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/.

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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.”

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Snorkeling

The ocean carries my body, weightless
Swimming is like flying, with the freedom and joy but without the anxiety, as I’ve always been afraid of heights
Nestled in my silence, with only the sound of my breathing, the ocean sings that life is here, life is everywhere, and we are all connected
The ocean is shouting now: have you forgotten the fact that we are all connected? Where have you been, running too fast to feel connection?
Light reflects through the water, where I swim through thousands of brilliantly colored and baby minnows just born
Life cycles to death which cycles to life here
We are all connected

Experiencing Movement

I’ve been thinking (and feeling) a lot about what the experience of being ‘embodied’ is all about. We all live our lives, moment to moment, inside of our bodies, and therefore, every experience we are having, is an embodied experience. Or is it? Let me rephrase that: every experience we are having has potential to be a fully embodied experience, if we allow it to be. I have come to the (sad) realization that I have spent most of the past 42 years of my life disembodied, living my experiences separate from my body. What do I mean by that?
More often than not, I treat my body as a platform for my head to get around. My work is ‘head work’ – thinking, at a computer, talking with people. Like many others, I sit all day doing my work. I generally don’t think much about my body, except when some part is broken down and it slows down my productivity. When I am sick or I have a sore muscle, I then think about my body a lot, almost obsessively – annoyed with it, doing everything I can to fix it (drugs, stretching, nose-rinse, you name it). But I must admit, I don’t pay pay much attention to my body when I am well. It’s the understudy, while my mind is the main actor.
Moving one step up from ‘my body as a platform’, I treat my body as my machine. My relationship to exercise has historically been ‘machine-like’. I know that my body needs exercise to continue to be healthy, and as much as possible I want to prevent myself from death, so I have exercised for the utilitarian purpose of physical health. I bring my car into the shop on a regular basis for maintenance, and I bring my body into the gym to maintain it. So I would exercise (and of course do everything I can to not feel my body while I’m exercising – watch tv, listen to music, distract my mind) and then I would be done, check that off my to-do list and move forward with my day in my head.
So I’ve been thinking about what it would feel like to live, moment to moment, being fully embodied, where mind and body are connected, instead of this Cartesian dualistic split. How would I feel if I embraced my body, instead of functionally using it and tolerating it? How would I feel if I centered my bodily experiences instead of my mind experiences? Or found a way to truly bring them together?
I started to meditate again. I started to watch my breath again, witnessing my thoughts floating aimlessly by, feel the pulsing of my heart. One day, it hit me, intensely and at a visceral level (driving in my car, no less) that I am living inside of my body. I realized that my experience of life, moment to moment, is an embodied experience, unique to my experience because I am inside of my body. This realization frightened me at first, as I felt my heart racing and worried that I was having an anxiety attack. And maybe I was. I pulled over and caught my breath. I allowed myself to breathe. And I realized, in my breathing, that I didn’t need to be afraid. There was nothing to be afraid of. And when in doubt or distress, breathe.
So I am trying to live, moment to moment, an embodied life. What that means is that I try to remember, pay attention and embrace my body. One example of my practice in this, is that I am reframing my relationship to exercise and movement. I came across this article about the ‘Movement Movement’, that literally moved me (ha ha!) into action! This article and perspective gave me the permission to move. And once I was given permission, I started to see how I limit my own movement all the time, and how our societal norms constrains movement. With two kids, I naturally spend a lot of time at urban playgrounds, and I realized that these are natural placements to spark my own playful movement. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and checking my phone while my kids play, I started to use the playground equipment for my own movement, playfully climbing, swinging, trying new ways to move and running around. Let’s be honest: my kids at first were mortified by me. Now they are used to it (although they make fun of me). Other adults generally stared. Although a few times, other adults have jumping in and joined me, which has been wonderful.
I have learned a lot about myself through my exploration of movement. I have learned that I love being outside, and I far prefer moving outside than inside. I have learned that my body loves vigorous exercise, so I have started exploring ‘HIIT’ exercise (High Intensity Interval Training). I have made a commitment to myself to sweat every day, to be present while I am exercising, and I now enjoy the experience. I have found and embraced this playful part of me that comes alive through movement, which was dormant for so long. I have been physically playing with my children more, and watching and following their movement which is so alive and free (especially my 5 year-old). In the summer, we spent a day at Bluffers Park Beach with the kids, and I remember playing with K, and pretending to be crabs in the water. I did the crabwalk in the shallow end of the water, showing Kalan how we could walk like a crab, making funny faces and pushing our bodies to move differently. As we were playing and laughing, my own memories rushed to me, as a child, crabwalking in the shallow end of the lake, feeling alive and full of playful joy. I smiled knowing that for this moment, I was blessed to be having an embodied experience of life.

Water Is My Medicine

I come down to the water when I feeling unwell
Unbalanced, stressed out, my neck muscles knotted from sitting at a computer all day
My spirit dull from being inside all day
And as soon as I stand here at the water
Seeing the blue blue sky and water
Hearing the waves rhythmically rolling across the sand
Feeling the sun rays warm my neck, back, hands
My body and spirit, intimately connected
Relax, open, breathe.

Choir! Choir! Choir! – Synergy in Action

If you live in Toronto, enjoy music and you haven’t yet gone to a Choir! Choir! Choir! night (at Clintons at Bloor and Christie, Tues or Wed evenings at 8pm), I highly recommend you go. It is such a wonderful, transformative experience. I have gone now several times, and I always leave amazing and inspired. If you don’t know what Choir! Choir! Choir! is, it’s a weekly sing-a-long, where you show up on any of the nights (Tues or Weds), no long-term commitment necessary, and you learn how to sing a song in three-part harmony with a group of a hundred or so people (See here). When you show up, you are directed to stand in your part, which is ‘low, medium, or high’. Within an hour, through the facilitation of funny, talented and charismatic song leaders (Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman), the song is perfected and ready to be recorded. It is simply unbelievable – in an hour, the group sounds amazing! If you don’t believe me, listen to their recordings – there are tons of videos on their website. For example, here’s our recording for ‘Talkin’ About a Revolution’ (I was there for this one).
I have been thinking a lot about the magic of this, how a beautifully created song, in three-part harmony, can be taught, practiced and perfected in an hour. For a goal-oriented person (who also loves music), it is incredibly satisfying! And when I thought about it, I realized that Choir! Choir! Choir! is a perfect example of the power of synergy that can take place in groups, and that synergy is making this magic happen. I define synergy as the interaction or cooperation of two or more, to produce a combined result that is greater than the sum of their separate efforts. The sum is greater than the parts. The relationship between is just as or more important, than the individuals themselves. And in Choir! Choir! Choir!, the cooperation of learning the song is between hundreds of people, coming together for a common goal.
There has been a lot written about the power of synergy in groups. In one of my favorite books “Getting to Maybe” by Brenda Zimmerman and Frances Westley, they write (p.40): “Many are awestruck when they are told that a flock of birds, a school of fish or a hive of bees is up to fifty times more sensitive to changes in its environment than any single bird, fish or bee. In other words, they can respond to stimuli, like predators or windows, much more readily in this group formation than when they are on their own.” How does this happen, that the sensitivity to environment is so much higher in groups?
I like to imagine that we are flock of birds at Choir! Choir! Choir!. The synergy that takes place is because of our intense listening. In this group, our listening senses open up, 50 or more times higher than our listening in our individual, day-to-day lives. The only way that we can learn our part in the song so quickly, is through intense listening to each other. Firstly, we are listening to the other singers in our section, to hear our part. When we don’t remember our notes, we quiet our voice and listen to the singers who know their notes. We hear the right part and we follow along. The right notes carry louder and stronger over the wrong notes. The wrong notes drop away quietly, like rain dried up in the sun. No one even feels the rain, because we are carried by the sun. Once we feel more confident in our own singing part, we listen to the other parts so we can hear the magic of harmony.
In Choir! Choir! Choir!, the act of listening is more important than the singing. The beautiful singing can only happen from the listening. It is not one person who carries the song. Or even three people. The music actually arises from the relationship between the singers, and not within the singers themselves. Like a flock of graceful birds, we collectively take flight.

Cabin in the Woods

Sometimes what you need is to go to a cabin in the woods
To pack the car and drive far away from the big city lights
Arrive late at night, flashlight helping you to find our way through the forest, so bone tired that you fall into bed
But not before you see the thousands of stars in the black sky and feel the presence of what you have been thirsty for, for months, for years, for a lifetime
The presence you can only call God, because there are no words to describe
How you feel in nature.
You wake up to:
the air so fresh
sunlight flickering through the trees
wind whispering a timeless chant and leaves dancing along
birds chirping the melody
a symphony of music that is only heard when you can hear the silence too.
You are aware of your breath and the flow of spirit from within you.
You are aware of your heart, giving thanks for its beating, and this drum beat joins the symphony
Sometimes you need to go to a cabin in the woods

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