sea of accusations and uprising. Let's stand with them and say, "We want answers too." And let's listen to the voices of those in Ferguson who remember it as a town where people come looking for a safe community to raise their children, no matter the colour of their skin. 

And we need to continue to watch and learn and intervene financially or physically, wherever possible, to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the Ebola virus that continues to decimate communities across western Africa. While the World Health Organization continues to issue warnings and watches about the continued spread and death toll, let's remember those who are on the front lines, fighting the virus at great personal risk - not only from the virus but from the myths and perceptions surrounding the spread of the disease. If you are going to become immune to the news of Ebola, please don't allow yourself to become numb to the staggering numbers of people dying and suffering from it. If you want to support those on the front lines, I would strongly suggest making a donation to MSF (Doctors without Borders) who are working in incredibly stressful situations with little respite. The containment and treatment of the disease are difficult enough but working in situations where the heat and the humidity are tiring, the hazard gear you have to wear is incredibly cumbersome and the nights of rest are few and far between with no end in sight? These are heroes of epic magnitude and yet, we may never know their names or hear their stories. What can we do to tell them we're with them, to encourage them? I'm not sure. I know that giving towards MSF will allow them the tools they need to do their jobs well and give them one less thing to worry about in a situation that is filled with worries. And let's remember too, there is hope, stories of it in the midst of the hardest days of exhaustion and death.

There's a million things out there that can overwhelm us with all that is wrong in the world. We need to start where we are and work on what we can. Humanity doesn't require us to fix one another's problems requires us to act with compassion and love, wherever we're at. 

That's where I'm starting. Ready? Go.

Monday, August 18, 2014

This Fragile Mindset

A Saturday afternoon at the beach with a friend and her small boys was a welcome day out for me. I enjoyed having only one small bag and a towel to carry while she wrangled her one and three year old out of the vehicle, balancing sand pails and towels, toys and snacks, with a drink in one hand and her keys in the other. Of course, I helped her after a moment of gratitude that I was so lightly loaded. As we sat on the beach and the boys ran around and chased birds and dug holes, I was reminded of the many times I'd sat on this same beach with my boys, not many quiet moments, no time alone and certainly no use for the books I would always somewhat optimistically bring along. For me, it was one of those "when the boys are bigger..." type days. I could swim alone. I could lay on my towel. I could play and build sandcastles but I didn't have to change sand filled diapers or eat sandy chips or have a juice box squirted down the front of my shirt.

After an afternoon of sand consumption, ice cream and digging, we made our way out to our vehicles. My friend strapped in a sleepy baby boy and seat belted in his wailing brother who wanted nothing to do with leaving the beach.  Her family all secured, I in my quiet car alone, we began the hour long drive back through the country to the city. It's a particularly pretty drive this time of year with the fields nearly ready for harvest. I often turn off the radio and just open the windows and enjoy the ride. Just about 3/4 of the way home, I was coming up on a minivan that had turned onto the highway a few miles ahead of me. As country roads beckon you to, we were both doing at least a few km over the speed limit, which was 80 and then turned to 100 right around where things went sideways. 

I was still about a quarter mile behind the van when I saw a woman fly into the ditch, rolling. I couldn't believe my eyes. I thought that she was a pedestrian who had been hit by the van, who was now pulling to the side of the road. I quickly pulled in front of the van and jumped out and ran towards the ditch. The driver of the van was calling 911 as I ran by him.  After assessing and addressing some of her injuries, and stabilizing her until the ambulance came, it turned into a long conversation with a distraught young mom.  As it turns out, she had made the 'decision' to get out of the van because she and her partner were arguing in front of her three small boys. She was overwhelmed by her physical pain at times but more so by her anguish at having subjected her boys to the trauma of seeing their mother jump out of a moving vehicle. There's not much you can say when you're listening to someone lament their decisions that have affected young children. My friend and her boys sat in their vehicle, just ahead of the accident scene, and I just couldn't imagine what on earth allows one mother to have the kind of afternoon we'd just had at the beach, while another is launching herself out of a vehicle to escape a barrage of accusations that you can't refute. Lying beside her in the ditch, my clothes bloodied and my words inadequate, I wanted to weep with her. I just kept her still and trying to keep her comfortable as possible when lying on the stubbled ground with road rash on every conceivable part of your body.

As the ambulance and police arrived and she was taken to the hospital, I was left with my bloodied clothing, blankets from my vehicle and about another 20 mins till home. I drove carefully, watching the ambulance in my rear view mirror and offered up some disjointed prayers - for her, for her boys, her partner, for the paramedics and for the doctors. And then, for myself. And then I approached the road where I turn off towards home and my friend keeps on straight,  we waved out the window and then I started to cry and shake. I started to cry thinking about how I was going to get in the house with bloody clothing and past my own boys without answering questions. I couldn't figure it out and it felt insurmountable so I texted, while driving, my husband at home to meet me in the driveway in 5 mins. I probably pulled into my driveway around the same time that the ambulance pulled into the ER at the University Hospital. I was met with a hug and concern and care and I hope she received the same.

I don't know that I'll ever know how this young mom made out or which way her life leads her. I do know that her name is embedded in my mind and that she'll remain in my prayers for a long, long time. I choose to be hopeful for her because she wasn't able, in those moments, to muster hope for herself. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Days Go By

I've been a little sad over the past week, simply because my time in Zambia always slips away entirely too quickly. And yet, the days were full - of colour, of love, of family. The stories are just beginning to assemble themselves in some order in my mind and I'm beginning to think clearly about all I heard and saw and experienced....and I'm so hopeful. I'm so very hopeful for this little community that has become such a second home to me. I'm hopeful because the longevity of the work that the care workers are doing in that community is showing such beautiful response. It shows itself in the eyes of a boy who I've seen grow year after year into a kind and smart young man who is ready to lead in his community. It's in the eyes of the care worker who has been welcomed back into the arms of her friends despite several detours in life that left them sharing the responsibility of her children to be cared for. It's in the eyes of a grandmother who can laugh and joke though she and her grandson's only possessions, meagre as they were, were stolen recently and left them with nothing but reliance on the generosity of others who have not much themselves. This is the hope. Community based care. Love in its simplest form. Serving others starting with what you have, however little. It's not alleviating poverty or even suffering but it is an approach that shows humanity in its best form. When someone, a neighbour or even a relative stranger, comes and steps into the pain and suffering with someone, there is suddenly a lightness that comes to the situation. It doesn't always change the outcome of the situation for someone living in poverty or fighting a life threatening illness ... but it alleviates the darkness and loneliness that comes from feeling your on your own in it.  When a mother can lock the door at night and know that in the morning, there will be those care workers who will come and check that she and her young daughter made it through to another day, despite the threats to their security because of their beauty and vulnerability. 

I just wanted to share too, a glimpse of the natural beauty that I saw in Zambia. In the light. And the sun. And even in the dusk as the light was lost for another day. And too, the beauty in the darkness that was a million stars reflecting on the water...too incredible for my untrained eye and camera to capture, but that's okay too. Sometimes the most beautiful things aren't meant to be held anywhere other than in your mind's eye and in your heart. 

This was our last full day in Zambia. We spent it on the Kafue River and just caught up with one another as a team, some of the last conversations we would have about our time together before we disbanded and travelled home. In all of it, there was incredible, untouched beauty...and here's just a sample. Of the light as it  warmed us then left us and even the beauty of the hippos in the dusky water, grunting their unique song as we headed for home.