Where I fit in the box of crayons....

Do you ever get that feeling like there's more out there? That's the feeling that brought me to beyond borders. The global community is growing, and I have not yet become a part of it. I want to be a contributing citizen to the global community through participation and action. Over the years, I have developed an appreciation for diversity and difference, and look for other ways that people are doing things. There’s a whole world out there beyond our North American perspective that has the potential to change the way I see things, and to change my life. Gahndi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I think we should not only find the change within ourselves, but also take part in the change we want to see in the world. I hope that Beyond Borders will offer a medium in which I can be the change I want to see in the world, and also take part in that change.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

OMG Greece!

It took me nearly as long to get from Ternopil to Kiev as it took Felix to get from Toronto to Kiev!! The main thing is that Felix and I are together again. We are readjusting to being together again and maximizing our time in Greece.
We are currently in Athens. Today we took a side tour to explore the southern parts of the Grecian mainland. We saw the Corinth Canal, and then went to the Treasury of Atreus (originally believed to be the Tomb of Agamemnon) including the behive tombs and shaft graves, and then to the Palace and Acropolis at Mycenae, and then to Epidaurus the place of the museum of Asclepius – the original medical practitioner (his daughter is Hygea - meaning health - who gave her name to our english word Hygenic) and the ancient Asclepieion Amphitheatre. Busy day, but so amazing to get a chance to see so much.

Seeing that is it September and the main tourist season is over, the tour groups tend to be smaller, and the demographic tends to swing a little bit more in to the “zoomer” category. I love hanging out with older people! I love their life experience, and their knowledge, and really value the way they interpret the world after having lived on it far longer than I have. I always find the conversations are less chatty, less small talky and tend to deal with deeper richer subject matter. And another observation I have made while here (hahaha I talk as if it’s been ages…) : Let’s face it, it is NOT cheap to get to Greece (especially from North America) and so the people that we have met so far seem to have a certain level of affluence, coupled with a generally high(er) level of education than the average American. Today we/I made friends with a bunch of the couples in our tour group. (Are you surprised?)

I spent much of the day talking about what I have been doing at the orphanage and what life is like in Ukraine. I really value these opportunities to talk about the girls, and expose others to something they may not have been exposed to. I find that so few people have any idea about the conditions in Ukraine, let alone what a state run orphanage might be like. People are always interested in hearing about the beyond borders program, and how long I’ve been with the girls, how many there are, how old they are, and what I plan to do next. Every now and again I get to talk to someone that has a much deeper experience/knowledge/understanding of what I am doing in Ukraine and these are the GEM conversations.

On our day excursion to Argolis I had one of these conversations. We had lunch at a large table with 4 other couples all from the US. The couple from Rochester was talkative and helped to get the conversations started by asking questions and opening up space for discussion. Her and I had already talked while climbing up the Mycenae Acropolis (it was a steep hike, and she walked with a cane so I hung back with her to make sure she had a hand if she needed one). Her husband commented on what I have been doing in Ukraine and we launched into a discussion about that. The female in one of the couples was chatty, but the husband was more reserved… well until later when him and I were on the bus a bit early from one of the other stops and he began to tell me a bit about him. He is a child psychiatrist, and does special work with children that have been adopted by American families from developing countries (particularly Romania, Colombia and India). He asked about professionalism at the orphanage and what kind of help was available to the girls – AFTER I laughed we talked about the structure of the orphanage and the levels of challenges that I have faced as a North American working in a state run Ukrainian orphanage. We talked about working with children within a North American context. I asked if he saw patters of presenting problems and diagnosis, and if the main presenting issues varied depending on where the children had come from. We talked about Attachment theory and how he saw it as an important tool in helping the children adjust to not only being adopted, but also living in a new culture and country. I asked about whether he saw foreign adoption as a bonus or a challenge for both the children and the families. He told me about the chaos that these situations can create in otherwise generally stable family units. I talked about my girls and the lack of support they receive, especially on an emotional level. And I discussed identity development: what I think about identity development, and how I saw it as an important thing for my girls. He asked what I have done to promote identity development, and I described how I’ve been able to watch their identities emerge (if even only partially) as I’ve tried to massage them over the summer.

At the end of our conversation I thanked him for sharing his wisdom and experience with me. I realized how rich the conversation was, and how important it was for me because I able to talk about my girls on a professional level with a fellow professional who “got it”. I enjoyed the experience of being a “colleague” rather than some university kid. I thanked him for sharing ideas, and for helping to stimulate me to begin to see some of my experiences in Ukraine and at the orphanage through a more professional lens. He let me know that he was happy to hear about things that were being done to improve the quality of life for children in other parts of the world, and was also interested to take another look through his case notes and look for patterns that might be culturally related.

The sharing of ideas is such a wonderful experience – and how funny that it happened in Greece the birthplace of what we think of as education and philosophy and “modern” thought.

What a wonderful way to spend my first day in Greece!
More stories to come!


Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Soul of the World

“Please except this story from one traveler to another. May your journey be long and fulfilling. There may be bumps along the road, but take each challenge and learn from it” -Kevin Brown April 2010

The story is that of Santiago, the Andalusian Sheppard that discovered he has a personal Legend and followed it through to the end and found his treasure.
A Personal Legend is that what you have always wanted to accomplish. The King of Salem explains that “every one, when they are young, knows what their personal legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.” The King believes that everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits them.

Treasure is not gold or riches – the story of Santiago helped me to solidify my belief that life’s greatest treasure is fulfillment, and following a path to what you REALLY want most regardless of the challenges and repercussions that might await. It is said in Santiago’s tale that when you want something with all your heart that is when you are closest to the Soul of the World and the Soul of the World is always a positive force. The problem is that “people are afraid to pursue their most important dreams because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them” another problem that faces us now it the artificial importance that we place on things like careers, and money and material possessions. I think we lose our interest in following our deepest desires (as we cross over into adulthood) because we are faced with the shackles of “responsibility” that is ubiquitous in our culture. The King of Salem reminds Santiago that “in the long run what people think about bakers and sheppards becomes more important that their personal legends.” In our culture first we balk at those who do not go along with convention and affix the shackles of responsibility of the developed world, BUT this changes as soon as that person has succeeds at following their personal legend and finding their “treasure”. Once they have succeeded we are instantly overcome with envy and elevate the person to star status for mustering the courage to rebel against convention and follow their own Personal legends. This tells me that we are all aching to follow our dreams and listen to our hearts but society is able to exact too much control over our journeys to personal fulfillment.

The reality is that we all dream. We might not listen to our hearts, or have the courage to follow our Personal legends, but the dreams exist, and it is the “possibility [however remote] of having a dream come true that makes life interesting”. We tend to get so caught up in the everyday that we forget to take notice of the good things that are always happening to us – this is the root cause of that feeling of boredom when every day is exactly the same as the last and the next. All too often we forget that “it is the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary”. I think that we should spend more time looking for and learning how to recognize the small joys that are around us all the time; stop to smell the roses (so to speak).

The King suggests to Santiago that one of the hardest decisions is “choosing between something you’ve grown accustomed to and something you want to have”. Santiago realizes the importance of decisions, and the power they have to completely anyone’s trajectory “when someone makes a decision they are diving into a strong current that will carry them to places that they had never dreamed of”. The first time I heard the story of Santiago I thought it was about fate and allowing life to lead you down a path. The more I thought about the story of Santiago I realized that I was in error. I revisited the story of Santiago and found that it was quite the opposite – in order to realize personal fulfillment one must take an active role in making decisions, learning lessons and engaging in hard work to make it to the end. The journey to realizing a Personal Legend is not easy, but it is certainly rewarding. The story of Santiago encourages us to take an active role in our lives and not sit idly by as life takes over for us. Santiago warns us of a grave error “I am like everyone else I see the world in terms of what I would like to see happen not what actually does” if we see the realities, we are more likely to act to make a difference rather than seeing the world as what might be and leaving reality up to “fate”.

The story of Santiago has a strong overtone of faith and a guiding hand that knows all and transcends the physical world. I’m not into God, so I have trouble envisioning a dude sitting somewhere controlling things… but to me this force - the soul of the world – is our humanity, a force that connects each being to all others. Santiago realizes that “intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life where the histories of all people are connected and we are able to know everything because it is all written there”: we can better understand the world if we understand that because of the world we are all inextricably connected. It is important that we all realize that no matter what it is that we do in our lives “every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world”.

Over the past year (from the moment I got accepted to the Beyond Borders Program) I have worked really hard to listen to my heart and follow whatever path it thought was best. The most important thing that I have learned in this year (despite spending a bunch on money on a “formal education”) is that I have a Personal Legend, and I know that I will not be happy with myself, or with my life, if I am not constantly on the path towards my Life Treasure. I can’t tell you what my Life Treasure is going to be because I cannot see the future, but someone on Santiago’s journey explains that the here and now is much more important than what is to come: “If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it and if you improve upon the present what comes later will be better”. I am willing to suffer the repercussions of not following convention (you should be laughing at this if you know me even a little bit) in favour of seeking out my Personal Legend. This is an uncharted path, and I expect many bumps along the way, but as the Camel driver explains “people need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they want and need” and after spending four months here in Ukraine I have learned that what I want and need is to listen to my heart and pursue my Personal Legend.

Maktub (it is written) that “no matter who you are or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something it is because that desire originated in the soul of the world and it is your mission in life” I encourage you to listen.


September 11 - 9 years later

I won't write alot, but I will share some thoughts.

Burn the Quran Day is a disgusting illustration of the hubris that perpetuates the tensions between American Cultural Imperialism and Muslim Extremists.

The battle of the "Ground Zero Mosque" is still being waged.

The 9th anniversary of the September 11th attacks is now embroiled in controversy, hatred, and more threats of violence from one side to the other. Many families of 9/11 vitims believe that today should be a day of peace, and fear that the anniversary has been hijacked by politics

I think Today we should think about acceptance and unity and have faith that diversity enriches us rather than threatens us. Them against us creates tragedy, us together with them creates change....


Friday, September 10, 2010

I started running forwards, and now I’m walking backwards

It is strange to be in a position where I am forced to look back and take stock of the last 4 months of my life (wow it’s four months tomorrow!) when for the last year (at least) I have been more accustomed to looking forward to these four months. I have not yet let it sink in that my time is “up” – I’m not getting on a plane for a few weeks, but my days here in Ukraine are numbered.

A long time ago I wrote a strange blog where I promised to tell you about my biggest challenges here and I never kept that promise (They all Places Bets). I will now. I couldn’t talk about it before because it felt like letting it out gave it too much power over me and over my time here. Now that I have just about reached the end and am confident in my successes I am in a position to better analyze the problems and challenges.

For the month of June (my first month at the Internat) and part way through July I wasn’t really sure that I was doing the right thing. I wasn’t as happy as I had expected to be working at the Internat. Actually to be quite honest my stomach lurched and knotted the moment I hit the base of the driveway up to the orphanage building. I really fought with this feeling – the nausea, the anxiety, the upset because I was committed to making sure that I was still giving the girls the best that I could.

I have this problem: I am afraid of my negatively coloured emotions (like I talked about in my Auscwitz post). I am so rarely taken over by negative premonitions and experiences where I can not find the silver lining that when it does happen I always fear the worst. This fear of the negative is exponentially multiplied when I’m alone and don’t have anyone to process with (I am a verbal processor – I need to talk through things to make sense of them). I struggled silently for nearly two months thinking that the feelings I experienced while at the Internat were related to the job, and the girls and not being fully interested or motivated. I was feeling like I was in the wrong place, and maybe even a little bit disappointed that I had worked so hard for something I didn’t really want. I didn’t feel like I could blog about it because I had built up an expectation in my self and in others, and was feeling really guilty that I thought I “hated” it. There was also this smell that wafted from the grounds that added to the nausea. There were days where it was almost too much to deal with and a few days I nearly turned around and went home. The first 15 minutes were always the most unpleasant and I really had to be strong and engage tons of positive self talk to stick them out and move on with my days there.

Finally I told two people about how I was really feeling: Felix and Devin. Lucky for me they asked questions and allowed me the time and space to process. I was able to sort through and unpack my feelings about being here…

The main thing is that there are many layers of things to fight through here. There is the language barrier, there is the culture, the systemic problems associated with disabilities, the politics, the economy; then there is the structure at the Internat, the boneheaded director, the uncaring staff, the lack of programming for the girls, and also fighting to form emotional bonds with the girls. I am a fixer: I like to/need to problem solve and implement changes that fix the things I think are wrong. In talking to Devin and Felix I managed to recognize that I was working myself up into a frenzy and exhausting myself with the “how do I fix it ALLL” every time I got to the orphanage. I was feeling really defeated and down trodden at all of this things I had to fight against to make the kind lasting change I felt I needed to make to feel successful at the end of my time here. I was also feeling pretty lonesome particularly related to the fact that I had no one to draw energy from, and no one to bounce ideas off of and brainstorm with. I really need that kind of stimulation and I was definitely feeling it while I navigated my challenges.

I got through the days with the girls and at the Internat with a realization that the bottom line was that my time in Ukraine was intended to enrich the lives of the girls – to help them build skills and grow as human beings and no matter what I was feeling I had to concentrate on those goals.

A conversation with Devin helped to change things around. His advice was to focus on one area and make the most amount of change in that one area and then the next person to come and focus on a different area. This helped me to assess my priorities and set my goals and helped to relieve the feeling that there was just too much to fight against all alone.

My main priority the entire time has been the girls. I am concerned by the other things, but first and foremost it is about enriching their lives before attacking the larger more systemic problems. It was funny how quickly the switch in my priorities and goals translated to a switch in my experience. The next time I was at the orphanage the lurch and knots were gone, I didn’t notice the smell, and it seemed like all of a sudden I “clicked” with the girls I had been working really hard to bond with.

I noticed that the quality of the time I spent with the girls didn’t change, but it was easier to get up and get going in the morning and less of a fight to stay connected and be creative and engaging with the girls. With the shift in my attitude came a whole bunch of positive things and positive changes which made being here in Ukraine even more enjoyable than it had already been the first 2 months.

Since the switch in my own outlook I have had 2 months of incredible experiences at the orphanage and with the girls. I have seen changes in the girls in how they express themselves and what they are willing to do and noticed their personalities bud and grow. Maybe even more importantly I have seen changes in the way the staff work with the girls, and how they respond to me; they have changed over time from being resistant to allowing me to work the way I want to being unbelievably supportive of my efforts and even participating in activities.

I think that I really believe in the importance of challenges – even though I sometimes wish that everything could be easy. I am glad that I am finally able to talk about the challenges that I experienced here in Ukraine, but even more so I am ecstatic that I can report that I have been able to overcome the challenges.

Yesterday was my last official day at the orphanage (felix and I will be going to visit in my last week but that is a good bye visit and not a working visit) and as sad as I was to be leaving the girls, I was really proud of the progress we had made together over the time we spent together.

ALSO on a positive note: I found out that that terrible smell that wafted around most of the summer was from the bushes that line the entire property, and not just a general smell of terrible that came from the institution! I can not tell you how happy that made me!

I will write more “closing thoughts” in another post where I have a fresh group of 1000 words to work with *wink*

Thanks for helping me to run forward, and also allowing me the space to walk backwards…


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Першого вересня

Today is the first of September – in Ukraine that means that it is the first day of school. Canadian students get an extra week to enjoy their summer and prepare for another year in the hallowed halls of academia.

A group of girls poses for me in their official 11th grade uniforms

I thought that I might have to wait another week for this to hit me, but being part of the “opening ceremony” at the orphanage and walking through the city today evoked an interesting shock to my emotions. I realized this afternoon that for the first time in 22 years I will not be buying new pens and pencils, or a “back to school” wardrobe. I didn’t have to worry about getting into courses, constructing the perfect schedule, or tuition. There will be no textbooks, no midterms and no exams.

Yikes! The anxiety welled up a little bit today as I walked through the hustle and bustle of a city come alive with students and beaming parents. I saw friends reuniting, the spiffy clothes, the quick conversations of summer adventures, the nervous little ones as they hurried to their first day. Parents having to take the day off to usher their offspring into the newest chapter of their lives. These are all the wonderful parts of going back to school. Watching all this unfold got me feeling a little bit nostalgic for these wonderful moments of the first day back. There is a ritual associated with going back to school that we are all aware of and participate in (and have consumerized ). Ukrainians live in a very traditional culture and so the ritualization of most things, including and especially the first day of school, happens on an even grander scale, so it was an even larger whack in the face! (like the girls and their 11th class uniforms pictured above)

I got a little bit panicky that I was merely an observer this year and not a participant. For so long “student” has been such a large part of my identity. I really wonder about what life will hold when I arrive back in Canada – too late to beg and plead to get back into school, but yet without a job lined up and no idea where to start.

The funny part about that is 4 months ago I was so happy that it was all over and done with (for a little bit) because I had grown tired and weary of academia. Afraid I was on the verge of becoming one of them (have I posted about my views on academia? Perhaps I should, but I’ll save that for another day). Four months ago there would have been nothing anyone could do to make me sign up for more of what had become so blasé, so under-stimulating. And here I am panicking!

Someone asked me the other day if I was afraid to come home – I started to giggle, and then my palms got sweaty, and my heart sped up. I hadn’t thought of it that way but he hit the nail on the head. Four months ago I started over – new city, new country, new language, new people, new culture, new job, new experience, new life. In less than a month I will have to start all over once again – new city, new country, new language, old people, old culture but with a new identity (NOT a student), new outlook, new understanding, and probably most importantly (for North American society) without a job! I am not sure what to expect out of life when I step back onto Canadian soil. It was thrilling to think of the “freedom” before I departed for Ukraine, but now that this “freedom” is imminent it scares the daylights out of me!

Not being able to enter back into the warm cozy shelter that school provides allows reality to get at you – job, life responsibility, money, and the most dreaded: adulthood. I’m not as excited about not going back to school as I thought I might be! For me September first has been a reminder that I am not ready to grow up!

I realize today that there is something that is of significantly more importance than finding a job, or starting a career: as soon as I am back I must figure out how to escape the clutches of what I see to be an eternal punishment that is closing in on me – I must thwart adulthood! If you have any ideas of how I might achieve this, please let me know....


Monday, August 30, 2010

I have located my box...

There are so many ways I would like to start this blog post, but in the interest of not being passive aggressive, or cryptic, all I am going to say is that after 3 months the box saga seems to have taken a positive turn, but then again it ain’t over till it’s over.

Let me fill you in. (for those who are unaware of this struggle)

It all began when I had one of my strokes of genius (please note sarcasm). After the first day that the Internat (beginning of June) I realized that the girls are in LOVE with taking photographs. They took 300 photographs in the first hour I was with them! The next day I went shopping for cameras. Electronics are a real challenge here – Ukrainians have the choice between really terrible Russian electronic technology with above (North American) average prices, or, old and obsolete Asian technology that is usually two to three times what we would pay in Canada. At the time it seemed to make MUCH more sense to buy the cameras in Canada and ship them here….

I sent Felix shopping for cameras (he’s such an angel!). Lucky for us a few of the electronics stores were having camera sales gearing up for summer. We bought 6 cameras (thank you all for your more than generous support before I left. This purchase wouldn’t have been possible with out your help!).

After we bought the cameras I got excited and went out in search of a professional photographer here in Ternopil that would be willing to lend a few mornings to teaching the girls how to use the cameras. It was a challenge – there aren’t many professional photographers, the ones that exist are not so willing to give up their time, or didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. I did finally arrange someone who was excited to be a part of the whole thing. But first we had to get the cameras…

The next step was finding a way to get them from there to here. I did some price shopping and found out that it was going to be a fortune to get them here (in the neighbourhood of $400), so I started canvassing. You might remember a post from July “Down with FedEx” in which I outlined the length of time it took FedEx to respond to me, how they responded to me, and what their response was - a resounding NO for the record. This episode took us into the middle of July, and still the cameras were sitting in the condo in Toronto.

There was a possibility that someone would be visiting Ukraine from the University, so I followed up with that… Due to other commitments and scheduling difficulties, it wasn’t going to be possible this time. So this option was a no go.

Felix and I explored some other shipping options. When shipping to a less travelled destination (like Ukraine) you have two options: 1) semi quick – within 2 weeks – crazy expensive and 2) painstakingly slow – 6-8 weeks – still expensive. The other issue we were having is that Canada Post has a shipping partnership with FedEx and after being supremely disappointed, and blowing my top at them it was a principal issue to not have their hands on my box. Canada post offers a ground service to Ukraine which is not nearly as expensive as the priority shipping, but it takes 8 weeks to arrive and there’s no protection for the package. This seemed like the way to go, even considering the length of time it was going to take.

I think in Canada we take out postal system for granted. We trust that when we put something in a post box that it will get to its destination in a reasonable amount of time, and that whatever we decide to post is protected (you have no idea how protected our postal system is…). One of Felix’s co workers over heard him arranging to have the packaged shipped to Ukraine via ground service and decided to lend some of her experience (thank goodness). She was actually a mail carrier in Romania, and also has a side business that sells art and photography over the internet. She alerted Felix to the problems and corruption that exist with the postal service here. Most importantly she stressed that in these parts (Eastern Europe) being a customs officer is the best job anyone can hope for because of the “perks” – namely greased palms and the liberty to pick and choose what you’d like to confiscate. Felix was apprehensive about shipping. Then we got a taste of the postal system here when we realized something funny was happening with my post cards (see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Post Box). We were getting closer and closer to the end of July – time was running short and I was running out of options.

It’s not often that I give up, but I was pretty tired of dealing with “the box” (as it has come to be unaffectionately know as) and nearly resolved that I was just not going to be able to make it happen. Just as I was ready to give up, Orest (the guy that was supposed to be my translator) gave me a glimmer of hope – his Aunt was travelling from Kamloops, BC to Ternopil at the beginning of August, and if we could get the box to them before she left she would be happy to bring it with her!!!! I really couldn’t have asked for anything better –I was beside myself with happiness…

Felix ran to the post office and arranged to have the box posted to Kamloops on the double. It was scheduled to arrive in 3 business days – but there was at least a week and a half of wiggle room before Orest’s aunt departed. Fail proof! I departed for Poland and Prague excited that by the time I returned the cameras would have arrived safely with the aunt.

I got back to Ternopil August 7th. The family told me the Orest had called a few times – my heart leapt – he was calling to arrange for me to pick up the cameras!!! I called Orest. I was happy to hear that his aunt had arrived safely and was happy to be spending time with family. Then Orest dropped the bomb – she didn’t have the cameras with her. The (F*@#%ING) box never arrived at her house!! Where the hell was the box?!?! Felix marched over to the post office and demanded they locate our box (now even less affectionately referred to!). Canada Post conducted an investigation to locate the box. They discovered that the box arrived at the correct address and was signed for more than 10 days before the aunt left. Orest’s family swore that they did not receive any box.

Instead of the leap forward to cross the finish line, we were now even further behind because the box was lost somewhere between Toronto and Kamloops. As much as I wanted to give up at this point I couldn’t because I needed to locate my box! Orest and I talked and he was going to have the family check again – there was a slight problem though they had moved from Kamloops to Vancouver city.

On Saturday August 28 Orest got a hold of me with great news – (my fingers were crossed that the aunt had actually packed the cameras and not realized it… I think I’d have to believe in God for something like that to happen hahahah) the box… HAD BEEN LOCATED!!!

Here’s what happened – Felix needed to pack the cameras, memory cards, batteries and a few other things that I wanted him to send me into something. He looked around for a box. He had just bought new dog cookies from Costco and it turned out that the Dog cookie box was the perfect size. He packaged everything, wrapped the box in white paper, addressed it to Kamloops and off it went. Felix didn’t think for a second that the box would be an obstacle, so he didn’t tell me that he shipped the cameras in a dog cookie box. The box arrived in Kamloops. The family unwrapped the white paper and was really confused - they don’t have a dog. Being former Soviet Russia immigrants (with a healthy distrust for the postal system) decided not to open the suspicious box of dog cookies. The box went into the garage. The aunt departed for Ternopil, and the uncle and kids moved homes from Kamloops to Vancouver. When Orest called asking about the box it took a couple days for the family to remember the strange box of dog cookies that came in the mail. And then an epiphany! Perhaps it WASN’T dog cookies in the box!!! So Orest’s uncle drove all the way BACK to Kamloops (400km one way) to retrieve the (effing gawd damned) box of NOT dog cookies and sure enough when he opened it, THERE were my CAMERAS!!!!!!!!!

There are two things I can’t believe happened here – 1) I can’t believe that Felix didn’t communicate his choice of shipping container. That little piece of information would have been very helpful to know both before and after the box arrived in Kamloops and may have ensured the box’s safe arrival to Ternopil with the aunt. 2) I can not believe not opening a package that comes in the mail. Perhaps it is my overwhelming curiosity, but if a box came in the mail even if it said BOMB all over it, I would probably open it! (Most of you know full well this is the case) Opening the box would have ensured that the box got here because it would have become very apparent that it wasn’t dog cookies, but my CAMERAS!

So as I said, it ain’t over till it’s over… it is wonderful that the box has been located and is now in the care of the family in Vancouver. BUT the box now has to travel BACK to Toronto, arrive safely to Felix, and then come with him when he flys over to meet me. The box has to survive 10 days in Greece (8 different cities) with us before it can finally be confirmed as having ARRIVED in Ternopil, Ukraine. And I’m sure you understand that after all this (I have run out of expletives I’m willing to post here, but think of some terrible ones…) BOX has been through, I’m not about to start counting my chickens before they are hatched…

Now you know the story of the (insert terrible descriptor) box.

I’ll let you know what happens in the next chapter of this saga….


Sunday, August 29, 2010

This is why I read The Star....

A few weeks ago I posted a link to a story and a reflection about a New York Ad Exec that handed over her credit card to a homeless man (see Even she talkes to strangers).

Today in The Star there is a story/experiment done on the streets of Toronto by a toronto star reporter. The article, How Panhandlers use free Credit Cards, confirms what I said in the last post about homelessness, and it a nive double underline to the idea of treating EVERYONE with humanity and dignity.


PS MELISSA I promise I also read your articles on a regular basis! ;)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Not good at failure

My mama has been in the hospital for the past couple weeks. She is doing well, recovering from surgery, and I think that this is best for her health in the long run. he absence from the house hasn't really been noticed by anyone... well except Tanya. Tanya has taken on all of mama's duties around the house, plus she is at the hospital everyday with mama, and her job has started back up after summer vacation. Poor Tanya has alot on her plate - she has lost 15 pounds in 3 months just from stress!

I have been trying to help where I can, although she is pretty resistant to letting me! One of the things she hates doing is cooking... One of the things I love to do is to cook - perfect! I decided the other day that I was going to make the family Varenekey (pirogies) all by myself (for the first time ever) so that tanya didn't have to cook.

I was pretty excited today. I got home and made the dough, mixed the filling, and started filling pockets. They were pretty beautiful! they were the right size and shape, and the dough was co-operating... I was pretty excited for dinner!

I made them earlyier in the afternoon, so we left them to stand for a bit until everyone was ready for dinner... OOPS! I used an egg dough rather than the flour dough (I like the dough a little bit tougher), and so the finished varenekey didn't dry the same way. the side that was resting on the surface stayed moist and stuck! When we pulled them up the dough broke. I tried to make dough band-aids for all of my precious little pouches, but to no avail: when we boiled them all the filling leaked out. We ended up having soggy, boiled varenekey dough for dinner. EPIC FAIL!!!

I was pretty ticked at myself. I didn't want to eat. I was embarrassed, and feeling a little bit dented, and wounded. and then I remember I hadn't done my run... and I was really REALLY craving a cigarette!!! I'm terrible at failure!

I was feeling pretty down, mopy, and sorry for me self. Then I realized that Tanya was feeling bad for me and I was adding to her stress, so I started to joke about my terrible varenekey experience and we were in stitches before long! We both laughed until we were in pain.

I will try my hand at making dinner, maybe even varenekey, again. Tomorrow I will double my usual kilometers, and I'm NOT going to have a cigarette. Alls well that end well!

I promise to get better at making varenekey before I come home....


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ac-cent-tuate the POSITIVE

If you think back…. Waaaaaaaay back you might remember that I had zero interest in coming to Ukraine. I was dead set against it when it was first suggested to me as an option. I remember saying to felix at some point “I cant believe how hard I’ve worked for something I don’t even want!” I warmed up a little bit to the idea of coming when I learned I”d be travelling with a dear friend – and then I learned that I would in fact be travelling alone! The beginning of March was interesting as I dealt with the idea of going to Ukraine and going alone.

The other day I applied for a job that would keep me in Ukraine for another 7 months. I actually applied for the job specifically so that I could stay here for another 7 months. I feel like it’s necessary to explain how I went from not wanting to come here at all to not ever wanting to leave. I could go into a whole bunch of explanation, but at the very crux of the issue is a single decision.

In march, I struggled with the placement country, and the placement position, I struggled with travelling alone, and I struggled with a few other “omens” that pointed away from Ukraine, but I also struggled with the idea that I signed up for the program to help. I believe that helping others is a selfless act (I don’t think that we need to argue that point…). Generally I am committed to helping in whatever capacity I can, and that extends to things I might not enjoy doing. Helping, to me, is really about doing that which is needed, rather than that which s enjoyed. I noticed that I was struggling with things that were really self interested - I was actually disappointed that I was allowing my own selfishness to cloud an opportunity to help (again, the exact reason why I signed up for the program). This realization precipitated my decision: I decided in March to make the absolute best of every moment of this experience – the Accentuate the Positive, if you will.

I took on the responsibility of looking at everything about my trip and my experience through rose coloured spectacles. I can not tell you the effect this has had on every moment of every day. I was able to see things in a whole new light: Leaving Felix was an opportunity to prove how much we care for each other; stopovers, delays and other ridiculousness on the way here was an excuse for unplanned adventure; losing my luggage on the flight meant I didn’t have to worry about 2 suitcases etc. one of my favourite moments from Ternopil involves the Ternopil rain: it rained for the first 35 days I was here – like every day there was rain without exception. Living in a grey gloomy city can get tiresome, but for some reason I was enjoying the freshness of it. There was one day I had to meet my professor in the center square. It looked like a nice day, so I dressed for sun – oops! I got to the center just in time to seek shelter at the theatre before the skys opened up. It rained. Like it really really rained. The water was coming down in sheets, I remember standing there getting a little bit frustrated – MORE rain?! I was going to be soaked, I couldn’t walk in my sandals in the rain, I just washed my hair… and then the positive thinking kicked in – I saw a man carry his girlfriend across the square because there was a 2 foot deep puddle and then I started to laugh. Everyone standing under the roof of the theatre stared at me as if I was crazy, but I just kept on laughing – I was laughing because it was just water, and it meant the grass would be more green, and eventually there would be flowers, and my clothes, and hair would dry.

Accentuating the positives in every situation has meant that I haven’t had any bad days here in Ukraine. The few rough moments quickly turned into an opportunity to look for the silver lining which was a wonderful distraction from the crappiness of the moment.

I have really enjoyed the challenge of staying positive for 4 months! I think that because of this I have witnessed and experienced precious fleeting moments that are too often missed when we are occupied with negatives. My commitment to staying positive and making the best of my time here has served me well – it has helped me to make this place home, to fall in love with a new family, and to devote myself to a job I didn’t think I was capable of doing. Enjoying every moment to the max is the reason why I don’t want to leave Ukraine.

My biggest positive thinking challenge is going to be finding the positives in leaving what I have found here behind. I am sure this is not going to be easy – but I have had 4 months of practice, so I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with something! I’ll let you know when I find the silver lining.

Stay positive!

Friday, August 20, 2010

OOOOOOOOOOh, THATS where it is....

I am learning where every muscle in my body is. Don't be fooled - I have not taken an unusual interest in kinesiology, or anatomy - nope! I am able to isolate and locate a large majority of my muscles because they HURT! I found a counter balance weight gym at the university - how appropriate: a workout AND a physiology lesson!

The other day I was watching P!nk on the Ellen Degenerous show and P!nk gave Ellen "Obliques in a bottle" so she could paint on the muscle definition (hahaha); at the time I didn't know where my obliques were... NOW I do! I'm reminded JUST where they every time I laugh or breathe in to deeply (they are the muscles that run along the side of your abdomen)

So here's a list of what hurts (top to bottom)
Latissimus Dorsi
External Oblique
Lower abs
Gluteus medius
Abductor longus

I just need to tie my laces and then I"m on my way back to the gym - I will never deny that I'm a masochist!

Also a quick update on this stuff...

Personal accomplishments:

-Applied for UN overseas jobs (long shot, but at least I'm getting exposure to HR)
-signed up for pastry classes (I cant wait to get the ovens back on)

45 days of non smoking

6 weeks of running (7 weeks since I started, but I took a holiday in the middle!)

new averages (from July 25):
Average run – 5.5km
Average direct Calorie burn 415

Distance since July 25: 55km
Total 110km
Direct calorie burn since July 25: 4155
Total 7675

August goal - 55/125km

I'm off to find more muscles....

Anyone wanna book a massage with me when I'm home?!


Sunday, August 15, 2010

We are incredibly capable.

It has taken two weeks for the experience to ruminate. This is a long one, sorry.

Visiting the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau (photos)is a powerful, and altering experience – but not in the way that you might think (of course this is going to be different for everyone). The experience wasn’t gruesome, depressing, pessimistic or morose – infact for me the end result was quite uplifting and positive (I’ll get to that). I want to unpack a little bit here, but it really is an experience that is best relived through dialogue, so please, when I’m home, if you’re interested to hear more, please ask.

Being at Auschwitz really put my life in perspective. You really have to take a look at your life and what you take for granted. As Canadians (especially those of us lucky enough to be born and bred Canadians) I don’t think we even have experiences that remind us that it (our lifestyle, our freedom) can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Walking around in the same place where so many had everything taken away was grounding. As a small example: my iphone was stolen from me at the first hostel we were at. I was pretty upset about losing it. I don’t think I was as attached to it as Krista was to her blackberry before leaving, but there was a connection. Being at Auschwitz really made me think about what it meant to me, and what it meant in the grand scheme of things. I haven’t thought about my iphone since I returned from Auschwitz. In the few instances since Auschwitz that have challenged me I definitely caught myself saying “remember… it really could be worse” which always seemed to change things around for the better. I have become even more of an optimist than I was before. This is just one of the positive things that came from my visit.

I think the first thing that I felt, and also the most jarring of all my emotions from the day was disbelief! It is an uncomfortable place to find yourself in denying that this could have ever happened while you’re standing under the gates “arbeit macht frei”. I learned cycling term the other day from a dear friend gearing up to do a 150km ride (he achieved his incredible goal – SOO amazing! Congrats!!) – “bonking” is when there is a serious disjuncture between your body and your mind (generally due to exhaustion) that renders you nearly paralyzed. I experienced bonking at Auschwitz – my brain refused to acknowledge where my body was, and I definitely shut down for the first half hour. We all hear about the holocaust and the terrible mark it left on the Jewish people, the German people and humanity as a whole. We have gathered and studied the numbers, the statistics the facts and the figures about the Nazis, the Jews, the Germans, the camps, but reading that stuff on a page, and having it come to life in front of you are two very different things. I understood the source of the disjunct and denial while at Birkenau standing on top of the watch tower –the sheer size and the unbelievably meticulous organization of the camps really bends your mind. It is so hard to conceive of such a terrible crime being so well planned and executed. Your mind begins to adjust as you walk around and experience more of both the camps, but the experience of size and scrupulous organization never becomes less chilling.

In the camps the prisoners were forced to surrender all of their personal effects to the Nazi’s. These belongings (glasses, clothes, valuables) were redistributed to needy German communities (Hitler was playing reversed robin hood). The confiscated items were stored in a building on site at the camps; this building was referred to by the prisoners as “Canada” because it was the place where everything was provided and all dreams came true (this was a touching nod). One of the buildings at Auschwits I (Birkkenau is referred to as AuschwitzII) was dedicated to housing all of the confiscated items that were recovered from the camps when they were liberated. This building put a definite end to my disbelief and one image was probably the most powerful out of the whole day spend there. In each room there were piles of personal effects; there were piles of glasses, and piles of dishes and cooking implements, piles of toys, piles of clothes, even piles of prosthetic limbs and medical aids (crutches, canes etc). In one of the rooms there was a pile (perhaps better described as a mountain) of suitcases (click for photo). Wow the suitcases were wrenching. The prisoners were told that they were being relocated from the ghettos to other, better locations, and that their belongings would follow them later. Each person was allowed one case of specific dimensions. Each person took the time out to write their name address and any other important information on their suitcases to ensure that their precious belongings made it to them where ever they might be going. This image hit because it really illuminated the humanity of the prisoners and victims that were taken. As they wrote their names addresses and identifying information on their suitcases, they displayed hope and optimism in the face of horror. Even more so than the hall of photos located in another building this was a powerful experience of humanization: there was something about seeing peoples’ names written on their last vestiges of personal possession that gave each prisoner a vivid identity. In fact, this was such a moving experience I am really having trouble finding the right words to talk about it… so I’ll stop, you get the idea.

I mentioned in a former blog that spending the evening at the Hostel was a really interesting part of the Auschwitz experience. On the day we went, most of the people who were staying at the hostel also took the trip out to the camps. The evening was interesting. There was a heaviness in the air, you could almost hear the wheels turning, and gears grinding as everyone struggled to process their experience. There was some wonderful conversation as each of us examined the day and shared our thoughts and experiences with others. This was an important ending to the day. It was important because we all had a shared experience, and even thought we didn’t really know each other we needed to know that someone understood how we felt about it all. You can relay an experience, but it’s not the same as that unspoken understanding that happens on a fundamental level ( I discussed this in depth in my post about travel buddies). The conversations flowed – we discussed the disbelief, the horror, the fascination. We discussed humanity through lenses of pessimism and optimism. We discussed the past, the present and the future. The conversations were deep and rich and everyone was able to contribute some mental and emotional gem which they pulled from their depths, and shared so unabashedly. It was so stimulating to be a part of that, and also offered a change to process, and also a chance for closure on the day. We all know that I am an extrovert, and I am definitely much better at processing my experiences and thoughts through dialogue so I was more than grateful to have this opportunity.

Being there at Auschwitz, one definitely questions humanity. Human beings are the only species (in my limited knowledge of wildlife) that attack their own kind lie we do. During one of our dialogues at the Hostel I described it in terms of dogs: never before have the brown dogs gotten together and decided that the dogs with spots were a problem and had to be removed; nor have the Chihuahuas taken issue with the existence of Dobermans and made a move to eradicate them. It is a uniquely human characteristic to acknowledge such minor details

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with Hitler. This fascination made me ambivalent towards learning about/talking about the holocaust because I was feared that my fascination was something deep and dark that I held locked away in my psyche. I had always mistakenly conflated my fascination with some perverse admiration and that was super scary. Visiting Auschwitz helped me to finally unpack my fascinations and my fears. My fascination with Hitler has always revolved around his genius (please understand that genius is not attached to a measure of good or bad, just pure mental functioning); I find it incredible that one man managed to motivate an entire nation to wreak havoc on humanity. I am also (being a complete hedonist) surprised at how unbelievably motivated human beings are by fear. It seems to me that fear is a much more powerful motivator than pleasure, hope, solidarity, or any other “positive” motivator. Hitler’s genius was the ability to captivate the hearts and minds of a nation, and also to get into the psyche of the average person and use what bests motivates them to carry out his intentions. Hitler, one man, left a mark on the world. A mark that will remain on humanity for eternity – the effects of his power can be felt politically, economically, socially, religiously and cognitively by nearly every person on this planet (think of the wide spread effects of World War II). I am much more comfortable with my Hitler fascination now because I understand what motivates it: if it is possible for one person to motivate an entire nation of people to commit such terrible and horrific acts against their fellow human being, than it must be possible that one person, or a small group can motivate the same size group (or larger) to accomplish feats that are equal in magnitude, but entirely opposite in outcome i.e positive (Issa: Equal and Opposite Opposites!!!!!!!). This was my very positive and uplifting take home message from Auschwitz, almost a parting gift: I really gained an understanding of the enormous capability of humanity, and each human being to affect change both in their environment, and for other human beings, it is now the task of each of us to find a way to use the power of such magnificent capability to affect positive change in the world.

Start a movement!


Friday, August 13, 2010

Even she talkes to strangers...

This is a heart warming story out of New York City

A bum you can Trust, Honest (click to read stoy)

People are going crazy with this story, and the general consensus seems to be "wow, homeless people can be trusted!"

I found it touching not because of his actions, but because of hers! he acted like he always would, but she went outside of convention and treated a homless man like a really human being. In so doing, she has set an important example for people - that it pays to be trusting, and lend a hand without judgement. This lesson can be applied in so many aspects of life. We are capable of giving so much more to those in need and I think we need to do so while carrying around a lot less prejudice.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

From beyond borders, to across borders.

Three months ago I arrived in Ukraine to embark on a beyond borders experience. Last week I experienced moving across borders, which is a totally different experience.

In just about every graduating class there is bound to be a group of people who make the quintessential European backpacking trip – this is true for my classmates that graduated this spring. Luckily one of them was coming far enough east and we were able to meet up. I had the privilege of spending my birthday week doing some travelling with my friend Mac.

Mac and I made plans to meet up in Krakow, Poland on July 29. Trains seem to be the most popular means of transportation so I bought a train ticket – and so started my train tribulations!

Travelling can be a challenge at home (in Canada) but there are added layers of difficulty and navigation when you consider travelling in a different country, travelling in a different language, and travelling across borders. The ticket that I bought for the train to Krakow – I missed that train! Not because it was at 4:30 in the morning and I wasn’t there to catch it, oh no! I was sitting on the platform, and had been for 45 minutes when the train pulled up, waited for 10 minutes and then left without me on it. I didn’t understand the announcement over the PA, and the Ukrainian person I asked assured me that it wasn’t my train. After waiting for another hour and a half, I went home to bed. I restarted my journey to Krakow the next day when I got on a different train, this time first to Lviv. It seemed like every time I got on a train some sort of SNAFU occurred. Whether it was missing the train, being almost abducted by border officials, or ending up way too far off the ground for my comfort in a train cabin with way too many people on the way to Prague, or losing my power cord at the Prague train station, or thinking the train was at 9am, and learning it was 9pm, or having to wait 8 hours while they changed the wheels of the train over…. You name it, I lived through it.

I am NOT going to into all of the strange and down right ridiculous things that happened on my excursion (in the interest of people who don’t give a $h!+, and because I cant seem to keep any of my blogs under 1000 words!) You’ll have to ask about those in person. lets put it this way... there was so much that went awry on the trip - including me getting really super excited about bagels with cucumbers and cream cheese but finding, much to my dismay, that cucumbers translated incorrectly as pickles - Mac and I dubbed the weekend the 26 Pickles weekend!! (26 being my age, and pickles being representative of all the oopses of the weekend) But I’ll give you some hightlights, and some reflections....

Here’s the basic itinerary:
July 28 – Missed train
July 29 - Night train to Krakow
July 30 – Krakow – Wawel Castle/City/Hooka (photos)
July 31 – Krakow - Auschwitz/Birkenau (photos)
Aug 1 – Krakow – Salt Mine (night train to Prague)
Aug 2 (birthday) - 15km walking around Prague (photos)
Walking tour
Charles Bridge
Lennon Wall
Aug 3 – Prague city centre (night train departure)
Aug 4 – train
Aug 5 - train

I want to make a comment about Hostels. What an interesting microcosm of the world! In one I had my iphone stolen while I slept, in the next I felt like I was part of the family and didn’t want to leave, and then in the next I felt like a faceless person with a dollar sign around my neck. What an interesting way to live for a week.

And now on to talking about backpacking. I think you would have trouble finding a jackass backpacker; I think this because there is something unbelieveably humbling about living out of a bag, and carrying your life on your back and struggling through daily activities complete with obstacles like language, directions, sickness, sadness, theft, loss etc. There is something so unique about the people that I met who were backpacking – some across one continent, some across a few different countries, and some across 3 continents. I can’t even explain to you what was different about them, a kind of je ne sais quoi that was deep and interesting , and you could tell that they had seen things and done things that had totally changed who they were and how they saw the world. I was envious of their travels and their experiences (in fact most of them were envious of my opportunity to stay in one place for a while and really get in touch with one culture) and cant wait to do some backpacking at some point in my life – really only because I want to loose all possible chance that I am a jackass (hahahah)

One of the observations that I made while I was in Krakow and Prague is that the average person travelling Europe has skewed views of what is “Eastern Europe”. Many people do not travel much further east than Poland and Czech Rep. because of a train/railway issue that precludes Ukraine and Russia from all of the Eurorail passes and plans (essentially the tracks in Ukraine/Russia are wider than those of the EU and so trains must be kept at the border and retro fitted which is expensive both in terms of time and resources). Most travelers skip over the idea of a trip to East-Eastern Europe. It is true that both Poland and Czech Republic were formerly part of the Eastern Block, but both countries have moved leaps and bounds away from their histories as oppressed communist territory. As a result of incredible tourism, walking around Prague is like being in New York City: There are people and digital everywhere, and everyone is trying to sell you something, the museums and main attractions can afford to be kept in tip top shape – it’s astounding. Some of the scars of the USSR are still visible in the less populous parts of Poland and Czech Rep., but the differences between these two countries and how far behind Ukraine still is is palpable. Part of me took offence to this idea that these two locations were a sufficient observation of “Eastern Europe” mostly because I got the idea that the travelers that thought like this had satisfied their mind that everything left over from communism and the USSR has healed nicely – which is NOT so in Ukraine. Ukraine is one of the only countries of the former Eastern Block that has not yet fully been released from Russia’s control, and so has been unable to really move forward. It is a shame that more people are unable to experience life here in Ukraine because I think it would change their outlook drastically.

One of my fellow Beyond Borders mates has title her blog “Out of my bubble” this hit me like a ton of bricks while travelling, seeing other countries and meeting other people – most of our bubbles are so incredibly small! Never in my life before had I met a Dane (from Denmark), and I was one of few that had ever met anyone from Malta. I have no idea what education systems look like anywhere other than Canada and America. There are cultural intricacies that I would flub if I went to Saskatoon, let alone India! There are so many people, and so many places and so much to see and so much more to do. I have always had this idea that there’s so much
more out there (which is what brought me to Beyond Borders) but how much more is out there is way too much for my brain to even begin to think about. I am definitely liking my roomier bubble but it’s not like moving from a house to a mansion, it’s a different philosophy – I want my bubble to get so big it pops!!!!!


Just kidding,

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

and then this happened.....

Tomorrow marks 3 months since I left Toronto, and 45 days until I land back at home.

I have been toying with the idea and joking about the idea of staying for quite some time, but today it really hit me that I really really really really really do NOT want to come home - wait, it's not about coming home, it's about leaving here.

There are a couple things at play here:

1)I really like it here. I love my family, I love the way of life the simplicity of it all. I enjoy my routine and I look forward to things that are upcoming with the family and the girls at the Internat. I cant imagine missing Rosa's birthday in November, or Christmas with the family.
3) I love life here. Never have I felt so at home, so comfortable, so right. I have felt this sense of belonging since the moment I got off the plane.
4) I don't really miss home. Of course I miss the people that I associate with home (Felix, friends, you etc) but there's nothing about being in Canada that I am truly home sick for.
5) Totally enjoying the stress free life! I know that this idea that I can live without stress won't last for too long (the cookie orders have already started to come through) but now that I have had a taste of calm living I don't know if I can get my engines revving again.
6) I am terrible at leaving stuff behind. I get very attached to things, and here I am attached to a home, a family, a job, a new language, a new culture... I will be leaving behind 4+ months worth of incredible moments that have had such an impact on me.

The most important factor
7) I don't feel like I am "finished" here. I came here to affect change and I don't think that I have achieved that yet. Sure I have had a wonderful summer with the girls, but I feel like much of what I"ve done here is superficial. I have not affected the structure of the institution, I have not changed life for them, I don't even think I have taught them anything lasting or moreover worthwhile. If I left tomorrow (the thought of that makes me queasy) I would feel like the whole experience was in vain and that I didn't fulfil any of the things that I came here to do.

7a) this has a second piece to it. There is a woman at the Internat that has been working there with the children since the day the last brick was laid on the building - nearly 40 years. She is a teacher, a mentor and almost a mother to the girls. She has always fought for their interests regardless of the politics of the institution. Buuuut after 40 years of working, she is just about ready to retire. Most of you should know where my mind went next - hey! I could totally do her job.

What happens now? I don't know. I'm kinda torn up about this and I don't know what to do next. when I talk to my family here about it they say "stay, we have the space and we'll find you a job" that doesn't help. I need an unbiased opinion.

This is me....

please help!


Monday, August 9, 2010

The girl with the kitten – no black and white matter!

This is a post about ethics.

At the train station in Lviv (more about trains in the next post…) on my way to Krakow Poland, I did a bit of people watching – I LOVE people watching.

There were the usual suspects: the old grannies trying to sell stuff, the young kids waiting for their boyfriend/girl friend to arrive, the travelers, the commuters, the backpackers…

There was a gaggle of children that particularly caught my attention. I watched the older sister discipline her 2 younger brothers, and keep them in line while grandma caught a couple winks. At one point, the girl went sprinting across the station and disappeared. A few minutes later she returned with a kitten! Super cute, super young little black and white kitten.

The first thing she did was kiss it and promptly swaddle it up nice and tight in her jean jacket. She sat with her near mummified kitten rocking it and kissing its head. Her grandmother opened an eye and spotted the new “bundle” there were some words exchanged that I didn’t hear – and probably wouldn’t have understood – but I guessed that the little girls asked about keeping the cat. The grandmother gave a lazy nod and an eye roll and went back to sleep. The little girl went back to loving her kitten.

My first instinct was to be concerned for the kitten. The kitten was young; really young; too young to be taken from its mother. I was trying to find the words to expleain to the little girl that the kitten needed to be with its mother or it would survive. And then I paused.

For those that don’t know there is a serious problem with stray animals in Ukraine. The stray dog problem seems to be worse than the feral cat problem, but stray dogs tend to be easier to spot –the cats stay out of the spotlight. Nothing is done to sterilize, feed or catch the stray animals that roam the streets in every Ukrainian city.

This little kitten was being taken away from its mother way too young, but it actually had a shot at a much more satisfying and safe life with the little girl. I was torn. I pulled out the camera, and walked over to talk with the little girl. The kitten had woken up and her and her brother were playing with it and cooing at it the same way middle aged women do with newborns. I asked if they were going to take it home, they said yes; I asked if the cat had teeth yet, they said yes; I asked if they had cats before they said they live on a farm and have lots. I had satisfied my curiosity, and also satisfied myself that the kitten would be much better off without its mother and with the little girl than with its mother and without the little girl.

I took quite a bit of time to reflect on this experience. The experience discombobulated my moral/ethical compass a little bit. I really had to work to decide what was in the best interest of the little kitten. Of course there was the concern for the kitten being taken from its mother before it was ready, and also the identification of a teachable moment with the young girl: an opportunity to teach her a quick lesson about life and how life happens and that it must be respected; on the flip side there was the concern for the kitten ending up as just another stray kitten and also the idea that this girl may have found her first pet and have the opportunity to learn more about life by taking care of the kitten than by letting it loose. What a brain workout – AND I did it in Ukrainian! I finally came to the decision that the kitten and the girl would be better off left alone: the kitten was better off being taken care of by a human, and the human was better off learning how to foster life.

This was a wonderful experience for me, and really reinforced the idea that right and wrong are not as black and white as we sometimes want them to be. The kitten and the little girl fell into that grey space we often forget about.

I have given my brain a similar workout in the first couple weeks at the orphanage. We Canadian students swoop in on these girls (at the Internat) take them on (essentially) as pets for a few months and then hightail it out. Sure they leave an impression on our lives, and the experience looks mighty fine on a resume/CV but for them we leave big holes in their lives. A few of the girls cried when talking about how much they miss former Canadian students. I really wondered, at first, how much good we are actually doing by sending a new student every summer, or whether the placement was more self-serving than anything else.

Again with this issue so many different variables had to be considered. It was another case of ethical/moral calisthenics. At the very least it is it was a question of enrichment vs. emotional trauma for the girls. Eventually I reached the decision that that enrichment that that Canadian students offer to the girls in the short period they are in their lives is well worth the heartache that results from leaving.

The grey area in the middle can feel a bit strange. It’s a challenge to be really sure that you are doing the right thing when you are deciding between different shades of grey, and I DO like to do the right thing. The mental calisthenics throw off the moral compass, but it seems that the recalibration is the hardest part. I know that I am comfortable being uncomfortable, and I am getting more used to being caught in the middle.


(PS for those that are wondering – I did my research – grey and gray are both acceptable spellings of the colour. “Grey” tends to be a more Canadian…. )

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A funny thing happened on the way to the post box….

I have this thing about sending postcards. When Felix and I travel instead of buying souvenirs (most souvenirs are tacky made in china junk that no one wants in their house) we send a post card at least once a day from every major attraction/stop. Everyone loves getting mail (no one knows this better than you Janet, thank you soooo much) and it’s our way of keeping our loved ones in our thoughts along our journey. I have tried to keep up with this while here in Ukraine, but post cards are just not as easy to come by as they are at home. I have sent as many as possible (I end up buying 50 post cards any time I find them anywhere and people look at me funny) and today noticed something a little peculiar…

Nearly a month ago I visited Lviv to send off my Canadian travel buddies (you’ll remember Sean and Mike from a previous post). In Lviv there is this lovely restaurant called Криївка (krayeevaka) which is housed in a piece of history - the location used to be a hidden base for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in the time of Stepan Bandera. When you get to the door, you must knock; a little window opens and you are asked who you are; You must say that you are Ukrainian and give the password: "Слава Україні!" (slava ookraeenee - Glory to Ukraine). Once you are let in, at "gun" point you must take a shot of Horilka (vodka) and then you are lead down into the base. It's a pretty neat experience and I noticed they sold post cards!!! Excitedly I bought up a whole bunch featuring either Stepan Bandera or photos of the Insurgent Army in Lviv. I also found a little gift shop in the center of Lviv (horrendously overpriced) where I bought other postcards featuring shots of the city. I cant remember how many I sent out; perhaps 18 ish some from Криївка, and some generic ones from Lviv.

As noted with the Fedex post, Mail is a particular problem here. There is a whole lot of corruption, and it’s not state regulated like Canada Post is at home, it is unbelievably unreliable and for Ukrainians it can be pretty expensive. All in all it is a terrible system that most Ukrainians try to avoid at all costs (Tanya recently traveled to Kiev to drop off a document – a nearly 24 hour turn around trip – because the post here is just not reliable enough to use).

When I send post cards, I always date them: partially so that I document my travels, but also to keep tabs on the various postal systems and how long they take to ship to Canada. Sometimes post cards from Ukraine to Canada travel in as short a period as a week and a half, but can and have taken over a month.

Aside from having a thing about post cards, I also have a thing about conspiracy theories/stories and I definitely enjoy implementing any government in maniacal plans to meddle in the lives of the people. To that end, Tanya and I have had many conversations about the political climate here in Ukraine, particularly the bitter and unfortunate ongoing relationship with Russia which is being coveted by the recently current president. When I showed her the Insurgent Army post cards we joked about putting them in envelopes to send them so that they don’t get stopped by “big brother” so to speak…

Within two weeks of sending my Lviv postcards I started receiving thank you notes from people – but I was only hearing from people who had received the regular Lviv postcards. At that point I didn’t think much of it…. ready for my terrible prejudiced assumption: I sent the Криївка cards mostly to my friends who are my age, a large majority of them male, and assumes that perhaps a thank you had slipped their minds. Then my best friend Nick thanked me for his parent’s post card and I detected a hint of disappointment in his voice. He was sad that I sent his parents a post card (a beautiful shot of the Lviv opera house) and not him – but here’s the thing I had sent him a card – a Stepan Bandera card because I thought he would appreciate that more! I promised him that his was on its way and didn’t think about it again. Then today I got another thank you message from Matt, who finally (a month later) received his Stepan Bandera post card and it hit me: the “rebel cards” have all been significantly delayed in getting to their destinations!!!

I am not sure what is really going on, perhaps it is just a coincidence, but I can assure you that my brain has runaway with stories that would make 1984 look like a child's fable!

IF you get one of these post cards in the mail, please make a note of the date, and save it: I want to make sure that none of what I wrote was redacted!!!!

I’ll keep sending post cards, and I’m definitely going to try and find some more rebellious ones to see if it happens again *grin*


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

DON'T talk to strangers?!?!?!

Most parents teach their children not to talk to strangers. Parents do this in order to protect their children from strangers who might in fact be predators looking to harm the child in some way. My family had an awfully difficult time impressing this lesson upon me (you shouldn’t be that surprised). When I was of school age my morning walk to school was usually a source of great anxiety for my family because I wanted to hug and kiss everyone who walked by; my favourite people on my way to school were the Garbage collectors (all men at that time). We tell stories now about me chasing the garbage truck to get my hug and kiss from each of the men! I vividly remember being chastised for this: “Denise don’t hug and kiss strangers!!” To which I would always reply “they AREN'T strangers, they are my friends!!”

Last night I lay in bed thinking about connecting with people and uncovered another piece of my personal philosophy: I am intrigued but the potential for connection in every interaction. I believe that every interaction holds the potential for a connection and moreover, a positive outcome. (Like the chicken and the egg) I am not sure whether I think this way because I am a humanist/Humanitarian, or if I became a humanist/Humanitarian because I have always thought this way, but I believe that every human being in the world has something positive to offer or share with every other human – however small or large.

Some of you have received one of my “e-troductions” – I will often send a little note introducing friend A to friend B by telling them a little bit about each other and explaining what they have in common and how they might be able to help each other. My goal is to create space for positive interactions that benefit all people directly involved as well as add to a collective consciousness that moves in the direction of positively impacting the world as a whole. Some of you think I’m crazy when I do this, but those of you that have followed up on them realize quickly that it can be helpful to connect with someone who is travelling a similar path (PS: Mike, have you sent that E-mail yet?!).

I still haven’t learned my lesson about strangers, and I’m all the better for it. Here in Ukraine I have made some unlikely friends with people :

William the Welshman – William was a wonderful (albeit very drunk man) Mike and I met one night while out at the bar. He was charming, and entertaining. William told us about hie time spent as a soldier, losing his friends, marrying, divorcing, remarrying, divorcing and remarrying, he told us about his children, and his family. For mike and I he added distraction from a very unfortunate event, and livened up a lethargic evening. Sadly we haven’t heard from William again but the connection had a positive impact on Mike and I and we on him if only for one evening

Jim - Jim is an American I met yesterday at the train station. I heard him speaking English and struggling to find his way around, and instead of minding my own business I piped up “it’s nice to know I’m not the only one lost around here!” Jim has been in Ternopil for a month doing business (software design) but doesn’t speak a WORD of Ukrainian (this is a reoccurring trend with Americans, and slightly disappointing). Jim had a friend write out what he needed (a ticket on the next train to Budapest) but there was a problem at the ticket counter. It’s a good thing I had decided to talk to a stranger because I was able to help Jim and the ticket seller communicate and figure out his travel arrangements. Jim and I went for a walk afterwards and shared travel stories and reflections on Ukraine and Ternopil. For Jim the connection between him and I was essential to him getting to Budapest, and for me I had a positive 2 hours spent in the company of someone who spoke English and understood the reflections of a Westerner abroad.

André – my “friend at the bizarr” as my family calls him was one of the first “Ukrainian strangers” I connected with. I met André in the beginning of my trip. I walk through a small bizarre on my way home everyday and am always tempted by the wonderful fruit. In my first weeks purchasing things was a problem because I knew very little Ukrainian and still to this day struggle with numbers. Andre was kind and helpful he struggled to use long forgotten English training to help me and make me feel more at home. He always asked about my day, what I was learning and what kind of adventures I was up to. I have met his wife, and his son, and am always greeted warmly and treated with kindness. Now I don’t come home without fresh fruit from Andre. Our conversations have helped me significantly with my Ukrainian skills, he has connected me with some of his friends who have taken me sight seeing and taught me a lot about the culture here. For him I am a friendly face, a positive Canadian contact, and a loyal customer.

Slavic is my bus driver. Every day I take 2 busses to get to the orphanage the second of which is a tiny little bus driven (#33) by an older man (he said he’s been driving a bus for 44 years). A tidbit of information is that Ukrainians are very stoic – they don’t smile, they don’t talk to strangers, they don’t say thank you, or please, or excuse me. I have done my best to fit into the culture, but I refuse to give up smiling and salutations! Everyday when I get on the bus I greet my driver with a smile, and a friendly salutation and never depart with out a thank-you. Slavic caught on quick that I wasn’t from around here. We one day had a conversation about where I’m from and what I was doing there. Over the last 3 weeks our relationship has become more friendly – he gives me candies, I bring him cookies or treats, he sometimes wont accept a fare from me (despite my insistence) and always tries hard to engage in conversation. Today it was pouring rain out and the central dispatch called to tell Salvic he didn’t have to work for the rest of the day (the route to the Internat is not heavily travelled), and I happened to get on the bus on his last run. At my usual stop he told me not to get off – he was going to take me home. He said he wanted to take me out for coffee and show me the city. Truth be told, I was a little nervous at first just me alone on the bus with the driver and he was going to “take me out” because I really wasn’t sure of his intentions. I stayed on the bus… I don’t know enough Ukrainian to decline politely soooooo I went with it. Thank Goodness I did. Slavic drove me around the city showing me all sorts of new and interesting things. I then found out that we live a couple blocks from each other and he took me to a wonderful little bar run by a nice woman where we had coffee, and ice-cream and candies; Slavic introduced me to some of his friends. It was so nice to be out and meeting people and talking about their lives. He wouldn’t let me pay for anything, and insisted that he get my phone number s we can go out more often. Then he drove me home. I now look even ore forward to my commute knowing I have a friend along the way.

I realize that we all have to have our wits about us and be aware when engaging with people that we don’t know, but the vast majority of people out there are kind hearted and wonderful. I think I am writing this post to erase the idea of "stranger danger" and advertise how enriching a new connection can be. Human beings are social creatures (so we’ve all heard again and again) but that doesn’t mean being social just within out own groups, that involves being social and widening our networks. This adventure has really impressed upon my how big the world is and how much lies beyond our tiny little Canadian existance. I think that being a social creature dictates that we break out of our small reaities and socialize with all Humans.

I really enjoy these connections, and I enjoy the adventures that every interaction carries. Some of you, readers, are related to me so I had no choice but to know you, but many of you were at one time strangers (some of you still are!) – isn’t it wonderful that we didn’t listen to our parents?

Hugs and kisses cause you aren't strangers, you're my friends!


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Unexpected lesson

Slow down, you’re moving too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last; just kicking down the coble stones, looking for fun and Feelin’ Groovy – Simon and Garfunkle 1966

Infinite wisdom contained in that short little verse.

My mission in life, and what drove me to get here has always been “to help others” (come hell or highwater). Carm Desantis (one of my [amazing] profs) always asked “Denise, what about self care?”. The question used to frusturate me because I really didn’t know what that was or how to achieve it I was always in the “help others" gear. In my Beyond borders interview Joanne asked “when you’re stressed and over worked, how do you take care of yourself?” and I responded “I look for more to take on because helping others charges my batteries”. My mission is still to help others (it takes up the bulk of my day especially here in Ukraine), but it seems to me that I have learned an unexpected lesson here in Ukraine: Self Care. It has come as a bit of surprise to me that while I am here in Ukraine carrying out the ultimate project (so far) of my life’s mission I have learned an awful lot about helping me.

At first I felt kind of guilty for “slowing down”. My first month and a half here was spent trying to keep myself busy and focused on the orphanage and ‘helping’ the girls. In doing so I was knocking my head against the wall and starting to feel like I wasn’t actually accomplishing anything. I had a week or so of struggle where I was doubting myself and my ability to accomplish ANYTHING during my time here.

Then this strange motivation came over me to focus some of my time inwards (I have no idea where this came from, it just happened organically). Then all of sudden within a week of being a little bit more self focused, it all clicked. I now have a renewed energy in regards to the Orphanage and the girls, I am feeling less defeatist and all of the things that I had been struggling with (like how to plan activities, where to get materials, a significant language barrier…) have just fallen into place.

It took me some time to be comfortable with the idea of spending sometime with myself and for myself; this is not a concept I am particularly used to. But, in watching the changes I realized quickly how effective "helping me" was in realtion to my helping of others! Now, I no longer feel guilty for taking the time out for me, and have learned over the last few weeks that if I care a little bit for me, I am so much better prepared to carry out my goals of helping others. Great things are happening at the orphanage and I am witnessing a change in the girls: how they act, how they interact, how they carry themselves… I'm excited to see this continue for the next 62 days.

Last night I watched “The Princess and the Frog” (my goodness I’ve forgotten how terrible Disney movies can be… ) but one of the messages that came through from Mama Odie was don’t focus on what you want (in my case to help others every waking second), but try and find what you really need (I needed self care to help me be more effective at helping others)

I hope that this lesson is something I can bring home with me and keep in the habit of doing. If not I will hear Carm's ever repeated message: “Denise what about self care?” and actually know what it is she is talking about!!

Personal accomplishments:

Completion of a paper that was due in NOVEMBER and getting an A+ on it

26 days of non smoking

Booking a backpacking trip to Poland and Prague

2 weeks of Running
13 days of training (2 days of rest)
Average run – 4.5km
Average direct Calorie burn 275

Total distance 55km
Total direct calorie burn 3519



EX-clusive Language

I've been toying with this idea for a while, but reading this article (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-10728912) about two Muslim Girls being denied access on a London (UK) bus because of their head coverings has helped my idea to boil over.

I have posted before about the use of language and how it can negatively affect others. But for now, let me define "Inclusive Language": inclusive language means using language that doesn't single out any person by their age, gender, orientation, ability, religion or anything else. Using inclusive language ensures that all humans are spoken about as equals, and are not excluded in any way based on language. For Instance I refer to Felix as my "partner" rather than my boyfriend or husband or any other gendered term. I do this mainly so that I am using a gender neutral and orientation neutral term that allows all members of any group to talk about their partner without having to identify the gender of their partner, and in tern their sexual orientation. Inclusive language includes terms like firefighter rather than fireman (or firewoman), and identifying that a person HAS a disability rather than IS disabled. Language is powerful - we must be so careful because of the power we wield with our words. Here I propose something completely opposite... Exclusive language.

Please think back to swine flu. Swine flu was renamed in the media because it was causing problems in Jewish communities - first because observant Jews thought they were immune to the swine flu because they had no contact with the animal in question, and then secondly because of the shame and stigmatism connected with the virus if it was contracted by observant members of a community. There was a campaign to rename Swine flu to Mexican Flu in order to circumnavigate these problems.

Now to my point: I think a very strong case can be made for the renaming of one of two groups of people - Either we should start calling the Muslim Extremists by a different name, or we must find a new (positive association) moniker for the rest of the Muslims out there. The differentiation I speak of is in hopes of excluding members of one group of Muslims from inclusion in the other group.

I could go into a diatribe about the Muslim faith and how the image of the Muslim extremists is so totally opposite to the fundamentals of Muslim faith, but I’ll let you do that research on your own. I do want to bring another incident of this term mix up to your attention though: in New York City there is a plan to build a Mosque and Muslim Community Center two blocks away from the World Trade Center site. This plan has sparked outrage from some American, and they have chosen Sarah Palin as their champion to ‘tweet’ requests that “the peaceful Muslims” “refudiate” (a wonderful Palin-ism) their plans to build there because the pain of 9/11 is still too raw. She went through a series of tweets on the subject, and eventually got to “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.” I have two questions to ask here: 1) how large should the ‘no Muslim’ zone be in NYC? Because 2 blocks away ISN’T ground zero I am wondering if all of Manhattan should rid themselves of “peace seeking Muslims” so that hearts are not stabbed? My second question is why are we painting the whole Muslim faith demographic with the same brush as the Osama Extremists? Ms Palin shows here that she has very little knowledge of the group of people (1,100,000,000 – 1,271,000,000 people strong) that is the second largest faith demographic in the World. If all 1.3 billion Muslims had the same mentality as the very few Extremists… well, I won’t get into potential situations… but really think about what the planet would look like if all 1.3 billion Muslims were cut from the same cloth as the extremists… Case in point here (that not all peaceful muslims are the same as the extremists), the plan is not for an artillery factory, the plan is for a community center with a swimming pool, an auditorium and art gallery space to enrich the lives of the community; I cant find anything at all provocative about that…. (Here’s one of the ground zero mosque articles: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/a-rolling-twit-gathers-no-mosque/article1650127/)

I think it should be up to the (peaceful) Muslims of the world to either chose a new name, or rename the extremists something that is befitting (the right thing bay be to think up a vile name for the extremists, but if I were a non extremist Muslim I would choose a new name, because “Muslim” has been so sullied by fundamentalist groups but that just my personal opinion). This linguistic exclusion of regular Muslims from the extremists is an exercise in training the brain to see humans as humans, and not stereotyping 1.3 billion people based on the action of a handful (America has the highest rate of adults who have sex with children in the world, but we do not think of all Americans as pedophiles – we call pedophiles ‘pedophiles’ and non pedophilic Americans ‘Americans’). As I have said, words are powerful and “Muslim” has taken on a life of its own and invokes images that lead to prejudice. Something HAS to be done about the racism and prejudice that so many Muslims are faced with as every person can conjur up and image (usually unfavourable) when they hear the word “Muslim”.

If you are Muslim, and reading, drop a line: lets begin a dialogue….