Looking at Flowers

I am taking the challenge to live now.
Not as I have been –
Scuttling on ragged claws,
eyes blinded by the search for
newer, better and brighter
circumstances
eyes looking so hard for a paradise of story books,
eyes that feel so heavy under the weight of expectation.

I am choosing to be alive now.
And life is found only when eyes
are open to notice fragile moments,
only when my body is alert
only through a waltz that is easily unnoticed,
when we take notice of the fairy dance in rings of tangled flowers.
Life begins when
I am quiet enough to see.

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Gaia Roars

Part 1

Gaia roars,
Rumbling from her belly,
Her love growing from the depth of her anger,
She is bigger and
older
than all of us.
And I witness her rage,
Grass growing through the
paved highways,
Her assertion of taking up space.
Gaia roars.

Part 2 – Can’t You Hear Her?

“The blue sky is her mind, the green leaves pulse with her blood, the wind is her breath, the rain, her water of life. She is Gaia, the Earth Mother, but also subtler than that.” – Ram Dass

You told me (tucking your body in tightly, looking at the ground)
that you couldn’t dance
anymore,
knowing of her ongoing rape,
by skidders
and corporate judgements.
You looked past me, because I was too small to love,
And you had boxed yourself too tightly into rage,
Screaming into your pillow at night,
Rocking back and forth is sobs.
You told me that you were afraid of
going crazy,
like every woman who breaks my
silence late at night,
falling into the insanity of rage,
warranting straight jackets
and solitude
in a cold, white room.
You told me that you were too
dark to love.

But no.
I love you, because you are the darkness of Gaia’s corners,
the wilderness of hurricanes and
ocean storms.
And yet, you and I, we are also
both maple keys,
burying ourselves into the soil,
imagining our future as two
entwining trees, grounded but spreading,
dancing wildly,
celebrating our rebirth.

Trees

Metaphor of Job as Relationship

I must admit that I put so much time and effort into my work that it feels less like a ‘job’ and more like a primary relationship in my life. I have always been like that with all of my jobs, never one to just show up 9 to 5, work and then leave. My work has always been a defining and dynamic part of my life, and like relationships, I have related to different jobs in different ways, each job presenting unique challenges and opportunities. The work relationship feels like a mutual dance, sometimes of trust and passion, sometimes filled with anger and deep sadness, and sometimes a complex mix of it all.

I have played around with this metaphor of ‘job as relationship’ in my life, identifying the kind of job relationships that I have had. Here are some of the relationship metaphors that connect to my jobs in my career:

-Boyfriend who your parents/friends think is awesome but you don’t feel the spark – my job sounded like a perfect fit and in practical ways really was, but for some reason, there just wasn’t the spark of passion that I needed

-Abusive lover – the job where I was learning so much, had all the passion in the world (fell head over heels in love with John Mcknight and Community Development) but I literally had sewage leaking through the ceiling and dripping behind my head (as well as other horrible health concerns). Should I leave, should I stay? Should I leave, should I stay? When I left, I felt very sad but it was definitely the right decision.

-Best friend and long-term partner, but not ready to settle down – The job where I could completely be myself, my values completely aligned with mission and work, I was supported and loved and learned so much. But after 5 years, I needed more, in terms of leadership challenge and new excitement. I felt too young to settle down. I wanted new experiences from other jobs. But I cried every day for weeks after I submitted my resignation.

-Parisian ‘out of my league’ love affair – my fancy job, where I learned to wear heels and power suits to fit in, to ‘corporate’ speak and act. At first, I was enamored with the confidence and speed of it, by the flashy power points and fancy lunches. The energy was invigorating, with fast-paced meetings and daily targets to meet and concrete goals to achieve. But I quickly fell out of love, when I realized that my values didn’t match, when my opinion (and the option of others) didn’t matter, when I couldn’t bear to play the ego games anymore and my feet hurt from the heels. This was the only job that I felt completely peaceful and happy when I resigned.

And my job now? Happily married. Amazing, joyful, soul-filling marriage. It took me 40 years to find my true love, but I am so thankful that I have found it. My relationship (now 5 years) is a marriage – I give 100% because I care deeply about my work and the overall vision and mission. But I am also learning that because I’m in for the long haul, I need valuable me-time, to rest and restore and bring my best self to this relationship. I am thankful, challenged and inspired each and every day. Of course, there are both good and difficult moments and times when I feel frustrated, but like any good marriage, we communicate and work out the challenges and learn from these moments. I don’t fear future boredom, because my work is dynamic and constantly changing, and there is so much for me to learn. I feel blessed.

This metaphor of ‘job as relationship’ resonates with me, because it shifts my thinking about work from being narrowly about the job or the people, but to being more broadly about relationship to organizational culture and dynamics. The metaphor also helps me to recognize that we are all at different places at different times in our lives. For example, I have wondered if my ‘awesome boyfriend without a spark’ job would feel different now, when I am older and don’t need the same kind of spark as 18 years ago. But I will never know – we can only be exactly where we are. The organizational culture and dynamics go beyond any one person in an organization – ‘vibe’ seems to seep through the walls of a building, a feeling that we feel inherently within ourselves, while we may not be able to put our finger directly on it. Do I fit in here? Can my whole self be authentic here? Can I joyfully learn and grow here? Can I trust others, so that I can innovate and take risks? My suggestion: when you can say yes to these questions, then count your blessings and put a ring on it.

My Bear and Barracuda – Lessons In Nature:

I yearn to be closer to nature. Like so many of us, I live and work in the city, spend a lot of time behind brick walls, in office spaces, staring into a computer. I long for that feeling of peace and serenity, where I feel most alive and deeply connected to this beautiful pulsing earth that I am living on. My senses come alive. I long to walk in the forest, breathe deeply the fresh crisp air, swim in the ocean, lie down in a field at night and watch the stars in the sky twinkle, and listen to the rustling of the leaves.

But nature isn’t always blissful. Because with nature comes wild animals, with teeth and claws and potential aggression. I have been thinking a lot about my fear of wild animals because one of my goals is that I want to spend more time in nature, and take more adventures into the wilderness. I would like to find a way to do this alone, to be comfortable with myself on my own in nature. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I was raised in cities, went to city day-camps, and my experience with nature was somewhat limited. Unlike many of my friends who went to sleep-away camp as children and are now comfortable solo camping or portaging in Algonquin Park for weeks, I have no idea how to keep myself alive. And I am afraid of the animals.

My fear doesn’t just come from my imagination. I have had two specific run-ins with animals in my brief time in nature. In my early 20s, after I finished university, I hitchhiked out to the West Coast of Canada to live life. I had no plan, besides meditating and living in the moment and meeting kindred spirits along the way. I did WOOF’ing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) for a few months in British Columbia, where I was given room and board in exchange for helping out on the farms. I was at one farm that was situated near Nelson B.C, and the farm was surrounded by forest. By the time I was there, I had been traveling for quite a while, and I felt tired and lonely and ready to come home, although I didn’t admit it to myself. The bohemian lifestyle of traveling without purpose was difficult for the Type-A part of me that I so desperately wanted to reject. As much as I tried, the folks I met on my travels did not feel like my people. And truthfully, I didn’t love the manual labor of farming that I idealized, and I was exhausted.

In this context, I was sleeping in my tent at the farm and I woke up with a start at 4am to the shaking of my tent and the loud sound of breathing and snuffling. I looked beside me, and the shape of a bears head was under my tent pushing it up and down. I am going to die. My brief 22 years of life passes through my mind. I can’t breathe. I can’t make a sound. Finally (probably in seconds, but it felt like years), I snap out of it and yell loud and fierce: “Get out of here!”. Immediately, the bear retreats and my tent stops shaking. I’m afraid my heart is going to explode out of my chest. I lie there in silence. I don’t know what to do. I decide, after a few minutes, that I need to get the hell out of here. I hate it here. I hate farming. I get up, unzip and step out of my tent. I see the bear sitting there, about 4 feet away from me, watching me. I look him right in the eye. I feel strong and angry. I point at the bear and I yell again: “Get out of the here!”. The bear looks at me, and saunters away from me to the edge of the forest, now probably 30 or 40 feet away. As my heart races, I take down my tent, pack up my stuff, and get the hell out of that farm. I hitchhike to Vancouver, buy a plane ticket and fly back home to Toronto.

Fast forward 21 years later, and my wife and I are celebrating our 15-year Wedding Anniversary in Akumal Bay, Mexico. We have come to Akumal because we love the ocean and we have just recently realized that we love snorkeling. Snorkeling connects us to life under the ocean, and it is such an incredible feeling to silently witness these creatures – fish of many brilliant colors, sea turtles and sting rays, just living their beautiful lives in the sea. I am living in bliss this vacation – we are getting up at dawn each morning to watch the sun brilliantly rise over the ocean, and then spending 2 hours peacefully snorkeling, all before breakfast. I am so relaxed, until probably day 4 of our trip, when we’re snorkeling and we literally almost swim right into a Barracuda! We scream into our snorkeling masks and swim to the beach as fast as possible. “Did you see that? What the hell?” We find out at the beach that he has a name – Barry the Barracuda, and he has lived in Akumal Bay for many years. Barry is well known, and the regulars who come here know him well, and take underwater photos of him (this is Barry, a photo that another guest took and sent to us for our ‘souvenir’).
Barry

He’s harmless, they say (just don’t wear dangly earrings). I don’t believe for a minute that he is harmless – Barry is a wild Barracuda!
We consider whether our snorkeling days are now over. I’m not sure if I can enjoy snorkeling while knowing that Barry exists (and that I might run into him!). Maybe we should just go to spa for the rest of the vacation? Read more and enjoy the pool? But after considering our options, we decide that we love snorkeling too much to give it up. We go back in the ocean, with the knowledge (and fear) that Barry lives there. And as I continue to enjoy watching the beautiful fish and sea turtles (and boy, do I love the sea turtles), I have lost my innocence that I am safe. With wilderness comes animals, and not always the harmless ones. I snorkel with one eye out for Barry, and the strange thing is, now that I’m aware of his existence, I keep seeing him. So I keep my distance, recognizing that this ocean belongs to Barry and not to me, that I am a guest in his home, and I try to send him positive vibes (so he doesn’t eat me, of course).

These two experiences of the wild are so different from each other, that I can’t possibly compare. In the bear experience, I am completely alone and I run as far as I can – literally onto an airplane to get back to the city. With Barry the Barracuda, I feel safe enough (not being alone, knowing the beach is close by, being older and more grounded in myself) to choose to take a small risk, to live with fear behind my eyes as I continue to swim in the ocean. What I do know from these experiences, is that being in nature is not the disney experience of sunny skies and bird songs (although there are those moments too), but instead its embracing both the bliss of beauty and the heart-pounding terror of fear. And beauty and fear don’t have to be dichotomies for each other, but can be experienced at the same time. It’s not about preferring one feeling over the other, but for me, it is about being open enough to accept whatever experience is in front of me. As Pema Chodren, one of my favorite Buddhist authors writes: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.” (When Things Fall Apart – p. 71). That is the gift that my Bear and Barracuda gave to me – two fresh moments of facing my fear, being thrown out of my nest of comfort and waking up to life.

Reframing and Resisting ‘Busy’

“Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to let the moment last.” – Simon and Garfunkel, 59th Street Bridge Song

I believe that our words frame our thinking/feeling (I can’t separate these two), our thinking/feeling frames our behavior, and our behavior frames how our society operates. I believe that if I want a compassionate society, which I do, then I need to seriously and critically (but gently) look inwards at myself and my day-to-day behavior and thoughts/feelings.

I decided that I didn’t want to frame my life as ‘busy’ a few years back. My life is objectively ‘busy’ – I have two kids, a full-time job managing a bustling academic department at our local college, and there is always lots going on. There have been many articles written about the reality of this modern day working-parent life, and objectively, life has gotten busier – with technology most of us continue working on the evenings and weekends, people are commuting longer distances, and we objectively have less time for leisure activities. That is a reality that so many of us are living with.
However, I don’t want this to be the dominant story that frames my life. It is crystal clear to me that feeling busy and stressed has negative impact for myself, my family and friends, the people I support at my work, and society at large. The bottom line for me, is that when I am busy and stressed, I am not present, not listening and not able to act compassionately to others in my life. There is a ‘Good Samaritan’ psychology experiment that I read about first in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point’ (p.165), and I think about a lot. This study is also referred to in a beautiful and insightful Ted Talk by Daniel Goleman entitled ‘Why Aren’t We More Compassionate?’.

The experiment is that seminary students (studying to be Christian ministers) are preparing to go to a class to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. They set up an actor who is lying on the ground bleeding, and they are studying whether or not the seminary student stops to help the bleeding person, and what factors influence their behavior. They are on their way to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan! What they find out is that generally, 63% stop to help (which feels very disappointing). But the biggest influence on behavior change is when they tell the students that they are late. Once they know they are late, they become stressed (feel busy), and then only 10 percent stop to help! The words of ‘Oh, you’re late’ turn someone who would normally be a compassionate person into someone who is so indifferent to suffering that they literally step over a bleeding person! This behavior change could happen to any of us, and I believe does happen to us every day when we rush around.

This study illuminated my own unconscious behavior, rushing around when I’m stressed, not being there for others because I’m caught up in my own swirling mind. I don’t want to wake up in the morning panicked by the hundred and one things that I need to do and the long and ever growing to-do list that awaits me. I have been trying to consciously resist this frame, by using mindfulness to pull myself out of the panic and into the present moment.

As well as mindfulness, I’ve been paying attention to my words, and I decided consciously not to respond to the question ‘how are you’ by saying ‘I am busy’. I made this decision because I felt that, even though I am busy, there are so many other more positive and still very truthful answers to the question. How are you? I am good. I am trying to be present in my life. I am inspired by our students. I am inspired by my faculty. I am loving the opportunities I have for learning in my job. I am excited by the challenges that are in front of me. I am happily loving my kids, even though they drive me a little crazy. I am thankful for my friendships. I am intentionally finding time to play music in my life. There are so many possible responses to the question.

However, this has been an interesting experiment indeed. I have found that often, when I don’t respond that ‘I am busy’, many people want to respond this way for me. This especially happens at my workplace. I run into people I know all the time in the hallways of our college, who happily ask how I am. When I respond with one of my spontaneous positive answers (like the examples above), they will reply ‘But you must be really busy.” At first, this took me off guard and I didn’t want to say ‘well, I’m actually doing an experiment to not frame my life in that way so I won’t say I’m busy’, so I would say something like ‘Well, yes, we’re all busy, BUT…’ and then I would try to reframe with another statement. Sometimes the person would repeat again ‘but you must be SO busy’, clearly not getting the message, and we would continue this dance of words and conversation.

What is this about? Is this just that ‘being busy’ is so ingrained in our society, that its all we have to talk about? Is this a strange way to compliment me, telling me that I am important because I’m busy? Is ‘busy’ valued over all else, because it implicitly signals that I am being ‘productive’ instead of idle, contributing to our capitalist society’s bottom line? What would our society look like if we weren’t busy and racing around so much? These questions may be for another future blog post. But in the meantime, I don’t want to feel like a rat on a rat race. I don’t want to lose my compassionate nature that is core to all of us. So I will keep trying to reframe busy.

Walking the Hydro Corridor in Scarborough

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I had worked at the Centennial College for 3 years before I found the walking trail behind my office at Ashtonbee Campus. It’s unbelievable to me now that I hadn’t explored my surroundings in all that time, but just drove to my parking spot, ran to my office, worked away and then drove home. Ashtonbee Campus is in an industrial area of south-west Scarborough, surrounded by big box stores, factories and a whole lot of ugly suburban sprawl. I was engaged and oftentimes overwhelmed with my job, first as a Professor and Coordinator of our Social Service Worker Program and then as an Academic Chair, to take a breath, let alone take a walk.

I can’t remember the first time I walked and found the Hydro Corridor path behind our campus, but I can imagine that something pushed me out the door. I walked behind the campus, across our student parking lot, and found a space of open air to ground myself and breathe. I found a bike path (that I later googled and learned that it goes all across Scarborough), and nature – trees and birds. There are so many birds in these trees – sometimes the sounds of their chirping is deafening. And that one walk felt so energizing, that I have now tried to get out and walk as often as I can. Walking helps me to refresh and recharge in the middle of the day, taking me out into the fresh air, and on an adventure of discovery.


My favorite discovery on my walk has been finding an art installation that is on the back of our Ashtonbee Campus. It brightly says, like a message in a bottle or a fortune found in a fortune cookie: “Read between the power lines. Look up closer.” The message also depends on where you are standing, as the ‘power’ and ‘up’ are on walls going inward, so if you don’t stand at the angle where you can read the full message, but you stand directly in front of the art, it reads: “Read between the lines. Look closer.”


I love this message on so many levels. First, I literally remember to look up at the sky (‘Look up closer!’), which is so expansive and changing, to see the clouds and revel in the nature that is always there above my head. I literally feel like I walk around with blinders on, forgetting the sky that is always above me. The message reminds me that nature is everywhere, between the power lines and industrialization, between the cars and roads. Take notice! Take notice of the plants growing in the cracks between the sidewalks. Listen to the birds living and singing in Scarborough. I don’t need to escape the city to revel in nature.

And at another level, when I stand directly in front and read the message: “Read between the lines. Look closer.”, I am reminded to think differently, to try to understand what is happening ‘between the lines’. This message seems to come at the right time, as I am usually walking because I feel a weight on my heart and mind. I am walking to sort out a challenge or an issue, either work-related or personal (or both). This message gives me hope that I will solve it, if I can think and/or feel differently about it, if I can ‘look closer’, revealing what is happening ‘between the lines’. I need to take my time, not be afraid to ‘look closer’ (and not be afraid to feel how that feels), and not jump to conclusions too quickly.

I have since found out that the Toronto artist, Sean Martindale was commissioned to create this art (along with Centennial students and high school students from Wexford Collegiate), which is called “Between the Lines”, as part of the Pan Am Path Project, connected to the Pan Am Games in 2015. Through this project, there are art installations all along the ‘Pan Am Path’ – trails connecting Toronto’s communities from the west end to the east. You can check out more of Sean Martindale’s work here: http://www.seanmartindale.com and learn more about the Pan Am Path here: http://panampath.org/art-and-trails.shtml and http://friendsofthepanampath.org/.

What I Learned from the Sea Turtles

I had the amazing experience of swimming with sea turtles in the Caribbean ocean this past month. The sea turtles lived right at the shores of our resort in Akumal Bay, Mexico, and I could just slip on my snorkel mask, walk into the water, swim a few meters and there they were. My heart jumped to my throat at my first sighting of these graceful creatures, quietly eating sea grass at the bottom of the ocean. So I spent 2-3 hours a day snorkeling and watching them, fascinated with their graceful swimming through the water, using their powerful flippers as wings for flight. Now back to real life, or juggling work and family life, I am so grateful for this precious time that I had to just be in nature and appreciate these animals. When I get stressed and overwhelmed (pretty much at some point every day), I remember the sea turtles, and I know that they are still living there in Akumal Bay, eating and swimming and quietly living their peaceful life.

I am, in no way, a biologist, but I am an avid learner, and immediately when I returned back to cold Toronto, I took out books from the library about sea turtles. I wanted to learn, to better understand and appreciate their existence. Sea turtles are endangered, and their beautiful existence is threated by our human activity – habitat destruction, climate change, and slaughtering for food. As Jane Goodall wrote: “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. The greatest danger to our future is apathy.” And so I continue to learn, so I can try to understand, and my caring will deepen.

Sea turtles are way older than us humans, and are tracked back to at least 150 million years old, living with the dinosaurs during the Jurassic period. Land turtles go back even farther than that, and sea turtles evolved originally from land turtles (the turtles we normally think of). Sea turtles have evolved to be different from land turtles in two significant ways. One, sea turtles have flippers instead of feet to swim. These flippers are designed like bird wings, to be aerodynamic, and extremely thin and sharp (one book even said that the ends of the flippers are razor-sharp – watch out snorkelers!). Thanks to these aerodynamic flippers, sea turtles look so beautiful like a bird of the sea, flying through the water.

Second, unlike land turtles, sea turtles cannot pull their head into their shell. The stereotypical image of the turtle pulling its head into its shell does not apply to sea turtles. The biologists have rationalized this evolutionary adaptation as a way to for sea turtles to be more aerodynamic. Having a hole for the sea turtle to retract its head would make it less aerodynamic. Instead, sea turtles have evolved to have a hard skull to protect them, as their head is exposed.

Sea turtles need to breathe air. I watched them swim up to the surface of the water, poke their little head up, take a quick gulp of air and then swim back down to the sandy bottom. Their breathing is fascinating, because they live in the sea, are comfortably at home in the sea, but need to come up for air. They don’t seem panicked by their need for air, not worried about if and when they can get their next breath. If they are actively swimming or eating, sea turtles need to breathe every 20-30 minutes. But when sea turtles are sleeping, they can go up to 10 hours without taking a breath. Their heart rate slows down to as little as 9 beats a minute to conserve oxygen.

Lastly, I am fascinated by learning about sea turtles inherent sense of direction and home. Sea turtles know where they are, both in the ocean and on land. Did you know that the pregnant female sea turtle always swim to the same beach where she was originally hatched, to hatch her own eggs? This sea turtle may have traveled thousands of miles through the ocean, but as soon as she is pregnant and ready to hatch her eggs, she will find her home beach to lay her eggs. Home is ingrained in her memory. How does she find her beach? Biologists believe that sea turtles can sense the angle and intensity of earths magnetic field. I was blown away when I read about this. Turtles magnetic sense is their super power, as they possess their own internal compass that provides them with a constant orientation and sense of place/space relative to the Earth’s magnetic field. To be honest, I don’t understand this at all, and the more I read about it, the more I realize what I don’t know. Learning is just as much about recognizing what you don’t know then understanding what you do know. As I read more into this, I found out that on earth, we are surrounded by a ‘magnetosphere’ – a magnetic field made up of vertical and horizontal magnetic lines curving from pole to pole. Sea turtles can sense this magnetic field, and have a magnetic memory for the places they’ve been.

I don’t understand what this is about. I certainly don’t have any sense of a magnetic shield that grounds me or provides me with direction. When I learn about this, I get the haunting sense that I am missing out on elements of life that surround me, but I may not have the focus or openness to tap into it. What would it feel like to sense this magnetic field, to have a magnetic memory that grounded us in our place? And what if we connected with our place of birth in the same way as pregnant sea turtles? What would it feel like to grounded by birth and birth place in this way?

What I do know is that the sea turtles, with their ancient eyes and graceful movements, are imprinted in my brain, and my spirit fills with joy when I imagine them eating and swimming at Akumal Bay. I will try to find a way to help these sea turtles, with hopes that we can turn the tide around so they can survive and thrive on this earth. As Jane Goodall said: “The least I can do is speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

SeaTurtle-1600x600px